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Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011

Phew! The Phillies CAN Be Phoiled

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It was looking so easy for the Brewers. Their five-week, 27-5 eruption set them up comfortably for a division title, a first-round playoff series against wild-card Atlanta and, presumably, a showdown with mighty Philadelphia for the National League pennant.

Things have changed. The division lead remains secure, but a Milwaukee slump and surges by St. Louis and Arizona raise the Brewers' risk of slipping to the third-best record in the N.L., which would cost them the home-field advantage in the first round and perhaps pit them against Philly right away. On Sunday the Phillies were three innings away from a four-game sweep at Miller Park, which would have rattled even the staunchest Brewer fan.

But the Observers were on hand, and one of them went deep into history to save the day.

Artie: I hadn't seen the Phillies play here since I was a kid rooting for the Braves at County Stadium. Those Philly teams were pretty hopeless, especially the 1961 bunch that went 47-107, ain'a?

Frank: They included some immortal names...

Artie: Like right-hander John Buzhardt, 6-18 in '61, and utility infielder Bobby Malkmus, a .231 hitter for the ages.

Frank: Three years later the Phillies were pennant-bound until they suffered one of the biggest chokes in major-league history.

Artie: I had to make sure that wouldn't happen to the Brew Crew. I used all my psychic powers as "The Cooler" to raise the spirits of those '61 Phillies and put the hex on Ryan Howard and his pals.

Frank: You took your time. Entering the bottom of the seventh the Brewers were down 2-1 and their main men, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, had zero RBIs in the series.

Artie: They must be driving in somebody this year, but for several days they'd done nothing with runners on.

Frank: Until Braun got the game-winning hit after Nyjer Morgan's double tied it. But I noticed you weren't with me during that rally.

Artie: I was on an inspection tour, checking stadium security.

Frank: Particularly in the outdoor smoking area.

Artie: Maybe. Anyway, my memories worked their magic and the Phillies left town with a loss—and maybe a curse that'll wreck their season.

Frank: Assuming you can't keep the Phillies out of the playoffs, the Brewers need to play better to avoid them in the first round. Three weeks ago Arizona was seven games behind the Brewers for the second-best N.L. record, but a 17-3 burst while Milwaukee went 9-9 put the teams dead-even at 86-62 entering play Tuesday. If Arizona winds up No. 2, the Brewers will open the playoffs on the road—at Philly if Atlanta is the wild card or at Arizona if the Cardinals pass Atlanta.

Artie: I sure wasn't happy about the Crew losing six straight home games before edging Philly.

Frank: But the comeback win saved everyone some angst and allowed the Brewers to take Monday off with a nice cushion over St. Louis and only 14 games to play.

Artie: It'd be nice if they showed some consistent offense this week. For a team that's seventh in the league in runs, they haven't been scoring much. The bottom of the lineup, with Casey McGehee and Yuniesky Betancourt especially, had a little renaissance in August but now is back in the dark ages.

Frank: At least your Cooler act didn't get misdirected into another home loss.

Artie: I just concentrated on the Phillies of old. The juju of Buzhardt and Malkmus, Solly Hemus and Clay Dalrymple, is powerful stuff!

A Fine Opening Statement

Frank: The Packers beat one of their top challengers, New Orleans, in their opener, but it was a 42-34 track meet. Any concerns about the defense?

Artie: Not yet. Yeah, they gave up a lot of points, but against maybe the best offense they'll see all year. Now, if they give up another 34 this weekend at Carolina...

Frank: That would be an eye-opener. They didn't get a whole lot of pressure on Drew Brees.

Artie: But there were a couple of key plays in the red zone where they did. Hey, Brees is a great quarterback.

Frank: How about kick coverage? Darren Sproles returned a punt for a touchdown and had a long kickoff return.

Artie: Same response; Sproles is a major talent, up there with Chicago's Devin Hester or Minnesota's Percy Harvin. But how about the Pack's new returner, Randall Cobb? A mere 108 yards for a TD, and a long punt return that was called back for a penalty. It's so rare for the Pack to have an electric returner. The last time someone ran a kickoff all the way was Allen Rossum in 2000.

Frank: The Packers got a break when Tramon Williams' arm injury was declared to be just a shoulder bruise.

Artie: You never know; it might turn out to be worse. But compared to last year, when there was a mile-long injury list after the opener, this is great.

Frank: Another break came when the officials failed to see Charles Woodson punch a guy in the third quarter. He could have been ejected.

Artie: I guess he thought the game was called Ultimate Football. If he'd been tossed, it would have been even tougher to deal with Brees.

Frank: How about Sean Payton's call on the final play, when the Saints had to make a yard? They'd failed to do that earlier and it cost them points, but he tried to stuff it in again.

Artie: Payton may have outsmarted himself. He's known as a daring, outside-the-box thinker...

Frank: Witness the onside kick to start the second half of their Super Bowl.

Artie: So maybe he said to himself, "They're expecting razzle-dazzle so I'll just go basic."

Frank: Basic or fancy, the Packers' offense looked awesome.

Artie: Who'll stop 'em? Remember, they were facing an above-average defense with a top-notch coordinator, Gregg Williams. Aaron Rodgers doesn't make mistakes or bad decisions, and he has so many weapons! And if Cobb keeps adding that spark as a returner, it can mean so much in terms of field position. Give that offense a short field and, holy cow, it'll be unbelievable.

Frank: So you want to go back to your "gut" prediction of 16-0?

Artie: Well, 14-2 might be too conservative, and that's something I NEVER want to be accused of.

Frank: But if somehow they lose at Carolina, will your disgusted gut start saying 8-8?

Artie: Nah. I'll just back it up to 15-1.

The Badgers Take Wing

Frank: I saw enough of Wisconsin-Oregon State to be convinced that Russell Wilson is the real deal.

Artie: Some of these quarterbacks who are labeled "athletic"—in other words, they can run and jump—are lousy throwers. But Wilson has an excellent arm—stronger, I think, than his predecessor, Scott Tolzien.

Frank: On the TD to Nick Toon, he put some "touch" on the ball, but it wasn't just one of those hang-it-up lobs. It was touch plus a little zip.

Artie: Wilson is just what they need, because in the first half Oregon State stopped the running game. And when that happens, as it might against some Big Ten teams, the Badgers will need the passing game.

Clock Management

Frank: As you know, I opted for Brewers-Phillies in person over Packers-Saints on TV, but I DVR'd the football. Apropos of nothing, I have some numbers to report.

Artie: I think I know where this is heading.

Frank: The football telecast took 3 hours 19 minutes from Al Michaels' intro to the final play. I watched the game by fast-forwarding between plays. Didn't linger on the replays or timeouts or halftime—just the plays. It took 46 minutes, instead of the 199 minutes NBC and its advertisers wanted me to watch.

Artie: Net savings of more than two and a half hours, which you spent watching live baseball. Well done!

Frank: I know there's emotional value to a live broadcast. But if it's a nice fall day and you could be outdoors with the kids, why not avoid all the commercials and blather?