>It’s not too hard to be confident in the Philadelphia Phillies these days. Back-to-back World Series appearances, one championship, three straight NL East pennants. This year, I can all but guarantee we’re going to see the Phillies in the World Series again. Some Phillies fans probably think we’ve already got the championship in the bag. Meanwhile, the more worrisome folks are probably concerned a dark horse like the Cincinnati Reds might knock us off our high horse before we even get to the W.S. (I’m gonna try to keep these horse metaphors coming). I want to try to take a cautiously optimistic approach. In fact, I’d say “cautious optimism” defines me pretty well. Here’s why I think the Phillies, and their fans, should be cautiously optimistic about the last two weeks of baseball and the impending postseason:
When you take anything for granted, you run into trouble:
The difference between getting to the World Series last year and getting to the World Series this year is that we had this great idea of winning back-to-back World Series looming in our minds the whole time. We were constantly reminded of the Cincinnati “Big Red Machine” team that won in 1975 and 1976. We were on a mission not to get the job done, but rather to get back to the World Series. And we thought we could just ride out the same line-up, plus Cliff Lee, that brought us the championship in ’08 and we’d win again in ’09. Wrong. In some ways, it seemed that the Phillies and maybe even the fans, were happy just to have back to back World Series appearances. Our position as NL power-house had been solidified, and some experts were even picking us to upset the Yankees. But Cliff Lee can’t pitch four games in a row and simply adding him to the 2008 roster was never going to be enough to overcome our other deficiencies. Which brings us to…
When you “hope” your under-performing players will magically step up in the playoffs, you run into trouble:
Cole Hamels wasn’t just playing like Adam Eaton all year, he was acting as though he didn’t want to be playing at all. Remember when he said he couldn’t wait for the season to be over? And that was after Game 3 of the World Series! They still might have needed him to pitch in a potential Game 7 and he was already calling it quits. In fact, he had called it quits long before that fateful Game 3. What a horrible year for Cole Hamels, you kept hoping he would rekindle that 2008 magic, but it never happened. Charlie Manuel must have been hoping along with us. After all, he was the one who sent the physically drained and mentally dilapidated Hamels out there in the World Series even after he gave up 11 ER in 13.2 IP against the Dodgers and Rockies in the previous two series. Did Charlie think Hamels would just suddenly turn it on against an offensively superior team in the Yankees? Charlie should have shelved Hamels for the year after those first few postseason starts, but then again, the Phillies had no one to step in and start in his place. JA Happ? We sure showed how highly we thought of him this year in shipping him off for Oswalt.
Which brings us to the disaster that was somehow worse than Hamels last year: Brad Lidge.
Brad Lidge in 2008: 1.95 ERA, 0 blown saves
Brad Lidge in 2009: 7.21 ERA, 11 blown saves
Lidge was blowing one out of every four saves in 2009, and generally doing the opposite of what he did in 2008.
So how did Lidge do in the 2009 playoffs?
He started well, pitching four scoreless innings in the first two playoff series. But then, in Game 4 of the World Series, the most pivotal of games, after the Philles clawed back in the 8th inning to tie the game at home, Lidge comes in the top of the 9th and lets the Yankees score three runs. Rivera closed it out with 8 pitches in the bottom of the 9th, and the Phillies were down 3-1 in the series. You could’ve just given them the trophy then. Lidge was due for a dud and we knew it and the Yankees knew it and everyone in Philly knew it. But again, who else are you going to trot out there in the 9th in a tie game? May as well just try to follow the 2008 blueprint and hope for the best…
And that’s what I’m hoping the Phillies don’t do this year. They’re going to have to eschew the conventional wisdom of the past two years. They need to give the ball to the hot hand in the late innings, they need to give players like Domonic Brown a chance to be a pinch-hit hero, and although Charlie has shied away from it the past two years, they need to use a three-man rotation in the playoffs. If Halladay, Hamels, or Oswalt end up getting tired as some point in the playoffs and the Phillies are up 2-1 or 3-0 in a series, maybe then you give Joe Blanton a start, but those three aces have shown they can be workhorses (got another one) in the past. Ride them horsies good, Charlie, because they’re what makes this Phillies team so much better than the one we’ve seen the last two years.
And it’s not just that those three studs have been pitching great lately (since July 30th: 18-5, 2.39ERA, 195 K’s to 36 walks), the whole team has been stepping up around them: 34-14 in their last 48 games.
And Lidge? Well, he’s had his share of problems over the course of the 2010 season, but its hard to find a Phillies player who hasn’t this year. Lidge has had a hot hand lately, and so has the under-ratedly-important setup man, Ryan Madson. It seems like as long as H20 can get them through the 7th, the Phillies won’t have a problem turning off the lights. And with all the injuries over the course of the year, its reassuring to know that just about everyone is 100% healthy right now, with Ryan Howard leading the way offensively (who’s been hitting a HR every third game in September).
So, the reason I’m so optimistic is that this team is obviously way better on paper than any team in the NL. The reason I’m confident that some sneaky team like the Giants or Reds won’t upset us is because we have experience with sneaky teams in the playoffs like the 2008 Brewers or the 2009 Dodgers, and we’ve dispatched them. We’re wiser now than we were then and we won’t let some team we know we’re better than get a chance to upset our path to the World Series.
At the beginning of this post, I said I guarantee the Phillies will make it to the World Series, but I never said they’d win it. Truthfully, I do believe they will beat whoever they face once they get there, be it the Yankees, Rays, Twins, or Rangers–but it won’t be easy. A rematch against the Yankees would be a chance for sweet revenge against the Evil Empire, especially with the rotation issues they’re having. I’d rather not face that offense though. A rematch of ’08 with the Rays would be a lot less sexy, but it’d be kind of funny to take it from them again. The Twins could be dangerous (Carl Pavano really makes me shake in my boots), but the Rangers could be perhaps the most compelling matchup for the Phillies. A young team, with a similar mix of power and speed on offense, and of course, a starting rotation featuring Cliff Lee, who has had his fair share of problems since joining the Rangers. It’d be tough for Lee to lose two World Series in a row, but I don’t think Phillies fans would feel too bad for him when all is said and done.
Whoever the Phillies face in the World Series, they’ll have to play their best ball to win. Lidge and Madson will have to remain strong in the late innings, the big three will have to pitch like they have been the past two months, and the offense can’t afford to take a night off. If all these things happen, we’ll all be horsing around on Broad Street this October once again.