September 27, 2006

Spoiling for a Phight

This is what's left. Symbolic victories and keeping a division rival out of the playoffs. 70 wins ain't much, but it's something. In the wake of last night's 4-3 win over Philadelphia the Nats have 5 games left in the season, including two more against the Phillies. Sweeping the series, or even taking two out of three, would put a serious dent in the Phills wild card ambitions. Doing it the way they did it last night would suck the life out of the the City of Brotherly Love. These are all noble, worthy goals for a team trying to build for the future.

Let me take you to Section 313 at RFK with Nate, Dave and Watson on Tuesday night. Bottom of the 9th, two out, Chad Cordero on the mound. Chase Utley has just scored Chris Coste from second with an RBI single, reducing the Nats lead to one run, and bringing the winning run to the plate in the person of Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard. Howard is a near-mortal lock to win the homerun title and he's been on a monsterous tear lately, including a 2-4 night against the Nats.

The stadium echos and bounces like a minature summer of '05 as Frank Robinson shuffles to the mound to consult with his closer. No one would blame Frank for ordering Cordero to walk the imposing slugger and pitch to whoever comes next. Sure, the Phillies fans would whine that the Nats cheated by refusing to pitch to their best hitter, but they'd be howling for blood if Phillies manager Charlie Manuel didn't walk Soriano in a similar situation. But Frank issues no such order. He simply says to Cordero, "You created the situation, get yourself out of it."

A collective roar goes up from the crowd. This is the way baseball is meant to be played, ace against ace, strength on strength. And when The Chief jams Howard and induces a lazy pop-up to left-center the Phillies fans go quietly into that very good Washington, DC night. Later they complain, with some justification, about the Chase Utley 3-run homer that wasn't, but no one says anything during the game. Charlie Manuel called the missed call "terrible" and "unreal," but neither he, his first base coach nor Utley himself argued it. And as Frank Robinson can tell you, homeruns are in the eye of the beholder.

So the Nats find themselves playing meaningful games in September in spite of themselves, and winning them to boot. If the Phillies miss the playoffs by one game, or should the Mets find that you can't just flip the switch back to "Win" in the postseason, that should be a small measure of consolation to a team that never quit on a thoroughly snakebitten year.


Rich from Richmond said...

I guess I don't fully understand the "spoiler" mentality, other than the pride of beating another team. Personally I'd rather see the Phillies in the playoffs than two California NL teams.

Nate said...

From my perspective, it's purely a question of keeping a division rival out of the postseason. If we were playing the Astros in a 3-game series with their playoff hopes on the line, I'd still want to win, but I'd be considerably less enthusiastic about it.

Redskins fans have been known to root for two teams, Washington and whoever is playing Dallas. There's something similar at work here. The spoiler mentality gives meaning to otherwise meaningless late September games.