How Phillies managed to stay at the top

THE ALL-STAR Game should have been a celebratory time for the Phillies' entourage that descended on St. Louis in mid-July. The defending world champions were represented by manager Charlie Manuel and five of his players: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. couldn't shake a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach, though. He was worried about the team's starting pitching. More than worried, really. He was convinced that if he couldn't do something to improve it, the Phillies probably wouldn't even make it back to the playoffs, much less have a chance to repeat.

"Because of our rotation. We just weren't very good," he said bluntly. "If we were going to get any further down the line, even if we became more consistent in [late] July and August, we weren't going to go very far, I don't think, with what we had at the time. We just didn't have enough punch in our rotation."

The rookie general manager had been handed a team that just won a world championship when Pat Gillick retired at the end of last season. There is a natural temptation to assume that Amaro's greatest contribution was simply not to screw it up.

And while there might be an element of truth to that, the reality is that he was ultimately responsible for three significant acquisitions in his first year sitting in the big chair.

Raul Ibanez.

Pedro Martinez.

Cliff Lee.

Getting Lee from the Indians for four well-regarded prospects - righthanders Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp, infielder Jason Donald and catcher Lou Marson - 2 days before the trading deadline might well have been the pivotal move of the season.

Heck, it worked out so well that Lee will be the Phillies' Game 1 starter tonight.

Remember that, until the last moment, almost all the reports had the Phillies focusing on Blue Jays righthander Ray Halladay.

"A lot of people wrote that we were after Halladay," Amaro said. "We had a lot of balls in the air. There weren't one or two different pitchers we were looking at. I mean, we were looking at about seven or eight. Ten. Twelve maybe. We were out there trying to keep the balls in the air in a variety of ways."

The Blue Jays' asking price never came down, though. There were times, Amaro can now admit, when he didn't think he'd be able to get it done.

"Really, I didn't think we were going to get a front-line pitcher. I just didn't think it was going to happen with the premium that there is placed on acquiring front-line pitching," he said. "We had to have contingency plans. One, two, three, four, five. So we had a lot of scouts out there looking at a lot of players.

"If we weren't able to get a starter, we were going to push hard on relief pitching. We were going to try to shore that up if we could and shorten up the game."

Instead, the Lee opportunity came along and the Phillies quickly struck a deal for the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner.

Amaro's three headline moves have one thing in common: All were made only after a lot of homework into the sort of person the potential acquisition was.

* Lee: "Various guys saw him," Amaro said. "We double-teamed and triple-teamed. I can't remember who it was, but just before we got him, I had spoken to one other person not in the organization who said that this guy absolutely does not want to give up the baseball. He wants to pitch. And even though he hadn't pitched in the playoffs, you just want a guy who wants the baseball. You want a guy who wants to be on the mound when it's time to pitch, to finish the game when he's got the ball in his hand. And those were the things that I was told, that you'd have to pry the ball out of his hand to get him off the field. You couple that with the kind of talent that he has and it's a pretty good fit."

* Martinez: "I had a phone call with him," Amaro said. "I didn't know Pedro that well. But I had done some background on how he is in the clubhouse. How he's perceived in the public, I think, is vastly different from how he's perceived in the clubhouse. This guy is absolutely fantastic. He's one of the smartest players I've ever been associated with. He just wants to play baseball and be successful. I had a nice conversation with him prior to dotting the i's and crossing the t's with him. And it made it real easy for me to say, 'This is the right guy.' I needed a little convincing myself. I didn't want to disrupt anything in our clubhouse. And he has been nothing but aces for me."

* Ibanez: "I got a great feel for him. Benny [Looper] and Charley [Kerfeld] and Gordon [Lakey] and Pat [Gillick] had kind of been pushing me on Raul a little bit. And rightfully so," Amaro said. "About what kind of person he is. You can look at the numbers and see this guy's a good player. It's not that tough to see. But his work ethic, how he handles himself in the clubhouse, all those little things that are truly important for me. Especially for a winning club or a winning franchise. He kind of represented those things. And when I got a chance to do a face-to-face with him, I was absolutely convinced he was the kind of guy we want on our club."

Each of those moves worked out well. Well enough for the Phillies to be back in the World Series. Well enough that, to Amaro, the price he paid for Lee was worth it even if one or more of the prospects he gave up blossom into perennial All-Stars.

"In my mind, absolutely," he said. *