Saturday, September 18, 2010

Milestone madness

In the glory years of a professional team, several standout players often eclipse the standards set by past legends on the path to the team's ultimate goals.

New marks were achieved by both Ryan Howard and Brad Lidge in Saturday's 5-2 win over the Washington Nationals. With his 1-2-3 ninth inning, Lidge tied a member of the previous Phillies "dynasty," Tug McGraw, on the all-time team saves list with 94. Ryan Howard's two-run, opposite field shot in the third inning put him one ahead of Pat Burrell on the Phillies career list with 252. Burrell was the longest tenured Phillie when he helped this present successful group win a World Series in 2008.

The names Howard and Lidge aligned themselves with are connected in another crazy way. McGraw got the last out of the 1980 World Series, while Burrell's last hit as a Phillie set up the winning run in the clincher of the '08 Classic. As this team edges closer and closer to the reality of an unprecedented fourth straight division title, it's natural for these positive reminders of the past to sprout up like the beautiful green grass on the field.

While some milestones are being reached, Howard is writing his own history, raising the bar even higher for future Phillie sluggers. His homer on Saturday not only passed Burrell but gave the big man his 30th of the season. He is the only player in Phillies history to reach 30 homers and 100 RBI in five straight seasons. This feat also places him in the ranks of active players like Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. Not even Mike Schmidt managed to reach such a level of consistency.

Howard and Lidge both realize how fortunate and unique they are to play this game at a high level over a long period of time. Milestones are nice, but the only number that matters to them at the end of the night is three, as Philadelphia's sixth straight victory kept it three games ahead of Atlanta in the NL East. At the worst, the Phillies will be two games in front when they open the most important three-game clash of the season against the Braves on Monday.

Teams on a magical run need the support of players in a class by themselves, but guys like Wilson Valdez are also proving how vital they are to the equation. The 32-year-old boasts a .260 average out of the eight hole with more than double the at-bats from any previous season due to Jimmy Rollins' multiple injuries. He's provided more than his fair share of productive games, and Saturday was a prime example. Valdez posted his third three-hit game of the season with a pair of doubles, including one that put the Phillies ahead for good in the second inning. If the team was to enter the postseason without Rollins, it doesn't have much to worry about with Valdez at short.

It also helps that Shane Victorino is riding an 11-game hitting streak since his return to the leadoff spot.

The Phillies were also glad to see Kyle Kendrick finally hold the Nationals to less than five runs this season. He escaped a big jam in the first and pitched six innings for the first time in four starts. This is the Kendrick Philly wants to see - the kind who will minimize damage when his back is up against the wall. It's a mental toughness Kendrick has struggled with throughout the year. He'll still have to earn his spot on the postseason roster with the two or three starts he has left, but tonight was a step in the right direction.

Joe Blanton will be starting in the playoffs no matter what, so the Phillies would like his string of solid outings to continue. He pitches for the sweep today before the big three, a label that's becoming more and more common with each passing day in Philadelphia, lay it all on the line. All they need to keep in mind is that history is on their side.

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