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1997 Philadelphia Phillies

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[edit] 1997 Philadelphia Phillies / Franchise: Philadelphia Phillies / BR Team Page

Record: 68-94, Finished 5th in NL Eastern Division (1997 NL)

Managed by Terry Francona

Coaches: Galen Cisco, Chuck Cottier, Hal McRae, Brad Mills, Joe Rigoli and John Vukovich

Ballpark: Veterans Stadium

[edit] History, Comments, Contributions

With a 68-94 record, the 1997 season could hardly be considered a successful one for the Philadelphia Phillies. However, given the way the team played over the first four months of the campaign, achieving such a record was nothing short of miraculous. In a transitional year that saw the trade of mainstay Darren Daulton and the sudden death of Philadelphia icon Richie Ashburn, the Phils went from shockingly bad to inexplicably good almost overnight. When all was said and done, the Phillies were tied with the Chicago Cubs for the worst record in the National League, but they also won one more game than the previous season.

The rebuilding phase that had started late in the 1996 season was in full-bore by the time 1997 rolled around. Terry Francona took over as manager, replacing Jim Fregosi. New faces were abundant on the field as well, many of whom had little or no tangible Major League success to speak of. Most notable among the newcomers were first baseman Rico Brogna (acquired from the New York Mets for Toby Borland and Ricardo Jordan), right fielder Danny Tartabull, utilityman Rex Hudler, reserve outfielder Derrick May, and starting pitchers Mark Portugal and Mark Leiter. All but Brogna were signed as free agents. Mike Lieberthal was given full-time catching duties, while top prospects Scott Rolen and Wendell Magee would man third base and center field, respectively. A healthy Curt Schilling was to anchor the starting rotation with Ricky Bottalico leading the bullpen. The consensus was that the Phils were in for a long season.

The early predictions of gloom and doom proved prophetic. After an Opening Day win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Phillies soon faded into oblivion. By the end of April, the team was 8-16 en route to an appalling 24-61 mark at the All-Star break. Schilling was the club's lone All-Star and was one of the few bright spots of the gloomy first half while Bottalico was solid in his rare save opportunities. Rolen was by far the league's top rookie, while second baseman Mickey Morandini turned in a fine first half. Daulton, whose career was thought to be over after recurring knee problems forced him to miss all but the first week of the 1996 season, surprised everyone by hitting near .300 while holding his own in right field. Daulton had taken over at that position when a broken foot ended Tartabull's season after seven hitless at-bats.

Things didn't get much better for the Phils as the second half got underway. By July 27, the team's record had sunk to an embarrassing 30-72. The club seemed poised to challenge the 1962 Mets for the worst record in MLB history. With the team going nowhere fast, Daulton approved a trade to the eventual World Champion Florida Marlins, where he would join fellow 1993 hero Jim Eisenreich. Coming to Philadelphia in exchange was outfielder Billy McMillon.

As bad as things were, what happened over the season's final two months was even more inexplicable. The Phillies went 38-22 over their final 60 games, tied with the New York Yankees for the best record in the majors over that span. Included in that run were series sweeps over the playoff-bound Yankees, Marlins, and Houston Astros. Sadly, all this was overshadowed by the death of Richie Ashburn, who passed away suddenly of a heart attack just hours after broadcasting a game in New York on September 9. The Philadelphia area mourned his passing for the remainder of the season.

In a season that went from one extreme to another, there were many mixed performances. Rolen hit .283 with 21 home runs and 92 RBI and was the unanimous choice for the NL Rookie of the Year Award, the first Phillie to win the award since Dick Allen in 1964. Morandini hit .295 in the final year of his first Phillies stint. Brogna swatted 20 homers and played a fantastic first base. Lieberthal also belted 20 homers and finished strongly after spending most of the first half hitting under .200. Tony Barron took over for Daulton in right and hit .286 while Midre Cummings hit .303 after being claimed on waivers from the Pittsburgh Pirates. McMillon blasted a grand slam in his second Phillies at bat, and ended up with a .292 average after arriving. Kevin Jordan and Kevin Sefcik were the club's top performers off the bench. Not shining so brightly was Gregg Jefferies, who hit a disappointing .256. Hudler hit just .221 in an injury-plagued season, while May was released in August after managing only a .228 average. Magee struggled mightily and found himself back in the minors after hitting .200 in 38 games.

Schilling was masterful pretty much all season long; he likely would have won 20 games with a better supporting cast. As it was, the righty went 17-11 with a 2.97 ERA and a franchise record 319 strikeouts, also the most ever for a National League righthander. Rookie Garrett Stephenson was a pleasant surprise, going 8-6 with a 3.15 ERA. Lingering arm woes limited Mike Grace to just six starts, but he did manage to go 3-2 including a complete game shutout against the Yankees. Bottalico struggled at times in the second half, but still managed to save 34 games. Late addition Billy Brewer had a 3.27 ERA in 25 appearances. Not so good was Leiter, who won 10 games, but lost a league-high 17. Injuries limited Portugal to just three starts. Calvin Maduro began the season in the starting rotation, but his 3-7 record and 7.23 ERA got him sent to the minors in July. Matt Beech lost his first seven decisions (after losing his final four in 1996) before finishing 4-9. After a strong 1996, Ken Ryan had an astronomical 9.58 ERA in 22 appearances. Rookie reliever Wayne Gomes went 5-1 despite a 5.27 ERA. Scott Ruffcorn had a 7.71 ERA in 18 appearances, and was best remembered for an infamous start against the Atlanta Braves on June 29. In that game, Ruffcorn was so wild, he was pulled in the sixth inning despite having a no-hitter going. Both the no-hitter and the game would eventually be lost.

Francona's rookie managerial campaign ended positively, but the team still had its share of holes. Looking to shore up the outfield, the Phillies sent Kevin Stocker to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on the night of the expansion draft for young right fielder Bobby Abreu. Morandini was later dealt to the Cubs for center fielder Doug Glanville, a University of Pennsylvania graduate. Both deals were influenced by the refusal of 1997 first-round pick J.D. Drew to sign with the Phillies. Mark Lewis was signed to replace Morandini at second, while Desi Relaford was expected to take over for Stocker at shortstop. In December, general manager Lee Thomas was shown the door, replaced on an interim basis by assistant GM Ed Wade.

Those offseason moves showed that the process of rebuilding the Phillies was not quite a finished job. The ballclub appeared to be on the right track, but whether the closing surge to end the 1997 season was a fluke or a sign of good things to come remained to be seen.

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