What a difference 9 years make for Phillies

BACK THEN, the goals were considerably more modest. A decade ago, before Roy Halladay's Cy Young and Ryan Howard's MVP and Cliff Lee and Jimmy Rollins' MVP and Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt and Chase Utley, before Charlie Manuel was a rock star and the payroll pushed $160 million and every home game was a sellout and the streak of division titles was four and counting, just putting together consecutive winning seasons was considered an accomplishment for the Phillies.

Late on the afternoon of Sept. 29, 2002 at what was then called Pro Player Stadium in Miami, the Phillies were on the verge of making it happen. It was the last day of the regular season. Due to a rainout that wasn't made up, they were 80-80. All they had to do was beat the Marlins, after winning 86 games the year before.

They didn't do it, in part because of a player who coincidentally is now trying to resuscitate his career with the Phillies: Luis Castillo.

The game went into extra innings. The Phillies failed to score in the top of the 10th. Castillo, then the Marlins' second baseman, led off with a single against Hector Mercado, stole second and went to third on a wild pitch.

After Abraham Nunez struck out, Juan Encarnacion lifted a soft pop up into foul territory down the rightfield line.

The good news was that Phillies first baseman Travis Lee raced back and made a terrific catch.

The bad news, of course, is that Castillo alertly tagged up and scored. Lee, with no chance to spin and throw him out, kept right on running to the clubhouse.

"I remember that," Castillo said with a smile yesterday. "It was a long game. I tried to make a good play so the game would be over. That's just a play that's going to happen. I was surprised [Lee] caught the ball, but that's what it is."

Phillies president Dave Montgomery remembers it vividly as well, if not as fondly.

"I still see Travis Lee catching that ball in foul territory and put it in his pocket. He made a nice catch. He really did. It took a talented player to make that catch. And, OK, season over, go home," he said, shaking his head. "I thought, 'Gee whiz.' Actually, it might have been a different way to describe it. It was much more than that. Because it was important that we put back-to-back winning seasons together."

That had symbolic importance because the Phillies hadn't finished above .500 2 years in a row since 1982-83.

"It was tough. Did it really make a whole lot of difference between 80-81 and 81-80? It's one game. But to those of us who are asking if we're reaching our fans, are we making progress? It's that feeling that you want to believe you're making progress but until you back it up on the field . . . " Montgomery said.

"The milestone was to get over .500. That's not what you're in it for. That was the concern, that people would say, 'You're going to be happy just to be over .500.' No. But if you don't start having at least winning seasons, you're not going to create a culture in which you can really win. So, to me, we needed to have a period of time when we were an above-.500 club."

It turned out to be only a minor glitch. The Phillies haven't had a losing season since. And that's not the only thing that's changed. Now, the Phillies are in a World-Series-or-bust mode. And Castillo is hoping to be part of helping them realize their goals instead of scuttling them.


 * Basebrawl: The Washington Nationals had a bench-clearing fracas with the St. Louis Cardinals this week and general manager Mike Rizzo said it's a sign that a team that's lost 298 games over the last 3 years is mad as hell and isn't going to take it anymore. "We're not going to be pushed around," he told the Washington Post. "These new guys we brought in, they're not going to let teams run roughshod over us."

* History major: Braves third baseman Chipper Jones wasn't born when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, but he doesn't believe he was killed by lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald. "Having shot a rifle all my life, I personally believe there was more than one shooter," he told ThePostgame.com. "The conspiracy behind it is what really intrigues me. I'm sure it went pretty high, but I don't know how high." Jones added that he would "never in a million years" suggest that Lyndon Johnson was involved, however.

* Buck Einstein: Orioles manager Buck Showalter reportedly takes some pretty good rips at Yankees icon Derek Jeter in an upcoming article in Men's Journal, but reserves his best shot for the Red Sox. According to the St. Petersburg Times, he's quoted saying: "I'd like to see how smart [general manager] Theo Epstein is with the Tampa Bay payroll. You've got Carl Crawford 'cause you paid more than anyone else [$142 million for 7 years] and that's what makes you smarter? That's why I like whipping their butt. It's great."

* Quote of the Week: The Colorado Rockies are having a successful spring, but shortstop Troy Tulowitzki isn't ready to celebrate. Asked by the Denver Post what he liked best about the team, he replied tartly, "Nothing yet." After a pause, he added, "Not until we start winning games [in the regular season]."

* One step at a time: Former major league outfielder and Philadelphia native Jeffrey Leonard is taking lessons in hopes of getting a spot on ABC's "Dancing With The Stars," according to News10 in Sacramento. "The same things that drove me to being a good baseball player [are] driving me to be good at dance," he explained.

* The Greatest: Muhammad Ali visited the Angels clubhouse on Wednesday and that left even the baseball stars in awe. "It was like royalty walked in," outfielder Torii Hunter told the Los Angeles Times. "It was silent. We were all in the presence of greatness."


* Widt or widtout? Prediction.com played the upcoming season 50,000 times and determined that the Phillies have a 21.5 percent chance of winning the World Series, better than the Red Sox (19.5 percent) or Yankees (12.7 percent). The computer calculated that the Phillies have a 65 percent chance of winning the division for the fifth straight year and a 35.8 percent chance of winning the LCS. It was not clear, though, whether these projections were made with or without Chase Utley in the lineup.

* First add Utley: The Wall Street Journal, using the Wins Above Replacement metric, concluded that the minus 5.8 drop off from Utley (6.5) to Luis Castillo (0.7) would tie for the steepest in baseball. And the third largest gap, minus 5.3, would be if Kyle Kendrick replaced Roy Halladay in the Phillies rotation.

* Second add Utley: While most of the attention on a possible trade in case the All-Star second baseman misses most or all of the season has centered on Michael Young in Texas, the Denver Post reports that the Rockies are shopping Eric Young Jr.

* They had a gas: Assistant general manager Scott Proefrock took a ribbing yesterday. It seems that he was driving several of the team's executives and baseball administration staff to Wednesday's game in Port Charlotte when his rental car ran out of gas. He had to call AAA and the group didn't arrive at the ballpark until the fifth inning. This little faux pas might have gone largely unnoticed . . . except that the media relations department happily included the info in yesterday's game notes.

* According to STATS Inc.: Cliff Lee threw more first-pitch strikes (69.7 percent) than any qualifying pitcher in 2010. Opponents also swung at it 37.2 percent of the time, also the most . . . Batters jumping on Lee's first pitch were successful, too, batting .348 with a .504 slugging percentage on 0-0 pitches. In all other counts, he held hitters to a .222 average and .340 slugging percentage . . . Placido Polanco hit .322 after falling behind 0-2 last season, highest of any player with at least 50 at-bats in that situation . . . Roy Halladay had the best strikeout/walk ratio in the majors after going to a full count last year with 32 Ks and 19 bases on balls.

* Fantasyland: According to Yahoo! Sports, Philadelphia is the seventh hottest market for fantasy baseball, with one of every 128 residents participating. St. Louis was No. 1 at one in 76.