"Don't look now, but Manuel could be a Manager of the Year candidate if the Phillies win the wild card."
--Fox Sports analyst Ken Rosenthal
Granted, Rosenthal goes on to write that a failure to reach the playoffs could cost Phils manager Charlie Manuel his job. But as the team continues its unlikely post-fire sale surge, the question of Manuel's award-worthiness becomes a viable one---and not just because he went all La Russa in the Phillies' 2-1 win in Chicago Wednesday night, using Arthur Rhodes and Geoff Geary to close out the Cubs in the 9th.
Bash his oft-questionable in-game moves or reliever usage patterns; mock his age, rotundity, malapropisms or Appalachian drawl. But it's increasingly clear that the man has some serious clubhouse management skills. Manuel has not only kept his guys focused and playing hard after the outside world---and, admittedly, TGP--had written them off (and considered it a foregone conclusion that Manuel himself soon would be out of a job), but he's herded them back into contention with a 15-7 August record despite injuries to Tom Gordon and Aaron Rowand and sub-par months from Chase Utley (.708 OPS, 1 HR, 9 RBI) and Brett Myers (9.45 ERA before Wednesday's start).
To me (though at least one of my esteemed colleagues disagrees), the biggest reason the Phils have surged over the last month is that they've finally got some stability and solidity in the rotation: all five of the starters now can be expected to keep the team in the game pretty much every time out. (A related point: the rotation, the Phils' biggest weakness this season, might be the area of the team for which Manuel had, and has, least responsibility. I'll explore that in a subsequent piece.)
The second factor, discussed in a nice Rich Hoffman story in Thursday's Daily News, is the continued development and improvement of the team's three best regulars: Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. It's hard to argue that all three aren't much better hitters today than they were when Manuel took over, and Jimmy at least is quick to give his manager credit:
"Yeah, definitely," Rollins said. "It's just simple conversations with Charlie. He just brings up something and says, basically, just to think about it. He doesn't miss anything in baseball. He doesn't say it all the time - sometimes he waits for you to come to him - because if the manager is always coming at you, coming at you, your reaction is going to be, 'Why are you picking on me? Why are you jumping on me?'
"But if you go up to him and ask, he'll tell you straight-up. He'll tell you what it is and what it isn't, what's true and what's bad."
Manuel calls it "corrective criticism," and he said Rollins is receptive. "He'll get a little stubborn sometimes, but most of the time he definitely hears you," the manager said. "You can see him work at it."
But some of it also might be Charlie Manuel, who has put these guys in good position to succeed. Generally, when lots of guys have career years or contribute in unlooked-for ways, the manager gets the credit. If the Phils do complete their surprising resurrection with a trip to the post-season, Manuel just might have a trophy to put on the mantle.
[editor's note, by dajafi] This story has been changed and updated since first published.