Got a text on the way home from the park, suggested blog title: Rubber Tree Plant 1, Ant 0. Certainly more creative than I can be at the moment, and with a touch of levity that I don’t have right now, either. It was all so very similar to last year. Sitting in the same section, same guy at the plate, and the same unfortunate result. It’s amazing the swing of emotions you can feel in a couple of hours. Brimming with nervous excitement on the way in, and searching for answers on the way out. As I walked to my car I heard someone behind me say they should have saved the $400 dollars and watched the game at home. I didn’t pay $400, but I’ve still got to disagree. I’d never give up that chance to be there, regardless of the result. It was a captivating event, it just wasn’t the right result. And, a truly great crowd. Jimmy Rollins I imagine won’t have any complaints for Twitter at 3 am this morning. If he’s looking to assign blame, I hope his iPhone has a mirror app.
I don’t really have my thoughts organized, so I’ll just spit them out randomly and hopefully they’ll make sense….
I heard on the drive home a particularly inflammatory talk show host say this was by far the biggest choke in Philly sports history, and when I hear things like that it reinforces a core belief I’ve developed in the last week. The majority of Phillies’ fans have no idea what it takes to win a World Series. We’re neophytes, really. Five straight trips to the playoffs and no one knows how to handle themselves. We’ve learned how to lose, but we don’t really know how to handle winning yet. You don’t win it all every year. In fact, you usually lose. The baseball dynasty? The late-90s Yankees? That’s probably not happening again for a very long time. The baseball playoffs have become about hot teams, and match-ups, and the Phillies have been on the wrong end of that the last two years. In 2009 they lost to a clearly better team, but the last two years they hit streaking teams who had the makeup to beat them.
Speaking of opposing teams, the Cardinals are an odd bunch, because everyone was terrified of playing them in the first round, but then when we got to the actual series, they were dismissed as 90-win wild-cards. That’s not an accurate representation of who they are. They’re the best offensive team in the National League. They have a legitimate ace pitcher. And, their bullpen is not as bad as it looks statistically. It righted itself long before this Phillies series. So, the Phillies were facing the hottest team in the NL, a team with a lot of weapons, and in my honest opinion their toughest NL post-season opponent in this current era of success–by some margin. Part of that is match-ups (guys like Jaime Garcia and Carpenter and their ability as a lineup to work counts, etc.), but part of it is just that they’re a very good team. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if St. Louis beat Milwaukee or won the World Series. That’s not to say that the Phillies couldn’t or shouldn’t have won, but they weren’t playing the Mets here.
Why did the Phillies lose this series? Well, they didn’t close it out when they were hitting, gave the Cardinals a breath of life and then got shut down by a great pitching performance. It’s a pretty simple formula. And, it’s a shame that there are no games 6 & 7, because the Phillies would probably be favored in both of those and I’ll believe forever if they played the Cardinals 21 straight days, they’d get the better of it, but that’s not how the playoffs work. So, did the Phillies lose because they were a team that was built for the regular season? Maybe in some ways that is true, but it’s not a valid argument. And, neither is the claim that 102 wins means nothing. You have to make the post-season after all, 90 wins and a World Series is great, but 89 and a trip home doesn’t get the job done, so the Phillies regular season accomplishments shouldn’t be overlooked, but they remain regular season accomplishments. Against lesser teams and when able to utilize the advantages of their pitching depth, the Phillies were always going to be good over the long-term.
The short-term exposes weaknesses on an individual level. The Phillies hitters are prone to slumps, more so each year it seems as the core group ages, and it looks like Jaime Garcia and/or the infamous sun-field at St. Louis put the Phils to sleep for good pretty much starting in game three. What stood out to me, aside from Ryan Howard’s abysmal last 4 games was the Phillies got nothing from the bottom of their order. The bottom of the Cards’ order stole game 2, but I think Polanco/Ruiz had 3 hits total? It’s bad timing for Ruiz to go cold, and we don’t know how hurt Polanco is, but he’s got to do better or get himself out of there. Martinez or Valdez are not viable options really, but Polanco didn’t hit a ball with authority all series and that can’t happen. You look at the game Wednesday, Edwin Jackson was on the ropes. The Phils run themselves out of an inning. The bottom of the order is dead for two more innings and suddenly he’s torn through 8-9 guys and he’s rolling. That happened all series. There was no momentum. The Phillies had to have Rollins or Utley lead off an inning to score.
And, I’m sure I’ll be the lone person still trying to assign some blame to Cliff Lee for blowing game two. I watched that Bartman documentary the other day, and the whole thing is about scapegoating, and it seems like that fresh excuse, the popular one is the one people fixate on. The game was tied when the ball went through Buckner’s legs (the Bartman documentary is inexplicably 1/2 about Buckner), but that was the last bad thing that happened that night. And, with the Phillies, again, it’ll be the offense. The three hits, the shutout will stay with people, but the Phillies sweep the series if the all-world free agent acquisition can hold a 4-run lead. And, certainly it’s not all Lee’s fault. And, it’s not all Howard’s or Polanco’s, you’ve got to pick guys up–and that’s an area where the Phils haven’t come through the last two seasons in particular.
It’s easier than you think to lose a five-game series. The Phils have spoiled us a bit the last three years with decisive performances in cushy match-ups, but this was nothing like that. It certainly hurts, and it’s frustrating, because we saw all that potential, and we were really still a bit stung from last year. The regular season lacked gratification in part because we wanted the wins in October to erase last year and now this one-week season in a way was a total failure, but that’s just a suicidal approach to being a fan. You’ll go crazy in no time at all. But, I expect this one to linger for a while, because I honestly do believe the Phillies had a very clear path to winning this whole thing if they got by St. Louis. I never would have had the audacity to say something like that before hand, but I did believe it to be true. I guess it wasn’t meant to be, though, not a lot of bounces Philly’s way the last two games, and as always the worst part is, the town is out of baseball atmosphere for months and months. We just have to hope it returns for year six in 2012.
The Phils will have a tough time creating the goodwill they’ve cultivated in past off-seasons this winter. Tough decisions with Rollins and Madson. Oswalt could be gone, Ibanez will be gone, Lidge will be likely be gone, but a lot of that freed up money will go to escalating contracts. The big splash, the sorry we lost to S.F., but here’s Cliff Lee move might not exist this winter. I feel Phillies goodwill might ebb a bit during the off-season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the fabled sell-out streak ends next year, either. Could be a good thing. Maybe everyone needs to step back, take some space, a breath to get re-energized.