The Philadelphia Phillies are by no means out of the playoff picture but for the team that waited until the second half of the season to really heat up, time is certainly not on their side.
Sure the team may finally be on the winning side of things posting 40 wins in 68 games during the second half of the season. Sure the bullpen has found some semblance as of late. Sure the offense has begun to click beyond just the stellar performances all season from Carlos Ruiz and Juan Pierre.
It looks like the 2012 Phillies season will come down to a simple saying: too little, too late.
With the exception of the Houston Astros debacle earlier in the month of September and the recent series loss to the Atlanta Braves, everything really was working for the Phillies in the second half of the season. Pitching, hitting, defense all came together in a winning formula that assured the Phils at least a shot to fight for a wildcard spot.
With just nine games remaining and the Phillies currently sitting back five behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the final wildcard spot, anything short of a miracle will have this team missing October baseball for the first time since 2006.
Their fight will likely come up short as this season didn't particularly go as planned.
That is the question that fans have been puzzled with, scratching their heads, agonizing over all season.
Why was the bullpen completely deplorable?
Why did Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence have to get traded?
Why did the Phillies sign Chad Qualls?
Why did the team take a chance on Laynce Nix and Ty Wigginton?
Why did Chase Utley have to get injured?
Why did Freddy Galvis use steroids?
Why was the team forced to sell at the trade deadline?
Why did the sellout streak end?
Why did it take the Phillies so long to finally start putting together wins?
That is really the question that will stick with most fans, people in the media and personnel in the front office. How and why did the team fail so badly so early in the season? Just four short seasons ago, the Phillies were raising the second World Series trophy ever won in franchise history. This year they likely won't even make the playoffs.
There is no doubt that everyone is questioning the whys and hows of how the Phillies went from postseason giants to once again National League East doormats. In a way, there is no real answer to this while at the same time, there are possible explanations.
Bitten by the Injury Bug
I'm probably not the only Phillies fan that found it slightly amusing when the NY Mets went through a time a few seasons ago that saw nearly all of their regular starters spend time on the DL. The media even got in on this frenzy as everyone watched the NY Mets be replaced by their Double-A affiliate, the Binghamton Mets.
While the Phillies didn't endure such a harsh injury riddle season, the team did see their two most important contributors miss nearly the entire first half of the season and their star pitcher suffer a shoulder injury that left him but a shell of himself for most of the year.
Losing Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay dealt the Phillies a pretty big blow. Not only did they lose a significant source of power and all-star pitching from their line-up, but they were also forced to attempt to replace these players. For the most part, the replacement efforts didn't pan out as hoped.
Enter Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix, Michael Martinez and Jim Thome.
These four guys were brought in, or re-signed in the case of Martinez, with hopes that they could account for some of the missing power and pop Howard and Utley provided.
Wigginton never really panned out. He provided a nice ability to be a utility player, but his numbers didn't exactly fill the need the Phils were hoping for at first. Laynce Nix and John Mayberry also spent time at first base, but Nix too was on the DL and Mayberry didn't start to heat up until the second half of the season.
Martinez missed time on the DL and really didn't do much for the Phils on offense hitting just .172 with seven RBI in 99 at-bats.
And then there was Thome. At first, he provided a nice story—former Phil, one of the original big names to sign with this team reunites with his first manager back in Philly. It was nice and I don't think there was anyone out there that didn't want Thome to succeed. The problem was it was the National League and at 42 years old, Thome can't play the field anymore.
Give the team and Thome credit because they tried the experiment. It failed, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise and I don't think I'd be going out on a limb to say the back injuries Thome suffered from trying the field again may have put a soon-to-be expired expiration date on his career.
Essentially, the Phillies offense struggled in the first half of the season. They were missing two of their best run producers and the various different line-ups they put in place to replace the missing production never worked out. For this reason, the first half of the season really was lost in mediocrity and bad decision making on the part of Ruben Amaro and Charlie Manuel.
Finding the Missing Spark
With Howard and Utley gone, the team really was missing a huge part of why it's been successful over the years. Besides that though, they were missing spark, energy and a sense of urgency.
In the past, each game used to matter for this team but this season, the year just didn't seem to have that same feeling to it. Shane Victorino struggled mightily early on, and he and Jimmy Rollins really seemed to miss that swagger they possessed back in 2008.
Those two weren't the only ones that seemed down on their luck. The entire team just didn't appear to realize what they were playing for. It was as if they expected to win the division again and to do so with relative ease. They underestimated the Washington Nationals for sure and overestimated what they could do without Howard and Utley.
The passion wasn't there, the desire to win wasn't there. In a way, I think it hurt this team that so many of their players were left over from the 2008 team. Having already won one, the drive to get the ring wasn't as present as it was in the past.
Now when Howard and Utley came back, a little bit of the spark and style of Phillies baseball fans became accustomed to returned. After all, Utley hit a HR in his first at-bat back and even though the Phils lost this game, it seemed to energize the fans and the players.
The rest of the energy came back in force when the Phillies rid themselves of dead weight. After the Pence/Victorino trades, Rollins began to heat up and eventually Howard began to get some of his power numbers back.
On top of this, new players had come in including Kevin Frandsen, Erik Kratz, Domonic Brown, Steven Lerud, Philippe Aumont and Nate Schierholtz. Bringing youth and enthusiasm to the Phillies, these players appeared to energize the rest of the squad. They brought a new feeling of hope to this team similar to the way Utley, Howard, Rollins, Victorino and Cole Hamels did in 2008.
The Pitching Got Better
Probably the simplest explanation as to why the Phils got hot in the second half of the season is the fact that their pitching drastically improved.
When the season began, the Phils boasted three pitchers that finished in the top five of the 2011 NL Cy Young voting. After about the first month however, only one of these three was able to remain worthy to be in the Cy Young conservation in 2012.
Cole Hamels led the team when Halladay went down with an injury and when Cliff Lee struggled to get run support and wins. He blazed out to a strong start and never really had a period of prolonged struggle during the season.
Even though Hamels and closer Jonathan Papelbon were good all season, they were really the only two pitchers that could say that.
What was the biggest factor in the Phillies slow start?
When the second half began however, some of this started to change.
Even though Halladay continued to struggle with his mysterious and only recently revealed shoulder injury, Lee began to pitch better. He lowered his ERA and brought his win total from two to six. It still isn't what you expect from a former Cy Young winner but it was an improvement.
The bullpen got some help when September call-ups promoted Philippe Aumont and Justin DeFratus to the team. Both have pitched well in their roles and the bullpen as a whole, even though it still isn't perfectly, certainly improved in the second half of the season.
The most notable improvement however came in Kyle Kendrick.
At times this season, Phillies fans and media were clamoring for the trade of Kendrick. It wasn't unwarranted though. Kendrick once again was struggling.
Having bounced from bullpen to spot starter to full time starter, Kendrick was unable to handle the pressure and the uncertainty of his situation. He didn't get his first win until a masterful seven hit shutout at the end of the May. He limped his way to the All Star break with a record of 4-8.
After two bad back-to-back starts to begin the month of August, Manuel sat down with Kendrick to hammer out his struggles in the season. He assured him the starting job was his and with the help of pitching coach Rich Dubee, stressed confidence.
It clicked for Kendrick because in the second half of the season and while the Phillies were on this improbable playoff run, the young righty was their best pitcher. He won four in a row in August and is currently 2-2 in September. He has gotten his record to 10-11 and has lowered his ERA to 3.89.
The Final Verdict
While there really is no concrete way to explain just how the Phillies were so slow in April, May and June, the above explanations provide part of the picture that summed up the Phillies season. Although they put forth the effort late in the season, their bad start will probably end up costing them that shot at the playoffs.