A Phillies Cardinals 2011 NLDS History – What Could Have Been?

Today is Saturday, October 8, 2011. It’s one day after the Phillies were upset in the NLDS by St. Louis, in a decisive Game 5 on Friday night. With both teams having their aces on full rest, Chris Carpenter outdueled his good friend Roy Halladay, 1-0, in what was (except for the unhappy outcome) a marvelous game. It was what October baseball is all about…

I wanted to express my thoughts on this upset in the immediate aftermath, while it was still fresh in my mind. And so, here they are…

It feels like you’re at the movies and the equipment malfunctions, halting the movie.

We had all planned – if not for a second World Series title in four seasons – at least for a deep playoff run. We had circled dates of NLDS, NLCS, and World Series games into our planners. We expected to eat, breathe, sleep Phillies baseball, well into October. And suddenly – after just five games – it’s all over. It’s like you got to the theatre, had your popcorn ready for your three-hour epic movie, and after 30 minutes, the movie ends, the lights go on, and you’re told to just go home.

It feels like the chance of a lifetime has just slipped by.

As a lifetime fan of MLB, I know how rare these opportunities are. Granted, as a Phillies fan during this Golden Age, I fully acknowledge that I am - in no way - deprived! My team has won five straight division titles, two pennants, and a World Series in the last five years.

And I’m not a bandwagon fan, either; I suffered through the 14-year drought from 1993 to 2007, when despite the expanded playoffs, we did not qualify a single time. I saw plenty of dreadful late ‘90s teams in the Vet, all the near-misses in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006.

Did all of those 21st-century near-misses hurt?

Sure.

But they were not viewed as certain; it would be great to make the playoffs, but if we didn’t make it – well, there’s always next year.

Did being swept in the NLDS by Colorado in 2007 hurt?

Sure.

But that year was just such a blessing from the baseball gods, that the postseason itself was anticlimactic. The historic collapse of the Mets down the stretch, and the incredible sight of Jamie Moyer pitching the team to its first division title in 14 years was plenty for me. Listening to the late, great Harry Kalas sing “High Hopes” afterward… those were great memories. So the Colorado losses didn’t hurt too much.

Did losing to the Evil Empire - the New York Yankees - in the 2009 World Series hurt?

Sure.

Did I want to see my favorite team lose to my least favorite team?

No.

But nobody looks back at that year and sees failure. We won the pennant for the second straight year, and we put up a hell of a fight against the Yankees, thanks to Cliff Lee’s heroics. Losing to them in six games wasn’t so bad.

Did losing to the Giants in the 2010 NLCS hurt?

Yeah, that one did sting – probably the most, up until this one. We were better than them, but at least it wasn’t the first round. And the fact that the Giants went on to win the whole thing made the loss somewhat bearable.

Which brings us to this year…

“A Prelude to a Championship”

All year, with all of the superlatives, was expected to be – to borrow from the NCAA tournament – “A Prelude to a Championship”. This was arguably the greatest Phillies team to take the field, in the 128-year history of the franchise. Look at what we had going for us:

The best starting rotation in MLB – the Four Aces of Halladay, Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt

The best record in MLB

The franchise-record 102 wins

Manager Charlie Manual passing Gene Mauch to become the winningest manager in Phillies history, on the final day (the same day as the 102nd win, the regular-season finale)

Winning the last four to end the year, sweeping a desperate Atlanta team on the road. This also meant that we won the division by 13 games

The opportunity to open the first round at home, against St. Louis, a team that despite its 6-3 record against us, finished a dozen games behind us in the standings.

I fully recognize that I may never see another Phillies team, as good as the 2011 version. Our nucleus, although still in its prime, is starting to age. If there was ever a year to win it all, this was the year. Certainly, the probability of this team winning the World Series, was far higher than the probability of the 2008 team doing so.

It just would have been so much fun.

For those of you who are expatriate Philadelphians, I cannot begin to describe to you how the 2008 championship brought the region together. I have never seen it so euphoric. The entire experience was a grand ride, with the town painted red and everyone getting into the spirit of a genuine, regional celebration. And I really wanted to have a chance to live through another one.

This wouldn’t have been so bad, if we had – like last year – made it to the World Series, or even the NLCS.

Granted, nobody would have been happy, about a loss to Milwaukee. But to get knocked out in the first round, by a team 12 games worse than you… ugh.

And, under the other scenario, if we had won another NL pennant, but eventually lost to Detroit or Texas:

People would have been disappointed, of course. But it still would have been another NL pennant – only the team’s eighth pennant, ever. It would have been three NL pennants in four years (2008, 2009, 2011).

If we had gotten to the NLCS, at least, the exciting October thrill ride would have lasted another week; to the World Series, another two weeks. And even if it didn’t end with another parade down Broad Street – it still would have been fondly remembered for many years.

In short, this is the only Phillies team in my conscious lifetime, to enter the playoffs with the expectation of winning the World Series. And we not only didn’t win it, we didn’t even make it out of the NLDS.

So What Went Wrong?

Speaking as a journalist and historian, here is my conclusion.

The failure to defeat St. Louis in the NLDS, did not come primarily from the losses in Games 4 and 5, after taking a 2-1 lead after the incredible, heart-stopping victory in Game 3 behind Hamels.

Instead, the most important (not the only one, but the most important) reason why the Phillies did not top the Cardinals, was the inability of Lee to win Game 2 at home, after being staked to a 4-0 lead.

Important Emphasis: It Wasn’t Just Lee, Of Course… He's One of My Favorite Players, In Fact...

I should note that I certainly bear no animosity toward Lee; he’s one of my favorite players, in fact. His stellar season was a major reason why we won 102 games. He’s the central Phillies character of the lore of the 2009 pennant winners. He just didn’t get it done last Sunday night.

I also should not give the impression, that I believe that our vanquishing, was entirely Lee’s fault. After all, he only started one game out of five.

Another ace, Roy Oswalt – who was 5-0 as a starter in postseason play - pitched very poorly in Game 4, prolonging the series and forcing a Game 5.

What If Lee Had Won Game 2 on Sunday, October 2?

Here’s what historians call the “counterfactual” scenario – i.e., “What If?”:

We won Game 1 easily at home. Despite Halladay falling behind early, 3-0, we took an 11-3 lead into the ninth inning and won 11-6. The entire town started the countdown to the 11 victories that were needed to secure the title – one down, ten to go.

Game 2 was played on Sunday night, October 2. Lee was given the ball with a 3-0 lead, in the second inning, with the Phillies faithful at Citizens Bank Park behind him all the way. When he took the mound for the third inning, it was 4-0. If anything seemed like a sure thing, this game was it. Lee has one of the best postseason records in the history of MLB: he was the primary reason why we made it as far as we did in 2009. Lee – with a 4-0 lead, at home? How could this possibly go wrong?

I can’t resort to euphemisms, when it comes to Lee’s performance. By his rarefied standards, it was dreadful. He gave three of those runs right back, in the top of the fourth inning – giving the Cardinals hope, that they were still in it.

Nor could his outing be described as just a few mistakes. He pitched six full innings, plus part of the seventh, during which he recorded no outs. He allowed five earned runs, a dozen hits, and two walks. It would be mediocre by any pitcher; but for a pitcher of Lee’s caliber and postseason accomplishments, it was disastrous. St. Louis scored five unanswered runs, to win 5-4.

So let’s look at the counterfactual scenario… let’s say that Lee does what he would have normally done with a 4-0 lead at home, in the third inning. Namely, mow down the opposing hitters, like the grounds crew at Citizens Bank Park, and cruised to a 4-0 victory, with some help from the bullpen.

The Phillies would have been up 2-0, in a best-of-five series. We would have thrown our first two aces, and both would have won. St. Louis would now be faced with the daunting task of beating Hamels, Oswalt, and Halladay. Would it have been possible for them to do this? Yes. But would it have been likely? No.

More importantly, it would have projected an aura of invincibility. The vaunted Phillies’ aces would have obliterated their first two opponents. The 102 wins were just a warmup for the parade. Two wins down, nine to go. No problem. The Phillies’ confidence would have been sky-high; the Cardinals, at rock-bottom.

I believe that had Lee won that game, that Hamels would likely have finished the Cardinals off in Game 3 (as he and the bullpen did). I certainly don’t think that the Cardinals would have rallied and beaten us three straight.

The Phutility of the Phillies’ Offense

As for the position players - the Phillies’ offense vanished after the first two games. In fact, it could be said that it vanished after the first 11 innings! To illustrate:

The Phillies scored 15 runs in Games 1 and 2. They scored a grand total of six runs in Games 3, 4, and 5. In the decisive Game 5, Halladay - our best ace - pitched a masterpiece, and the offense managed just three hits for him. We got just one runner (Shane Victorino, who doubled) to second base, during the entire game!

Or look at it this way - we scored 11 in Game 1, and four in the first two innings in Game 2 – 15 runs in the first 11 innings, which was great! But the juxtaposition of those initial 11 innings, with the remaining 34 innings, is stunning. In the final 34 innings, we scored only six runs.

Although Ryan Howard is facing justified criticism after a poor NLDS, he was hardly alone. The powerful bats that helped win 102 games, fell silent after the first 11 innings.

St. Louis deserved to win this series. We were soundly outplayed. In addition to the three games the Cardinals won, they probably should have won Game 3, the coronary-inducing game. They lost that game, 3-2, despite leaving 14 runners on base. Basically, the only game in which we dominated play, was the first one.

In summary, this one’s going to hurt for a while. (There is the flimsy solace, naturally, that the Yankees were also eliminated.) This, of course, is part of the fun of sports; the euphoria when your team wins; the melancholia when your team loses. And given how we fans feel, we can only imagine what the players, staff, and the front office feel about the events of the past week…

The Legacy of the 2011 Phillies

But I would like this 2011 squad to be remembered, for the incredibly exciting regular season they provided us, with all of the aforementioned accomplishments. They shouldn’t be judged on their subpar performance in five games, after being the best team in baseball for 162 games. So my hat’s off to them. Thanks, Phillies, for a great season and some wonderful memories. We just wish the season could have lasted three weeks longer, and culminated with a parade down Broad Street.

We’ll see you in April 2012…

(But who knows? Maybe we’ll win it all next year; maybe we’ll win 103 games! )

Go Phillies!


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