We Could Have Had It All: A Eulogy for the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies

We Could Have Had It All: A Eulogy for the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies

I've never dreaded a baseball game so much as the one I watched tonight.

No
matter what happened, there was no joy to be had in tonight's baseball
game for me. The best I could hope for was relief, and even if that
came, it probably wouldn't come until the 27th out. No series I can
remember a Philly team taking part in has better illustrated the
difference between wanting to win and fearing to lose. Winning would be
nice, sure. Losing would mean the end of the world. I didn't want to
watch this game, I just wanted it to be over. And despite the animated
crowd at CBP tonight, I don't think I was alone in this feeling—it
seemed to me like most Phillies fans were approaching Game Five with the
same kind of angst and general discomfort.

The reasons for this feeling, I believe, were threefold. The first
one is the most obvious one: The burden of expectation. In 2007 and
2008, the Phillies were scrappy underdogs who battled the big-boy teams
to the last day of the season just to get into the playoffs. In 2009 and
2010, the franchise started to act like they've been there before
(because for the first time in ages, they actually had), and as the
attendance, payroll and win totals began to swell, so naturally did the
sense of arrogance and entitlement surrounding the team and its fans. In
2011, there wasn't all that much separating us from the American
League team 90 miles north of Philadelphia that also just lost a
Division Series at home in a one-run decision game.

That might not sound like a pejorative statement—reflexively,
getting compared to the Yankees feels like an insult—but really, it's
not.  It just means that the Phillies are now looked at as one of the
league's benchmarks, the team that all other teams circle the games
against on their schedules, the team that looms large in any
conversation of post-season contenders. And while it's always more
romantic and exciting to be the kids coming up from behind, let's be
honest—it's also been damn fun to be the bullies on the block, to smack
down the unworthy teams and flaunt our wealth (both figurative and
literal) over the have-nots. Hey, it took nearly 130 years for the Phils
to finally get there, nobody can blame us for enjoying it now that it's
actually happened.

Best of all is the fact that we've gotten to play a part in it. Over
the last five seasons, Phillies fans have helped their team accomplish
something most fanbases can only dream of—expanding from a
middle-of-the-pack market to one of the marquee teams of the league. In
2006, the Phillies' budget was $88 million, good for eighth in the NL.
In 2011, it was nearly twice that, easily leading the NL at $172
million. And reductively speaking, that's our doing—unlike in Tampa,
where the team's made the playoffs three out of four years and still
can't sell out playoff games, CBP has sold out over 200 regular season
games in a row, helping to fund the Phils' acquisitions of high-priced
players like Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Hunter Pence and countless others
who have helped turn the team into one of baseball's superpowers.

But, of course, there's a price to paid for all this upward
mobility. When we got swept by the Rockies in the 2007 NLDS, it hurt,
but just getting there was fun enough that the wounds healed relatively
easily. There's no fun in just getting there in 2011. In 2011, getting
there isn't just expected, it's accomplished weeks ahead of schedule. In
2011, the season basically begins with getting there. When you have a
team with a $172 mil payroll and 102 wins, you go all the way or you go home
crying. That's the expectation the league has of the Phils, that's the
expectation that we have of the Phils, and that's the expectation that
the Phils have of themselves. Nothing else is OK. Losing in the Division
Series to the Cardinals—a team that wasn't even part of the post-season
discussion a month ago—would definitely not be OK.

The second reason for the dread surrounding this game, for me at
least, is the fact that there were no excuses to be made for this team.
Everything was set up for the Phillies going into this post-season. We
were healthy. We were well rested, but not so well rested that we should
have been rusty. We had our pitching rotation in order. We had our
lineup the way we like it. We had home-field advantage. Unless we got
stuck with a Don Denkinger-type situation, chances were that if we ended
up losing this series, we'd lose it because the other team played
better than we did.

And that's why it really sucked that through four games, it wasn't
totally clear who the better team was. I'll always believe that the
Phils were the better team against the Giants in 2010, that a couple hot
bats and a pop-up that somehow ended up being a home run in Game Six
made a difference that, objectively (subjectively) speaking, shouldn't
have been made. Here, I wasn't so sure. Andy Greenwald called the
Cardinals "by far the hardest opponent these actually good, Nü Phillies
have ever faced in the postseason," and I'm not sure I disagree—they
never seemed to make easy outs or give us free bases. We would need to
beat them tonight by actually beating them, and if we didn't—even with
our best pitcher on the mound—there'd be nothing to say for the Phillies
except that they didn't get the job done.

This ties the third reason this game was so miserable: The sense
that this might be it for the Phillies. That's not to say that this will
be the last post-season for this group of players—with a rotation core
of Halladay, Lee and Hamels for next year and possibly longer, they'll
certainly be expected to make it back to the playoffs. But when or why
will they have a better team than this? Everyone gets a year older next
year, a bunch of 'em get a year more expensive too, and a couple of them
might not even be back at all. The pitching should still be good for a while, but the offense let us down last post-season, was even less reliable this post-season, and might only get worse as the years advance.

Not to say there's not potential for improvement, or at least
reinforcement. Maybe over the next few years, Domonic Brown emerges into
the star outfielder we all thought (think?) he could be. Maybe the
offensive explosion John Mayberry Jr. showed in the second half of the
season turns out to be legit, and he becomes a core guy. Maybe Chase's
subpar year ends up more due to injury recovery than getting old, and he
has a bounceback year—maybe Polanco too. Maybe Reuben goes out and gets
us a spare bat or two in the off-season. And maybe next post-season, a
couple of the guys who came up short this time around come up bigger. 

It's all possible, but a lot of it isn't probable and none of it is
definite. You know what is definite, though? Ryan Howard, the guy who
needed help getting off the field after making the last of his 15
consecutive outs to end the game (and may now have a torn achilles), getting paid $125 million over the
next five years. Luckily, this is baseball, not the NBA, so a contract
that's as miserable as Ryan's should end up being isn't impossible to
work around. But it's symbolic of a team whose payroll (and really, its
identity) is largely tied up in players whose best days are already
behind them, who might start missing more and more games due to injury
as the years advance, and who might end up struggling to meet even the
modest offensive totals that some of them put up this season and/or
post-season.

102-win seasons don't come around every year, and they're
awful tough to replicate. Flawed though it may have ultimately been,
it's hard not to feel like this was the best team the Phils have had or
will have in this era, and to not even get past the DS with them...well,
it's not exactly encouraging for future incarnations, which may end up
being significantly more flawed. Though then again, considering that the
team has increased their win total each of the last four seasons, but
done worse in the post-season each time, maybe the correlation between
regular season success and post-season success isn't all that pronounced
after all—perhaps if we only win 90 games next year, we'll have better
chances again.

And really, that's the frustrating thing with this sport, isn't it?
You grind for 162 games, and then everything resets to best of fives and
sevens. Only twice since the year 2000 has the team with the best
overall record ended up winning the World Series. When you really got
down to it, the Phillies' chances of winning it all were only marginally
better than those of the Cardinals, or the Rays, Diamondbacks, Yankees
or any other team in the post-season. But because of the pre-season
hype, and the fact that the Phils' regular season actually lived up to
it, they were dubbed prohibitive post-season favorites in a sport where
such a concept barely even exists, and certainly didn't apply here. You
can't fault them for that.

One thing some might say you can fault them for, though, is allowing
the Cards to edge their way into the playoff picture at all, when by
merely dropping a game or two to the Braves at the end of the season,
they could have assured themselves a more favorable first-round matchup
against the Diamondbacks. And that, I really don't want to hear at all.
Maybe the D'backs would have been easier—though since they pushed the
Brewers to extra innings in a game five, you can't exactly expect that
they'd have been pushovers—but in my opinion, faulting a team for trying
to win ballgames is never OK. Besides, losing to a team whose back-door
playoff access you enabled is embarrassing, sure, but if they'd let the
Braves creep in and then lost to them down the line, that would be
downright shameful. Of all the things the Phils may end up kicking
themselves for over the course of the off-season, I sincerely hope that
eliminating the Braves from playoff contention is not one of them.

And personally, I hope the Phils rest easy this winter in general.
This is disappointing end to the season—crushingly so, some would
justifiably argue—but it was a hell of a season just the same. The
arrival of Hunter Pence. The emergence of John Mayberry Jr. The career
year for Shane Victorino. The ROY campaign from Vance Worley. The inning
of scoreless relief from Wilson Valdez. The 30 innings of scoreless
pitching in a row from Cliff Lee—twice! And the winning. My god, the
winning. I loved it. I never wanted it to stop. At times it seemed like
it never would stop. Even after nine shutout innings from Chris
Carpenter stopped the winning for good tonight, the memories still make
me smile.

There's a lot of questions to be asked in the off-season, and a lot
of hard decisions that are going to have to be made—starting, of course,
with what to do about Ryan Madson, Roy Oswalt and Jimmy Rollins, all of
whom conceivably could have just played their last game in a Phillies
uniform. Tonight, though, let's just try to be glad that that game five
is done with. The outcome certainly wasn't what we wanted, and a lot of
us won't be able to even think about baseball again for weeks or months,
but part of me is definitely elated that I don't have to feel that
dread anymore. I'll miss it soon enough, but at least I'm safe from
walking into traffic to avoid having to watch baseball games for the
time being.

Eagles' QB-rich support system for Carson Wentz paying dividends

Eagles' QB-rich support system for Carson Wentz paying dividends

In the wake of the Sam Bradford trade, the Eagles' announcement a week before the opener that Carson Wentz would start Week 1 was met with some skepticism and overwhelmingly tempered expectations.

But it looks like the kid can play.

And the Eagles aren’t just looking smart for drafting and playing Wentz. They’re also looking pretty smart for filling their coaching staff and quarterback room with decades of quarterback experience.

“It's a tight room,” head coach Doug Pederson said.

It’s also a knowledgeable one.

Pederson is a former NFL quarterback and NFL quarterbacks coach. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich is a former NFL quarterback and NFL quarterbacks coach. Quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo is a former college quarterback and NFL quarterbacks coach. And backup Chase Daniel has been in the league since 2009 and in Pederson’s offense since 2013.

If Wentz has a question, he has plenty of guys to ask. And it seems like this support system, which at one time looked like overkill, might be one of the keys that has allowed the rookie to take the NFL by storm.

“There’s no doubt. There’s no doubt,” the veteran backup Daniel said. “Obviously, he’s a very bright young mind, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the coaching in the quarterback room has played a good part into his maturation and his bringing along so fast. There’s no doubt about it.”

Through three games, Wentz has completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 769 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions. He's the first rookie in NFL history to put up those numbers in the first three games of a career. Oh yeah, and the Eagles are 3-0.

It’s hard to believe that about a month ago, Wentz was gearing up for a redshirt year as the third quarterback behind Sam Bradford and Daniel. Now, he isn’t just the future franchise quarterback. He is the franchise quarterback.

And Wentz gives his quarterback-heavy coaching staff plenty of credit.

“It’s huge having them,” Wentz said. “I could never say enough how much they understand the game. They get it. They know what it’s like. As a former quarterback, they know what I’m going through and how I’m seeing things, so it’s been huge.”

The Eagles were clearly smitten with Wentz from the time they saw him in Alabama for the Senior Bowl. Eventually, de facto GM Howie Roseman was able to maneuver to the No. 2 pick to draft Wentz.

But Wentz went No. 2 and not No. 1, so it’s almost impossible to not peek over at Los Angeles and see how first overall pick Jared Goff is doing. So far, he isn’t doing much of anything. It doesn’t mean that eventually Goff won’t be a good quarterback, but through three games, he’s been inactive once and hasn’t yet played. The Rams are sticking with Case Keenum for now.

NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling compared the support system for Goff with the Rams and Wentz's with the Eagles. We’ll take a deeper look into what he started:

Rams
• Head coach Jeff Fisher: Defensive coach

• OC Rob Boras: Never a QB coach; coached tight ends in NFL from 2004-15

• QB Coach Chris Weinke: Former NFL QB for seven seasons; was highly-thought of QB draft guru with IMG academy for four years

• Vet QB Case Keenum: In league since 2012; best QB he's played with is Matt Schaub

Eagles
• Head coach Doug Pederson: 12 years as NFL QB; QB coach in Philly; OC in KC

• OC Frank Reich: 14 years as NFL QB; QB coach in Indy with Peyton Manning in 2009-10; QB coach and OC in San Diego

• QB Coach: John DeFilippo: College QB; QBs coach at Fordham, Columbia; QBs coach with Raiders, Jets, OC with Browns

• Vet QB Chase Daniel: In league since 2009; learned under Drew Brees; has been in Pederson's offense since 2013

It’s very possible if Wentz becomes a great quarterback that other teams copy the Eagles’ quarterback-heavy approach.

But it’s not just about getting a bunch of smart people and a talented rookie in the same room. Everything else has to work. The rookie has to be a diligent learner and all of the teachers have to check their egos and work together.

“I let John (DeFilippo), I let the quarterback coach run the meeting,” Pederson said. “If I interject, I interject. The way it works is I send my message through Frank (Reich), Frank through the position coaches. At the same time, if I want to interject something, I will interject. Just making sure there's one voice in the meeting room and they are not hearing three different answers from three different people, the message is the same.”

Practice squad quarterback Aaron Murray, who joined the team a couple weeks ago, thinks the quarterback room has “definitely” helped Wentz achieve his early success. While he is just a practice-squader, go ahead and add Murray — who was in the offense for two years in Kansas City — to the list of quarterback minds happy to help Wentz.

Murray, a fifth-rounder out of Georgia in 2014, has been impressed with Wentz’s ability to pick up protections and schemes at a young age. He compared him to Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in that regard. While Murray, along with everyone else, is happy to give Wentz tips, he tries to not overload him.

“You still want him to just go out there and play,” he said.

Murray is the newcomer to the room, but he’s been impressed with the dynamic so far. He’s not the only one. It looks like this quarterback experiment might just work.

“It’s awesome. It’s great,” Daniel said. “Everyone has a say in there and everyone in the room, it’s pretty crazy, everyone in the room, really except Carson, has been around it, has been in it and played. Obviously, he’s played, but been around for a while. He’s just a sponge, he’s just taking it all in.

“Maybe some stuff he doesn’t need to take in. Maybe some stuff he wants to do his own way, which is great. You want your own personality out there. But yeah, he’s been great. It’s been great for us too as players. We have almost a 2-to-1 coach-to-player ratio. It’s been great. Everyone has little tidbits here and there and we roll.”

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Pete Mackanin unloads on Phillies' bullpen after latest collapse

Pete Mackanin unloads on Phillies' bullpen after latest collapse

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — The Phillies’ bullpen continued its ugly, late-season collapse on Tuesday night. It was tagged for six runs in a 7-6 loss to the Atlanta Braves. The Braves rallied for the tying and go-ahead runs in the bottom of the eighth inning (see Instant Replay).
 
The loss came two days after the bullpen gave up 14 earned runs in four innings in a 17-0 loss to the New York Mets on Sunday and it left manager Pete Mackanin more than a little bit frustrated.
 
“The bullpen has just not been doing the job,” Mackanin said.
 
Jerad Eickhoff gave up just one run (on a solo homer by Freddie Freeman) over four walk-free innings to open the game. He was up 6-1 after four innings when the rains came and stopped the game for an hour and 53 minutes.
 
With Eickhoff bounced by the weather, Mackanin had to go to his bullpen. He used four relievers — Severino Gonzalez, Luis Garcia, Joely Rodriguez and David Hernandez — and all gave up runs.
 
Phillies relievers have pitched 77 1/3 innings this month and allowed 69 earned runs for an ERA of 8.03. So that’s one more thing Matt Klentak has to fix this winter, along with the offense that Mackanin wants to see addressed (see story).
 
Ultimately, Hernandez took the loss when he gave up three hits and a run in the bottom of the eighth. The other run in the inning was charged to Rodriguez.
 
As unbelievable as it may sound with rosters being expanded in September, the Phillies played this game shorthanded.
 
They did not have reliever Edubray Ramos. He had a sore elbow, Mackanin said.
 
They did not have outfielder Peter Bourjos, who had gone home to be with his wife for the birth of their child.
 
They also did not have outfielder Tyler Goeddel, who is out with a concussion.
 
Not having Bourjos or Goeddel forced Mackanin to use Darin Ruf in left field after Roman Quinn went out with an oblique injury in the sixth inning. Ruf failed to make a catch on a long fly ball by Tyler Flowers to the gap in left-center. The non-play extended the eighth inning and fueled the Braves’ comeback.
 
“It should have been caught,” Mackanin said. “If Quinn's out there, he catches it. He wasn't out there.”
 
Hernandez was the only free agent that the Phillies signed to a major-league contract this winter. The Phillies signed him with an eye toward using him as the closer. But Hernandez struggled much of the season and slipped into the middle innings while Ramos, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez rose to high-leverage roles.
 
Gomez lost the closer’s job last week and Mackanin was saving Neris to close out this game. That meant Hernandez had to pitch the eighth. He couldn’t protect the lead. He gave up the game-tying hit to Mallex Smith and the go-ahead hit to Emilio Bonafacio.
 
“Neris was going to close for us,” Mackanin said. “I thought about using him with two outs in the eighth. But, at some point, somebody else has to do a (bleeping) job. Somebody else has to (bleeping) step up. In two games now, every reliever I brought in has given up a (bleeping) run. That's unheard of.”
 
The bullpen’s unraveling threw cold (rain) water on Eickhoff’s solid start and Ryan Howard’s big night. Howard belted his 24th homer, a grand slam in the first inning, to highlight a 14-hit attack and help the Phils jump to a 6-0 lead.
 
“Eickhoff looked like he was having one of his best games and then the rain came. So that was our first disappointment,” Mackanin said. "Other than that, Howie swung the bat great. Hit that grand slam. We got 14 hits, but we stranded 12 runners. We have to keep adding on.”
 
Quinn had three of the Phillies’ 14 hits then added to his collection of injuries with the oblique strain that bounced him from the game in the sixth. He hurt himself taking a swing.
 
Oblique injuries generally keep a player sidelined for at least three weeks, so Quinn’s season is likely over. He missed six weeks with a similar injury at Double A Reading this summer. The 23-year-old outfielder came up from the minors on Sept. 11 and has been auditioning for a spot on next season’s opening day roster.
 
“It looks like it,” Mackanin said when asked if Quinn was done for what remains of the season.
 
Injuries have been a consistent hurdle for Quinn ever since he was selected in the second round of the 2011 draft. He has missed significant time with a ruptured Achilles tendon, a wrist injury that required surgery, a torn quad muscle and an oblique strain. Now he has another one.
 
“It’s the same one I hurt before,” Quinn said. “It’s frustrating.”
 
Right now, just about everything is frustrating with this team. Good thing there are only five games left.

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