A Phillies fan leafing through his Philadelphia Inquirer on May 23 would have seen his team sitting atop the NL East with a 26-16 record—the best in the NL. The Phillies had a fairly comfortable 3.5-game lead on the second-place Atlanta Braves, and that was only after the Tomahawks had amassed a five-game winning streak.
The Phillies were the all-but unanimous favorites to win the division, if not the pennant, for the third year in a row. Nothing had happened in the team's first 42 games to change that.
That afternoon, the Phillies were to play the Boston Red Sox, who found themselves in a very different situation.
The Red Sox had taken a seemingly endless amount of flack during the offseason for the loss of Jason Bay. Mainstream analysts blamed Boston's lineup for the team's early exit from the 2009 playoffs and pulled no punches when the Red Sox did not upgrade their offense (that they had instead exploited a glaring market inefficiency, the undervaluation of defense, made no headlines).
The doubters were given fuel for their fire when the Red Sox struggled out of the gate, dropping nine of their first 13 contests and falling six games behind the Rays in just two weeks.
On May 23 Boston sat in fourth place, behind not just the Rays and Yankees, but also the hapless Blue Jays. The Red Sox were 8.5 games out of first place; the last time they had fallen so far behind so early was 1997.
At 1:35 p.m. Phillies ace Roy Halladay (6-2, 1.64 ERA) was set to take the mound against the Red Sox's fifth starter Tim Wakefield (0-2, 5.31 ERA). If you had bet on Boston, you would have been called a stupid man.
But you would have come out of it a rich man.
Doc Halladay turned in his worst start of the season, giving up seven runs (six earned) on eight hits in 5.2 innings. He walked two Red Sox, striking out only one. Meanwhile, the volatile Wakefield shut out the Phillies, giving up just five hits in eight innings.
Things have changed drastically since that day.
The Phillies have gone 8-15 since their aforementioned hypothetical fan scanned his local sports page. They didn't just lose their first-place spot to the streaking Braves; they then were overtaken by the Mets. Philadelphia—the team to beat in the Senior Circuit less than a month ago—is now just a losing streak away from the NL East basement.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, have looked like a completely different team since that fateful day. They've gone 19-7 over the same time period, nearly matching their previous win total in 18 fewer games.
Just a few weeks after being left for dead, Boston has risen from the ashes and reemerged as one of the best teams in the game. At 40-28 the Red Sox are just two games behind the Rays and Yankees. They would be in first place in any other division.
That game didn't really change the course of the season—that's just not how professional baseball works. To put things in perspective, Halladay, the man who had the best excuse to be rattled, threw a perfect game six days later.
But if the Red Sox complete their comeback and the Phillies complete their collapse, it won't take long to identify the turning point in their seasons.