ATLANTA – Moments after the Phillies’ worst season in more than a decade came to a close Sunday, the team in the other dugout gathered around the pitcher’s mound at Turner Field and hoisted the 2013 National League East championship banner.
Seeing the Atlanta Braves celebrate their title was a grim reminder of how far the Phillies have fallen. Just two years earlier, on the same field, the Phils ended their regular season with a fifth straight division title and a club-record 102nd win.
Everything has been downhill since.
Cliff Lee couldn’t hold a 4-0 lead against St. Louis in Game 2 of the NL Division Series that year, and the Phillies were eliminated when Roy Halladay left his right arm on the field in a 1-0 loss in Game 5.
The Phillies missed the playoffs last season and this season endured their first losing campaign since 2002. They limped to the finish line Sunday with a 12-5 loss to the Braves (see Instant Replay). The Phillies’ ninth loss in 11 games saddled them with a final record of 73-89. It was the club’s lowest win total since 2000.
“This isn’t the situation you envision going into spring training,” Chase Utley said in a losing clubhouse that was busy with players packing, saying goodbye and heading off to another postseason-less winter.
“If there is a bright side, it gives us an opportunity to get to work a little bit sooner. We can start improving next week. We get a four-week head start.”
The Phillies have plenty of improving to do.
They finished the season with the second-worst team ERA in the NL (4.27). At the plate, they averaged just 3.77 runs per game, which ranked third from the bottom.
For the season, they were outscored by 139 runs, the largest differential in the NL.
Of course, all of these numbers were affected by injury. Halladay and Mike Adams were banged up on the pitching side. Ryan Howard missed half a season and Ben Revere, swinging a hot bat at the time, went down for the season in July.
Still, things were pretty bad, especially after the all-star break when the team never seemed to come back from vacation. A long stretch of losing cost World Series-winning manager Charlie Manuel his job. He was replaced by Ryne Sandberg, who ignited a quick spark on his way to overseeing 20 wins and 22 losses in 42 games.
Ultimately, there was some benefit to the Phillies’ late-season tumble. As owners of one of baseball’s 10 worst records for 2013, they will not forfeit their first-round draft pick should they sign a top free agent this winter.
Sunday’s finale illustrated one of the team’s most glaring weaknesses: Starting pitching depth. With Halladay, Kyle Kendrick, John Lannan and Jonathan Pettibone all shut down with assorted health concerns, the team simply ran out of pitching in the final week of the season. Three of the seven starts on this season-ending road trip were filled by relievers. Zach Miner got the call Sunday and was torched for five runs in 2 1/3 innings by a Braves’ lineup that was minus a couple of regulars.
“It was a tough go this last week with the bullpen games,” Sandberg said. “It stresses the importance of [adding] more pitching depth and stabilizing the staff for next year.”
Sandberg would also like to see the team add offense, a sentiment echoed by Lee, a frequent victim of poor run support.
“We struggled to score runs and need to improve on that,” he said. “A right-handed bat would play.”
Closer Jonathan Papelbon labeled the season “a failure” and he’s right in that teams with payrolls of more than $160 million have the expectation of making the playoffs. Looking back, Papelbon’s struggles at mid-season were a blow to the Phillies’ playoff chances.
There were some success stories: Utley’s knees allowed him to stay on the field; Lee and Cole Hamels were two of the best pitchers in the NL in the second half; Domonic Brown had a strong first half but tailed off in the second half; Jake Diekman gained confidence and velocity in the bullpen; Cody Asche, who sustained a seven-stitch cut on his chin in Sunday’s finale, looks like a keeper at third base; catcher Carlos Ruiz played so well over the final weeks of the season that the organization went from dangling him as trade bait to wanting to re-sign him before he becomes a free agent after the World Series.
“I’m looking forward to next year,” Sandberg said. “I think there are some solid pieces here. So when everything’s pieced together, and with some additions, I don’t think we’re that far off.”
Sandberg’s optimism is rooted in the knowledge that things can turn quickly in this game. Sunday was a reminder of that, though not necessarily the reminder the Phillies were looking for. Two years after heading to the postseason with 102 wins, they are going home. The franchise’s first losing season in a decade is their not-so-lovely parting gift.
The Phillies went 20-22 after Ryne Sandberg took over for Charlie Manuel in August. (USA Today Images)