Phillies have flair for overcoming challenges

Phillies have flair for overcoming challenges

PHILADELPHIA -- Charlie Manuel woke up Thursday, flipped on the TV and heard San Francisco Giants left fielder Pat Burrell talk about the Phillies.

Manuel liked what he heard.

"To be the best you've got to beat the best," Burrell said.

Manuel smiled.

"That's one of my slogans," he said Thursday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park. "It's Ric Flair. You're going to Space Mountain. You know what happens at Space Mountain? You've got to get there and you've got to conquer it. You've got to stay there. That's kind of what we want to do."

The Phillies are atop the mountain. They are two-time defending National League champions.

They're Flair.

Guess that makes the Giants his nemesis, Dusty Rhodes.

But the Phillies are a confident group entering the National League Championship Series, which begins Saturday at Citizens Bank Park (7:30 p.m. ET on FOX). They have answered numerous challenges this season to reach their third consecutive NLCS. Eighteen players landed on the disabled list, including Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz, Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero, Joe Blanton and Chad Durbin. They played through it.

They suffered through offensive droughts -- five shutouts in eight games in May -- and struggled enough in July that Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. considered trading Jayson Werth. They played through it.

The Phillies were 48-46 and seven games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East on July 21, but won 22 of their next 29 games to move within two games of the Braves on Aug. 22. But then the lowly Houston Astros swept them in a four-game series at Citizens Bank Park.

Manuel blew up afterward in a team meeting.

"I don't even know if you could call it a meeting," Manuel said.

True. Manuel never called an official meeting. He never gathered everybody in the clubhouse. He just walked through the clubhouse and spoke his mind.

"I felt like we were dead," Manuel said. "I felt like we had no life, like we were feeling sorry for ourselves or whatever. I said some things, some good things. I had a few swear words in there. About 99 percent of them."

The general message?

The players are living off their past, and if they keep living off their past they will be old news.

"Charlie's meetings are positive, but at the same time he'll kick you in the tail and let you know things aren't good," Phillies left fielder Raul Ibanez said. "He was intense in that particular meeting. But he definitely challenged us. He said some things that as a player you took as a challenge. He got his point across. ... A challenge was issued. He called us out as a team and it was necessary at the time. It was a good thing."

The players responded. They finished 28-7 (.771) for the best record in baseball and clinched the division with little less than a week to play.

"When I came here I really just wanted to have the chance to play in a postseason game," Phillies infielder Mike Sweeney said. "But the atmosphere these guys present around here isn't, 'We just want to get here in the postseason.' It's, 'We want to win it all.' I believe at the time when I get traded here it was Aug. 4 and we were [two] games back of the Braves. The consensus around the locker room was, 'We will win this division. We will be in the playoffs.' I heard it from a ton of guys, 'Have your kids' Halloween costumes shipped to Philly because we plan on having your kids going trick-or-treating around here.'

"At the time it was quite different from what I had experienced. I've been close a couple times, but the feeling around that clubhouse was, 'If we can play well these last six weeks and play in the playoffs that would be awesome.' But it was totally different here."

The Phillies are two steps from their ultimate goal. They've got two challenges ahead of them: the Giants and the American League champion, should they first conquer the Giants.

The Giants present their own unique challenges. Everybody has talked plenty about San Francisco's talented pitching staff, but the Phillies had the second best offense in the National League this season. They also have Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels to match up with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez.

Will the Phillies meet those challenges? They have before. They are confident they will again.

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.