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October 01, 2017

'Turning Point?' Phillies rebuild gaining steam with strong finish in '17

The bright lights finally cut out as Nick Williams ducked away from the media scrum and back to his locker stall following the final game of the 2017 season for the Philadelphia Phillies. The perma-smile of the 24-year-outfielder hadn’t dimmed, though, as he shot one more comment back to the assembled press.

“I’m going to Disney World,” Williams said with a laugh.

Williams was happier than normal and, well, why wouldn’t he be? He had reached a lifelong goal this summer of reaching it to the major leagues and fared pretty well since he’d arrived, slashing .288/.338/.473 with 12 home runs in 83 games, the last of those home runs coming in highly-entertaining, inside-the-park fashion in the eighth inning of Sunday’s 11-0 win over the New York Mets.

“I got big eyes and I was like, ‘Sweet, let’s do it,’” said Williams, who couldn’t remember if he’d ever hit one before. “Once I turned around third I was completely out of gas.”

The healthy crowd of 25,754 roared when he arrived safely at home. Shortly after returning to the dugout, Williams found himself poking his head back out of it and tipping his helmet to the adoring fans.

“I never had one,” Williams said of curtain calls. “It was an awesome experience.”

The final calendar date at Citizens Bank Park began in somewhat similar fashion.

Exactly 48 hours after sitting at a press conference with his boss, hearing the words aloud that he wouldn’t be managing the team beyond 2017, Pete Mackanin delivered his final lineup card to home plate. He was met by the umpiring crew and Mets manager Terry Collins, who was also managing his last game with his team; he resigned after the game.

Both men hugged and received hugs from the umpires. But then, as Mackanin walked back toward the dugout, fans stood and cheered. The Phillies dugout had emptied for the national anthem, too, and they all applauded their soon-to-be-departing manager.

“Probably one of the best days of my career,” Mackanin said. “My wife and son were in the stands in the second row and I couldn't look at them. I knew my wife would be crying. I didn't want to start crying myself.”

The Phillies finished the 2017 season with a 66-96 record. They were one of 34 teams in the 135-year history of the franchise to finish at least 30 games under .500. Only 34 teams in club history had a worse winning percentage.

Only two major league teams, the San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers, finished with a worse record.

But 364 days since the previous Game No.162 at Citizens Bank Park, an emotional day when the Phillies said goodbye to Ryan Howard, the last remaining member of the 2008 championship team, Sunday had a similar feel at 1 Citizens Bank Park Way.

As Mackanin tipped his cap to the crowd, and J.P. Crawford started his second straight game at shortstop, and Maikel Franco homered for the fourth time in his last five games, and as Nick Pivetta threw five shutout innings, and Rhys Hoskins collected his National League-leading 24th walk since September 1 and then dashed around the bases as fast as he would so Williams wouldn’t catch him on the manic, inside-the-park home run … the words that general manager Matt Klentak spoke two days earlier began playing in your head.

We have reached a turning point in this rebuild. It’s time to look forward.

And despite finishing without a winning record for a sixth straight season, and losing more than 90 games for the third consecutive year, you could, with maybe the help of some red-pinstriped glasses and a glass-is-half-full mentality, find yourself nodding along to Klentak’s words.

The prospects have arrived, and have thrived. The front office has an ownership hell-bent on winning behind them and the most payroll flexibility of any big market team in baseball in front of them.

If you squint a little bit, you could see Williams circling the bases as he had Sunday in a game being played a little later into October. You could see a Phillies team contending in the near future, right?

“I mean, I think it’s pretty good, man,” Freddy Galvis, the longest-tenured Phillies player who broke into the big leagues with the heroes of the previous era five years earlier, said of the team’s chances of contending soon.

“I think all you guys can see after the second half, I think we’ve played much better,” Galvis continued. “With one or two more pieces, I’ll think we’ll be more consistent and pretty good. I think that’s one of the keys. The team has to be consistent if we want to go for everything. But the team is much better. The roster is much better. A lot of young guys, a lot of speed, a lot of discipline at the plate, guys can hit for homers, guys can run, guys can pitch.”

In the season’s final 11 weeks, from July 16 until October first, the Phillies, remarkably, had a winning record: 37-36.

The pitching staff has a legitimate arm in the rotation in Aaron Nola (he finished the season 11th in the NL in ERA, one point behind Jacob deGrom and Jake Arrieta), more than a couple pieces in the bullpen to feel good about, and the lineup is teeming in both youth and depth.

Sure, there are still more unproven pieces than proven ones. But if you watched any baseball in South Philadelphia over the last three months (a lot of people did not, at least physically at the ballpark as the Phils drew nearly 10,000 fewer fans than they did in 2016), you had to feel pretty good about the state of the rebuild, red-pinstriped glasses or not.

“I think what happened is some of the players who were with us from the beginning showed improvement and with the emergence of a couple of the young guys, it gave us a spurt of energy and a more positive attitude,” Mackanin said. “Looking toward the future you combine those two things, there are a lot of things we can feel good about going into next year.”

Mackanin, of course, won’t be here then as he transition to a front office advisory role. But like the final three months for the 2017 Phillies, he surely went out in style in what very well may have been the final day he donned a baseball uniform.

“Never,” Mackanin said of whether he ever had a curtain call.

He then corrected himself.

“In Little League,” he said, “When I was named MVP of my Little League team. It was just a fantastic feeling. Totally surprised me. I'll just remember it forever.”

And if the Phillies sneak into wild-card contention at some point next summer – or perhaps more likely, in 2019 – with many of the current pieces already in place, people will probably remember the end of 2017, too. 

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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