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.

Another struggling pitcher gets well against the Phillies' feeble hitters

Another struggling pitcher gets well against the Phillies' feeble hitters

BOX SCORE

MIAMI -- For struggling pitchers, facing the Phillies has become like a pilgrimage to Lourdes.
 
Another rival pitcher searching for a cure got it Monday night when the Phillies suffered their 23rd loss in the last 29 games. This time it was Miami Marlins right-hander Edinson Volquez. He pitched six shutout innings and allowed just three hits in leading his club to a 4-1 win over the Phillies, who fell to 6-20 in May (see Instant Replay).

Volquez had gone 16 starts between wins.
 
"Every loss stings, I don’t care who's pitching," manager Pete Mackanin said. "We're just in a rut. We've got to battle our way out of it. We have to show up tomorrow and get after it. We've got to get more than three or four hits in the game."
 
The Phillies had just four hits in the game. It was the fifth time in the last nine games that they've had four or fewer hits. Only one of the hits was for extra bases and one of the singles was an infield hit.
 
"Once again, we need more offense," Mackanin said.
 
Phillies starter Jeremy Hellickson completed a difficult month of May by allowing six hits, including a two-run homer, and four runs over six innings.
 
Hellickson surrendered a two-run homer to Derek Dietrich with two outs in the sixth and that was basically the ball game. Dietrich hit a high changeup. Back in April, that pitch would have been at the knees. But Hellickson has misplaced the pitch command that he needs to succeed.
 
Hellickson went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five starts in April. In May, however, he went 1-3 with a 7.04 ERA in six starts. He was tagged for 35 hits, including nine homers, in 30 2/3 innings.
 
"Command in general," said Hellickson, describing his problem this month. "The biggest thing is not getting strike one, falling behind too much. I'm not getting the quick easy outs I was getting early in the season. I'm trying to get ahead, just missing."
 
Volquez signed a two-year, $22 million deal with the Marlins over the winter, but it wasn't until this game that he delivered his first win. He entered the game 0-7 with a 4.82 ERA in nine starts.
 
The win was Volquez's first since Aug. 25, 2016, when he was a member of the Kansas City Royals.

Volquez isn't the first struggling pitcher to shine against the Phils recently. Eight days earlier, Pittsburgh's Chad Kuhl took a 6.69 ERA into a start against the Phils and pitched five shutout innings. In the series against Colorado, the Phillies were dominated by a pair of rookies. In the only game they won (in a late rally), they were held to one run over six innings by Tyler Anderson, who had entered that game with an ERA of 6.00. On Friday night, Cincinnati Reds right-hander Tim Adleman pitched eight shutout innings against the Phils and gave up just one hit in the best start of his life. He had come into that game with an ERA of 6.19.
 
So Volquez had to be heartened when he saw the Phillies on the schedule.
 
They are the get-well team for pitchers in need of a pick-me-up.
 
It's actually kind of sad.
 
With Odubel Herrera locked in the throes of the worst slump of his life and on the bench and Maikel Franco mired in a 2 for 21 slump and hitting .209, Mackanin is trying to push things a little. He gave Aaron Altherr the green light to steal with one out and runners on the corners in a one-run game in the sixth inning. Altherr was out at second on a close play and Tommy Joseph struck out to leave the runner at third.
 
The Marlins salted the game away in the bottom of the inning on Dietrich's homer.
 
"With our offense, I have to take chances," Mackanin said. "I can't sit around and wait for three hits in a row. We haven't been doing that."
 
The Phils have the worst record in the majors at 17-32.
 
They have lost eight of their last 10 and scored just 15 runs in the losses.
 
"It sucks," catcher Cameron Rupp said. "There's really no other way to put it. It's frustrating. But the only people that are going to help us are ourselves. Nobody's going to go out there and play for us, swing the bats, pitch, play defense. That's on us and we have to do a better job all around.
 
"We all want to be successful and get the job done. We just haven't been hitting the ball. There's no other way to put it. But the good thing about baseball is we play every day so we turn the page and come back tomorrow and try to get it done."

Stanley Cup Final: Penguins come alive late in third to steal Game 1 vs. Predators

Stanley Cup Final: Penguins come alive late in third to steal Game 1 vs. Predators

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins rarely tested the hottest goaltender in the playoffs in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against Nashville.

They beat Pekka Rinne anyway.

Rookie Jake Guentzel fired the puck past Rinne with 3:17 left in regulation to put the Penguins ahead to stay in a back-and-forth 5-3 victory on Monday night.

Guentzel snapped an eight-game goalless drought to help the defending champions escape after blowing a three-goal lead.

Nick Bonino scored twice for the Penguins. Conor Sheary scored his first of the playoffs and Evgeni Malkin scored his eighth. The Penguins won despite putting just 12 shots on goal. Matt Murray finished with 23 saves for the Penguins, who used the first coach's challenge in Final history to wipe out an early Nashville goal and held on despite going an astonishing 37 minutes at one point without a shot.

"I think at the end of the day we're up 1-0," Bonino said. "We had a good first, we had a terrible second and we were terrible in the third. I don't think it's Xs and Os. We've got to work harder, compete a little harder, but we got some timely goals."

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Predators. Rinne stopped just seven shots.

The Penguins had all of three days to get ready for the final following a draining slog through the Eastern Conference that included a pair of Game 7 victories, the second a double-overtime thriller against Ottawa last Thursday.

Pittsburgh downplayed the notion it was fatigued, figuring adrenaline and a shot at making history would make up for any lack of jump while playing their 108th game in the last calendar year.

Maybe, but the Penguins looked a step behind at the outset. The Predators, who crashed the NHL's biggest stage for the first time behind Rinne and a group of talented defenseman, were hardly intimidated by the stakes, the crowd or the defending champions, trying to become the first repeat winner since Detroit in 1998.

All the guys from "Smashville" have to show for it is their first deficit of the playoffs on a night a fan threw a catfish onto the ice to try and give the Predators a taste of home.

The Penguins, who led the league in scoring, stressed before Game 1 that the best way to keep the Predators at bay was by taking the puck and spending copious amounts of time around Rinne. It didn't happen, mostly because Nashville's forecheck pinned the Penguins in their own end. Clearing attempts were knocked down or outright swiped, tilting the ice heavily in front of Murray.

Yet Pittsburgh managed to build a quick 3-0 lead anyway thanks to a fortunate bounce and some quick thinking by Penguins video coordinator Andy Saucier. Part of his job title is to alert coach Mike Sullivan when to challenge a call. The moment came 12:47 into the first when P.K. Subban sent a slap shot by Murray that appeared to give the Predators the lead.

Sullivan used his coach's challenge, arguing Nashville forward Filip Forsberg was offside. A lengthy review indicated Forsberg's right skate was in the air as he brought the puck into a zone, a no-no.

"The impact of that moment and then the chain of events that happened after that with the penalty kills I think changed the course of the game," Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said.

The decision gave the Penguins all the wiggle room they needed to take charge. Malkin scored on a 5-on-3 15:32 into the first, Sheary made it 2-0 just 65 seconds later and when Bonino's innocent centering pass smacked off Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm's left knee and by Rinne just 17 seconds before the end of the period, Pittsburgh was in full command.

It looked like a repeat of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa when the Penguins poured in four goals in the first period of a 7-0 rout.

Nashville, unlike the Senators, didn't bail. Instead, they rallied and took over the game.

Ellis scored the first goal by a Predator in a Stanley Cup Final 8:21 into the second and Nashville kept Rinne downright bored at the other end. Pittsburgh didn't manage a shot on net in the second period, the first time it's happened in a playoff game in franchise history -- and the first such period by any team in a Final game since the NHL began tracking shots on goal in 1958.

Nashville kept coming. Sissons beat Murray 10:06 into the third and Gaudreau tied it just after a fruitless Pittsburgh power play.

No matter. The Penguins have become chameleons under Sullivan. They can win with both firepower and precision.

Guentzel slipped one by Rinne with 3:17 to go in regulation and Bonino added an empty netter to give Pittsburgh early control of the series.

"We didn't do a great job of (shooting), but we made them count," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "But it was a good finish there to get that one from Jake."