PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 07: Carlos Ruiz #51 of the Philadelphia Phillies looks on from the dugout dejected after they lost 1-0 against the St. Louis Cardinals during Game Five of the National League Divisional Series at Citizens Bank Park on October 7, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
The 2011 Phillies took you on the ride of your life during the regular season and then broke your heart in less than a week once the playoffs started. It was an ending all too familiar for the Philadelphia sports fan, albeit one not expected with this team. As Ryan Howard fell to the ground in agony and Nick Punto flipped the ball to Albert Pujols for the final out, you couldn't help but wonder if you had just witnessed the end of an era. There are a lot of questions about the roster going into the offseason, and how Ruben Amaro addresses them will go a long way in determining whether the Phillies remain among the elite.
So, that's how it happened. It ended like this? Really? With the best regular season in franchise history and all those lofty expectations and dreams going down in flames as Ryan Howard -- the chief symbol of frustration since winning the World Series in 2008 -- himself went down immediately upon turning to run towards first base... where he would have been out by a mile anyway. Then about an hour after the game, the interwebs informed us that Howard likely -- and since confirmed -- suffered a torn Achilles tendon. There's a strong likelihood he misses part (at least half?) of next season, and who knows how this will affect his career going forward. Odds are it won't be positively. This is a serious injury, and that's bad news for a slugger whose skills have been in decline for two years. Here's where I'd typically add in the obligatory "insult to injury" line, and then annoyingly make sure I ram home the point that I'm being literal. Because, you know, you weren't thinking that yourself, and other journalists/bloggers haven't already written it ad nauseum.
Speaking of Howard, here's how you know he was truly terrible as he went hitless in his final 15 at bats of the series: My sister, who doesn't know shit about sports, pointed out his incompetence and was actually laughing at him. I'm not sure what's worse, predicting that he's going to strike out on three or four pitches or actually watching as it happens. Remember that at bat against Mark Rzepczynski in the top of the eighth inning of Game 4, with two outs and Utley at second base, with the score 5-3? I turned to my friend, we call him Class, with whom I was watching and said: "Watch. This Howard at bat is going to last three pitches, four max. He's probably going to be down 0-2, then he'll feebly flail at a slider as it breaks away from him for the third strike." Class found it especially hilarious when, three pitches later, on an 0-2 count (after looking at an 84 MPH meatball in the heart of the plate for strike two), Howard swung and missed at a slider that broke away from him and ended up out of the strike zone.
This really has turned into my worst nightmare, as far as sports scenarios go. But if there's one good thing the Eagles' crushing failures earlier in the decade did, it was force me to gain some perspective about sports and where they fit in with life. Ever since I've been at peace with the conclusion I made then: In the grand scheme of things and in terms of what's really important, sports don't matter. But the losses still hurt, especially when they happen like this. The Phillies just did their best Eagles impression. You know what I'm talking about. They fooled us into believing. And, like it felt with the Eagles, this season's end is even more painful than the last. By the way, if you hear a ping of glasses tapping together, that's just Jeffrey Lurie and Joe Banner toasting in celebration to the incredible demise of their in-town adversary.
The city loved this Phillies team because it was a winner. Was. As in past tense. As in three years ago, when that specific team won the World Series. That team was different from the rest. This new team was better than that one, at least on paper, but games aren't played on paper. It had players who won before. That core was still intact, albeit older and, as much as the faithful reluctantly admitted, getting progressively more injury-prone. But that's why we traded for Roy Halladay. That's why we brought Cliff Lee back. The pitching was supposed to help mask an aging offense that wasn't the juggernaut it had been at the start of the franchise's most recent revival. In the end, it turns out the team's greatest strength, starting pitching, couldn't overcome its greatest weakness, a streaky offense.
It wasn't supposed to end like this. So soon. So suddenly. So devastatingly. But it did, and the all too familiar hollow feeling that accompanies losing crept its way back into our ethos as Philadelphia sports fans. You dreaded it the whole game, from the very beginning. Even before the first pitch. I know you did, and it only got worse and more ominous as the innings went by with nary a run scored. It was in the pit of your stomach. That awful sinking feeling. You start verbalizing your doomsday premonitions and texting your friends, "This game is going to end 1-0, isn't it?" You just know, and you are forced to sit there and watch helplessly as the worst-case scenario manifests itself on the field.
In a match up of Cy Young Award winners all it might take is one run to win, and the Cardinals got that all important run five fucking minutes into the game -- off Roy Halladay, who, despite his undeniable greatness, is vulnerable early on. If teams are going to score on him, they better do it in the first inning. Otherwise, their chances decline drastically. For the second time in the series, leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal went on the attack before Doc was able to settle down and get a rhythm going. This time, with the count at two balls and one strike, the pesky Furcal -- who got his sweet revenge on the Phillies after the '08 and '09 teams easily disposed of his Dodgers in the playoffs -- smoked a ball into the gap for a triple (his second leadoff triple of the series, with the first coming off Cliff Lee). Then Skip Schumaker battled through an at bat that typified the Cardinals' scrappy and never-give-in attitude, something we used to say about these Phillies. On the tenth pitch, he smacked a hanging curve ball into the right field corner for an RBI double. Then Chris Carpenter did the rest. Poor Doc deserved better than this fate, especially given his heroic performance after the first inning.
Friday night felt like the end of an era. The whole game just felt like one long, excruciating, inevitable end of an era. "Era." I mean five seasons of success that followed six seasons of near misses and not even getting into the playoffs. With Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Madson slated to become free agents, two of the franchise's drafted and developed players -- and Philadelphia's currently longest-tenured athlete in Rollins -- could very realistically be wearing other uniforms next season. Rollins wants a five-year contract and has previously intimated there won't be a hometown discount, while Madson is a Scott Boras client and will be looking to cash in on a career deal after finally establishing himself as a closer (reports would seem to indicate he's probably ready to move on). Now add those two situations to Howard's ordeal, and the fact that both Chase Utley and Placido Polanco will have to undergo offseason surgery for nagging injuries that affected their performances all season. There's lots of uncertainty surrounding the future of the everyday lineup (but one certainty is Raul Ibanez won't be back). All of a sudden, the reality and gravity of the situation kicks you in the face. Dare I say it, but it could be time for the Phillies to take a page from the Flyers' book and radically alter the direction of the franchise. This is the offseason where Ruben Amaro really proves his worth as a general manager.
I didn't write this in the playoff preview article because I didn't want to ooze my normal pessimism, but when people asked me what I thought of the Phillies-Cardinals series, I'd tell them Phils in five. Yet I did so rather unconvincingly and with a hint of doubt in my voice. I'd tell them I was nervous, that the Cardinals were probably the worst possible matchup for this team. A guy at work (they tell me I'm supposed to promote more through social networking... so, yeah, here's my plug: Buy something), let's call him Chris, is a big Cardinals fan, and he fits the stereotype you hear about them being the best, most pleasant fans. Or whatever it is people say. When I started at my job, other people in the office told me Chris was a total baseball junkie. Naturally, it's been a topic of conversation between us ever since. I asked him on Monday, September 12, if he thought his Cardinals had a chance to win the Wild Card. That was following a mini win streak, accompanied by a Braves mini losing streak, that cut the deficit from 8.5 games to 4.5 games in a week. "I guess I could buy into it," Chris told me. We wished each other luck going down the stretch -- "not that you guys need it," he said. And so it went for the next two weeks, with the Cardinals catching fire and the Braves completely falling apart. Every night was essentially an elimination game for St. Louis, and they just kept on winning. The Phillies, on the other hand, really hadn't played a game of significant magnitude at any point during the season. "You guys scare the shit out of me," I replied.
Fast forward to the day after the conclusion of the regular season. Here's how the conversation went between us.
ME: How are you feeling about this series?
CHRIS: I'll be happy if we win a game. I'd be satisfied with that.
ME: Really? That's it? I don't think you're giving your team enough credit. The hot team is always the most dangerous, especially in a short series. I see this thing going five and, objectively speaking, would probably even put money on the Cardinals. Carpenter and Garcia have had tremendous success against this lineup over the past few years. Plus, your offense is the best in the National League.
CHRIS: Seriously? You think we have a chance?
ME: Of course. I wasn't kidding when I said your Cardinals scared the shit out of me. The Phillies aren't invincible, and our offense, which is the epitome of hot/cold, hasn't shown shown up in the last three playoff series.
CHRIS: Yeah, but your starting pitching...
ME: ... is not invincible, either.
There's a destiny feel to this Cardinals team. The impossible -- until it wasn't -- run at the end of the season to overcome a 10.5-game deficit and earn a playoff berth on the final day. The whole being the hot team at the right time thing, and how it can often mean riding that wave of momentum over playoff opponents that have instead had sustained success over the course of the whole season. So really, when it counts, the hot team is the better team, the more tested team, the more mentally tough team. It always seems to work out that way, right? And make no mistake, the better team won this series. Even after the uneasy Game 3 win, I texted a few friends, "If there's one thing I'll say after watching these first three games, it's that the Cardinals look like the better team." I truly felt that way, and the last two games only further emphasized it.
Even though the initial feeling was more shock than devastation, I wasn't that surprised by Friday night's outcome. As the Phillies were ripping off wins at a torrid pace in August and early September, the natural cynic in me still couldn't resist tempering my optimism with a healthy dose of cautiousness and concern. "Yeah, I just hope they're not peaking too early -- you want to be playing your best baseball at the end of September, not the beginning," I told coworkers and friends who remarked how excited I must be about the Phillies. The eight-game losing streak that followed clinching the division title bothered me more than most fans. I had friends tell me to calm down, that Charlie was playing minor leaguers to give his regulars a rest, that the team was just coasting until the playoffs. Coasting? Ugh. I hate that word. None of it made me feel any better, especially since I don't believe in flipping that proverbial switch and just "turning it on."
Then the Phillies put their regular lineup back out on the field and won the final four games of the season, including a sweep of the Braves that made it possible for the Cardinals to win the Wild Card. I relaxed a little bit, figuring the guys had gotten back into their groove and were ready for October. For a minute, I let myself ignore the warning signs that popped up as the final month progressed. Polanco -- playing through a sport hernia injury -- had devolved into a singles hitter or automatic out, while Victorino and Utley struggled through September*, Howard suffered from a sore heel (FORESHADOWING!) and bursitis in his left ankle, and Hunter Pence was afflicted with patellar tendinitis. That Jekyll and Hyde offense was returning, just in time to break our hearts. At the conclusion of the 162nd game of the season, every Phillies fan had the same thought: Crap, I hope we didn't just screw ourselves over now that we've ensured we have to play the hottest team in baseball. It's a shame things worked out the way they did, but I'm not going to fault the Phillies for winning games.
*Edit: Victorino and Utley both rose to the occasion and had good series against the Cardinals at the plate (not so much in the field or on the base paths). Conversely, Carlos Ruiz, who hit .301 in September, went 1 for 17 in the NLDS. Very un-Señor Octubre of him.
Yeah, you can choose to blame Cliff Lee for blowing a 4-0 lead in Game 2, or Chase Utley for getting burned on two base-running risks in Games 4 and 5 (which literally never happens to him, but at least he showed up). However, if you actually have any idea what you're talking about, you know the blame for this debacle rests squarely on the offense and its inability to manufacture runs or have good at bats in the most critical situations. Again. No killer instinct (the first inning of Game 4, for example). This team scored 11 runs in the first game, and then 10 total in the next four. Now things are officially going backward, and if the trend continues, the Phillies won't even have a chance to lose in the playoffs in 2012.
A season of unparalleled hope and immense promise crumbled before our very eyes, in a fashion befitting a team that calls Philadelphia home. And the disastrous, surreal way it ended has got to be a first. That's definitely a claim to fame, just not the one the Phillies were hoping to achieve. This pill is the most bitter of all to swallow, and you have to wonder if we've seen the last of a run that's provided so much excitement and joy. But hey, at least Howard didn't go down looking this time.
PS - How will the Eagles choose to pile onto our misery? I'm thinking they line up for a field goal with the score tied and three seconds left on the clock... only to have it blocked and returned by the Bills for a game-winning touchdown.
Edit: I wrote the above paragraph before the game but wasn't yet finished writing/editing the whole post. Gotta hand it to the Eagles, they found a way to pile onto the misery. In spectacular fashion. Game recap coming tomorrow.
PPS - Go Flyers. I'm extremely excited about this team's potential... it's got a chance to be something special. Zach Parise thinks so, too.