In late June, the Philadelphia Phillies visited Baltimore for what looked like the farewell tour of manager Charlie Manuel. The Phillies had lost 13 of 16 and were fresh off a disastrous Boston trip in which starter Brett Myers had been arrested for allegedly hitting his wife in the face one morning, then inexplicably pitched the next day.
Three days later, Myers was granted a leave of absence, and it was Manuel, the affable baseball lifer with the slow Southern drawl, who stammered through the media's pointed questions in the visitors dugout at Camden Yards.
The All-Star break loomed, and the Phillies appeared to have given up. They were five games under .500 and 12 games behind the National League East-leading New York Mets. A fire sale seemed certain, with high-priced talent shipped away for a brighter future. Surely, Manuel soon would be booted.
Indeed, the fire sale came. Shockingly, promise followed.
Now, with just more than three weeks left in the season, Manuel's Phillies (70-68 through Tuesday night) were just two games behind the San Diego Padres in the NL wild-card race heading into last night's games.
It has been a remarkable turnaround, aided by tremendous young slugger Ryan Howard and an old-school manager who kept preaching positives as his ship was sinking in the sea of mediocrity that is the 2006 National League.
"There are a lot of things that happen in baseball during a long season, and you have to fight through it," Manuel said. "That's where your love and determination and passion come into play. And you get tested, and why shouldn't you? Because that is what baseball is all about. There are ups and downs, and you've got to stay with it."
On July 28, the Phillies' 100th game, they lost to the Florida Marlins, 4-1, to fall to 46-54. They were in fourth place in the East, 7 1/2 games back in the wild-card race and behind eight other teams.
That day, veteran third baseman David Bell was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for a minor leaguer. The day before, reserve catcher Sal Fasano was traded to the New York Yankees. The Phillies were unloading. And uncertainty shrouded the clubhouse.
"I don't think we really knew what was going to happen as far as the veteran players were concerned," outfielder David Dellucci said. "There were rumors circulating about everyone. You didn't know where you were going to end up one day to the next."
The hammer came down July 30. A day before the non-waiver trade deadline, the Phillies sent superstar outfielder Bobby Abreu and solid starter Cory Lidle to the Yankees for four low-level prospects and cash. It should have been a deflating moment. It wasn't.
"When the trades were made, the expectations went out the window and we were really able to take a deep breath and finally go out there and play relaxed baseball without anyone putting expectations on us or being negative whenever we would lose a game," Dellucci said. "I think that was the most important thing."
The Phillies went 18-11 in August and were 3-2 in September heading into last night's game against Houston. The resurgence spurred a 180-degree change in philosophy. Phillies general manager Pat Gillick traded for three veterans for the stretch run: Seattle Mariners starter Jamie Moyer, Orioles first baseman/outfielder Jeff Conine and Pittsburgh Pirates utility man Jose Hernandez.
The Phillies, looking to management for positives, were encouraged.
"The way we have been playing ... it's kind of hard not to go out and try to improve the team as best they can," longtime catcher Mike Lieberthal said, "because we do have a legit shot to make the playoffs."
Manuel said the Abreu trade opened more regular playing time for Dellucci, a one-time Oriole, and Shane Victorino. Simultaneously, the pitching rebounded with the maturation of rookie starter Cole Hamels and the return of injured Randy Wolf and Myers. Add an improving bullpen, an offensive resurgence from Lieberthal and the steady play of second baseman Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins and the team took off.
Then there's first baseman Howard, 26, who had 14 homers and 41 RBIs in August. The Most Valuable Player candidate hit his 53rd homer of the season Monday.
"I can't even explain where we'd be if we didn't have Ryan," Manuel said. "He has been that great for us."
The Phillies are still alive, and so is Manuel, who chuckles at the thought of being in Manager of the Year discussions now. What he really wants, though, is to show Philly's jaded fans that this is more than just another second-half tease.
"I think we have as good of fans as there are in baseball. They come to see us win or lose; they just get on you when you lose. But that's OK," Manuel said. "Believe it or not, the thing I want most of all is I want our fans to see how good our team is and how good we can play and that we can win and win for them."
The Phillies' stats before and after the All-Star break reflect their improvement (through Tuesday):
............................................ Before ............. After
On-base pct. ................. .332 .................. .363
Slugging pct. ............... .429 .................. .471
Batting avg. ................. .256 .................. .281
ERA ............................... 4.83 ................. 4.61
W-L ............................. 40-47 ................ 30-21