The Phillies came into the series as one of the hottest teams in MLB, winning 15 of their previous 19 games and playing themselves into contention for the second wild-card playoff spot in the NL. It was an amazing turnaround for a team that held last place in the NL East in early August.
The Astros welcomed the Phillies to Minute Maid Park having lost six of their past 11 games. That doesn't sound so bad, but draw the schedule out a bit further and you see a team that went 5-10 in its past 15 games and 6-15 in its last 21.
But that information probably wasn't necessary to remind you that the Astros are the worst team in MLB. As of Sept. 13, Houston had a 46-98 record that put it 41 games behind the Cincinnati Reds in the NL Central. The Astros were 10 games behind the next-worst team, the Chicago Cubs. They will very likely surpass last year's 106-loss season.
Facing that matchup, the Phillies were sure to take at least three of four from the Astros, right? Maybe a four-game sweep was possible, given how well Philadelphia had been playing. At the very least, the two teams would split, which is how a four-game series often plays out.
Instead, it was the Phillies who lost three out of four games to the Astros, screeching their momentum to a halt.
This was a bucket of ice-cold water over their heads. You could probably use at least five more metaphors to explain how bad this was for the Phillies, employing elements such as fire, explosions, implosions and potholes—don't let me limit your creativity here.
It could be argued that the Phillies didn't lose any ground. Before the series with Houston, Philadelphia was four games out in the wild-card race. After losing three of four, the Phillies are still four games behind with a record of 73-74 on Sept. 17.
However, there are now four fewer games on the schedule in which to make up that four-game deficit. The Phillies have only 15 games remaining in the regular season to cover those four games. Even worse for them, the Milwaukee Brewers have continued to play well and are now 1.5 games ahead of Philadelphia in the standings.
So, just how did things fall apart so badly for the Phillies against the worst team in baseball?
Hitters Didn't Hit
Ryan Howard batted 4-for-16 in the four games versus the Astros. (Though he did drive in six runs.) Chase Utley went 3-for-12 with three RBI. Carlos Ruiz hit 1-for-10.
Opponents don't often intentionally walk the No. 3 in the batting order to face the cleanup hitter. That's the big stick in the lineup, usually the most likely threat to crush the ball out of the park.
Yet on Sunday, as CSN Philly's Jim Salisbury noted, the Astros twice put Utley on base to face Howard. Houston manager Tony DeFrancesco saw how poorly Howard was swinging the bat and didn't see a risk.
As MLB.com's Todd Zolecki pointed out, the Phillies hit .161 with runners in scoring position during the past four games. Yet they still averaged 5.5 runs per game, which should be enough to win most of the time.
Where Was the Pitching?
Tyler Cloyd allowed three runs in three innings in the series opener. Cole Hamels gave up four runs (three earned) over seven innings in the second game.
Up next, Kyle Kendrick was touched up for four runs in five innings. Then in the series finale, Roy Halladay allowed three runs in six innings.
Two of those starts gave the Phillies a chance to win (and they won one of those games), but how about their bullpen?
Phillippe Aumont allowed four runs in his two outings, covering 0.2 of an inning. Overall, as Zolecki mentioned, Phillies relievers compiled a 5.25 ERA during the four games against the Astros. They allowed 10 runs, 12 hits and seven walks in 12 innings of work, blowing two leads in the process.
Did the Phillies just not take the Astros seriously, looking at the worst team in the majors and think a series win was assured? Perhaps they were looking ahead to a presumably more rugged series with the New York Mets and a three-game set with the Atlanta Braves after that.
But maybe the Astros were just a bad matchup.
As the Houston Chronicle's Zachary Levine writes, the roster is versatile with several players that can play different positions and pinch-hit constantly to get the best left-right matchup late in the game. Halladay said to Salisbury that Phillies pitchers could never figure out what Astros hitters were trying to do. Going to the plate without a plan, if that was the case, seems to have helped.
The Phillies have put themselves in a tough position from this point on. They basically have to win every series remaining on the schedule. With the Mets, Braves and Nationals looming ahead, that won't be an easy task. Their playoff chances may be finished.
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