It's very tough to defend a World Championship.
Or so I've been told.
How would I know?
I've never seen a Philly team win anything significant in my life. The closest the Phillies had ever come during my life was a divisional title and an early playoff exit in 2007. And the closest the Eagles have ever come was within three points of a Super Bowl title.
So last year was a surprise. And a delight.
A World Championship brings high expectations for the team in its next season. The fans know just what the team can do, the players know what they themselves are capable of, and the rest of the league knows who is the team to beat.
The 2009 season for the Phillies—at least, so far—has been rocky at times.
The team's inconsistent starting pitching and inability to win both at home and in interleague play led to 11 losses out of the previous 13 games, dropping the Phillies into just a tie for the lead in the National League East.
Before a 10-0 win today behind a stunning pitching performance by J.A. Happ and an offensive outburst from outfielder Jayson Werth, the Phillies had looked nothing like the team that easily knocked off the American League Champions Tampa Bay Rays in last year's Fall Classic.
Perhaps the biggest difference between this year's team and last year's team has been the starting pitching.
Notably the decline in starting pitching.
Cole Hamels hasn't been the Cole Hamels of the 2008 playoffs, who captured both the NLCS and World Series MVP awards last season with four consecutive stellar pitching performances against the top teams in the major leagues.
He started off poorly, yielding seven runs in his first start of the season. He has had trouble with his pitch location and currently sports just a 4.44 ERA, well over a full run higher than the 3.09 mark he put up in the 2008 regular season.
There have been glimpses of the dominating Hamels in 2008—notably the five-hit, no-walk shutout he tossed against the NL-best Dodgers on June 4—and hopefully once he starts to find his groove, he will return to his form of last year.
The team has gotten inconsistent play from its other starters as well. Myers and Blanton both currently rank in the top five in the NL in home runs allowed (17 each) this season, and Moyer ranks seventh (16) in the league.
Chan Ho Park lost his role as the fifth starter after compiling a horrific 7.29 ERA and .311 opponents' batting average in his seven starts this season, handing the duties over to Triple-A call-up Antonio Bastardo.
Bastardo pitched admirably in his first two starts, winning both decisions, while compiling a 2.45 ERA in 13 innings pitched. From there, he was hit hard, losing his next three starts, while seeing his ERA rise to a whopping 6.75.
Perhaps the one bright spot for the rotation has been the emergence of J.A. Happ, a young left hander who is 5-0 with a 3.00 ERA for the Phillies this season. Happ was a relief pitcher for the team early in the year, but has pitched a quality start in four of his seven starts this season.
Another notable difference between this year's team and last year's team has been Brad Lidge.
It's difficult to match perfection.
And last year, Lidge was perfect.
In his first season in a Philly uniform, he was 41-for-41 in saves throughout the regular season, plus 7-for-7 in saves in the postseason. In all, he completed a historic season for not just Lidge, but the Phillies, who captured their first World Championship in 28 seasons.
No one expected Lidge to duplicate his stats from last year, but we hoped for numbers better than a 7.86 ERA, a major league-high six blown saves, and nearly two base-runners per inning.
It was probably for the best that he took some time off during his 15 days on the Disabled List, and expectations were high that he would return to top form.
However, he gave up two runs in one-third of an inning in the team's 6-1 loss, allowing four of the five hitters he faced to successfully reach base.
Thus far, the Phillies have a 4.88 team ERA and .276 opponents' batting average—both dead-last in the National League, other than the Triple-A Nationals.
It's the offense that has carried the team to a first place spot in the division. The Phillies are first in the National League in home runs (101) and stolen base percentage (80.6), second in team OPS (.780), and third in runs scored (372).
MVP candidate Raul Ibanez was a threat to win the Triple Crown before an injury sidelined him. He currently rests at .312-22-59, numbers that rank 16th, third, and third in the league.
Ryan Howard is fourth in the NL in home runs (20) and fifth in RBI (58). But, a .332 on-base percentage from a no-run, no-field power-hitting first basemen in a hitters' ballpark doesn't quite cut it for me.
Chase Utley is arguably the game's best all-around player—a legit five-tool superstar who has a chance in any given season to win an MVP award. He hits for power and average, works the count (his .430 on-base percentage is third-best in the NL), plays the field well, hustles, and knows what it takes to help his team win.
The team's biggest disappointment has been three-time All-Star Jimmy Rollins, the National League MVP just two seasons ago, who is enduring by far the worst season of his nine-year major league career.
Rollins has been in a season-long slump and his .211 batting average ranks dead-last among qualifying NL shortstops, and the fourth worst mark among the 166 players in the major leagues who qualify for the batting title thus far in the season.
His current 0-for-19 skid earned him a rare seat on the bench for three straight games.
Rollins is a second-half player, with a career batting average 23 points higher after the All-Star break than before (.287 to .264), and hopefully this year proves to be no exception.
For the Phillies to hold off the Mets, Braves, or Marlins in a tight NL East race, the team is going to need J-Roll at the top of his game and quality performances from both the starting pitchers and All-Star closer Brad Lidge.