When the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series in 2008, it was a bit of a surprise. No one had picked them to win it all when the season began. In fact, Las Vegas odds had the Phillies at 20-1 making them a distant 10th overall.
2011, however, is a different story. The day that GM Ruben Amaro stunned the baseball world by acquiring pitcher Cliff Lee, his Phillies instantly became the odds on favorite to win it all.
Unlike the 2008 Phillies, the 2011 team has had title expectations from the start. There would be no sneaking up on anyone this year. In fact, to many without a World Series Championship, this season will not be considered a success no matter how many regular season games the Phillies win.
We have all heard about the differences between these two teams, mainly that the 2011 team wins with their starting pitching while in 2008 they did it largely with their bats. So this stat might surprise you: The 2011 Phillies current team batting average is .253. What was the regular season team batting average for that high-scoring, World Series winning 2008 team? It was .255.
Surprised? Well here are five more surprising similarities between the 2008 world champs and the 2011 wannabes.
It has become accepted baseball wisdom that championship teams need to be strong up the middle. The 2008 Phillies were evidence of that but how do the 2011 Fightins compare?
There are only 10 players on the 2011 Phillies roster who were with the team in 2008 but five of those 10 are everyday position players and four of those play key positions up the middle.
Catcher Carlos Ruiz, second baseman Chase Utley, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and center fielder Shane Victorino make up the Phillies' strong up-the-middle core, which many believe is vital to a team’s overall success. Ryan Howard is the fifth everyday player who was part of both teams. This means that three-quarters of the Phillies infield from the champion 2008 team remains intact in 2011.
This now-veteran core group of All-Stars could play a big role if the 2011 Phillies are to repeat the success of the 2008 team.
Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, the unassuming man behind the plate, is another important similarity between the 2008 and 2011 Phillies. While the headlines go to the big names like Utley, Howard, Halladay and Lee, Ruiz has quietly made himself indispensable to this stellar pitching staff and to the entire Phillies team.
In the 2008 playoffs, after struggling at the plate in the division series against Milwaukee, Ruiz emerged as the Phillies' surprise offensive weapon in the clutch. In the Phillies' 11 World Series games he is batting .353. Add in his 10 NLCS games and he’s still at a lofty .349 with 10 of his 22 hits going for extra bases.
But perhaps Ruiz is most valuable behind the plate where he has earned the trust of his pitchers. In 2008, Brad Lidge raved about Ruiz’s natural instincts and his uncanny ability to read what opposing hitters were looking for and then call for something else. That’s high praise coming from the closer who was perfect in 2008.
And in 2011, it’s the Phillies starters who are quick to sing Ruiz’s praises. After just one start Roy Oswalt felt confident enough to put himself completely in Ruiz’s hands. And both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee say they rarely shake off a sign when Ruiz is behind the plate. The Phillies hurlers love pitching to him and they all credit Ruiz as a major factor in their success.
Another reliable baseball adage is that pitching and defense win games. Especially in the playoffs, when games are often decided by one run, a strong defensive play can be the difference between winning and losing.
So how do the two defenses stack up? In 2011, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley are ranked as one of the top two double play combinations in baseball according to Joe Sheehan of SI.com’s Inside Baseball. The 2011 Phillies also have the fewest errors in the majors so far this year with 64 and the best fielding percentage at .988.
The 2008 team’s numbers are remarkably similar. They finished the season with a fielding percentage of .985 and had the fourth-fewest errors with 90. Rollins, Victorino and Ruiz are all enjoying strong defensive seasons in 2011 similar to those they had in 2008. Ibanez (2011) and Burrell (2008) in left field are pretty much a wash defensively as are Pence (2011) and Werth (2008.)
Interesting to note is though many thought Placido Polanco would bring a better bat but weaker glove to the Phillies, the numbers prove otherwise. Pedro Feliz, the Phillies third baseman in 2008 known for his strong glove, finished with a .974 fielding percentage good for second in baseball in 2008. Polanco so far in 2011 is also ranked second with a .977 fielding percentage so he is more than holding his own at the hot corner.
If defense is indeed the strongest offense, both the 2008 team and this year’s Fightins seem to have an equal share.
Managing in today’s baseball world of star-studded teams with their high-priced talent and sometimes difficult personalities is no easy task. Just ask former Phillies manager Larry Bowa. But manager Charlie Manuel, who took over for Bowa in 2005, has been the perfect fit for this Phillies team. From the beginning Charlie supported his players both privately and publicly. They knew he always had their backs and in appreciation they started to do whatever it took to support him, mostly winning baseball games.
Now in his seventh season, Charlie recently became the second-winningest manager in Phillies history and will soon take over first place. This year is the fifth straight year that his Phillies will be playing in the postseason and many attribute a lot of that success to Charlie’s relaxed, laid-back style which belies his intense desire to win. Perhaps his greatest strength is his remarkable ability to keep his team focused, which was on full display this season.
With all the hype and attention surrounding the four aces, distractions seemed inevitable. Everyone wanted a piece of this historic rotation; everyone had questions. Who would be the Opening Day starter? Who was "the Ace" of aces? How deep into games would Charlie let these guys pitch? But now with the regular season winding down, there has been no controversy, no drama, no distractions. Just a lot of winning.
In short, this team and this manager are a perfect match. They like him, they play for him, they win for him. They did it in 2008. They’ve been doing it in 2011. But what they most want to do for him is give him another World Series trophy to hoist high over his head and another victory parade down Broad Street.
In every successful baseball playoff run, there are always those little things that don’t show up in the box score, those unexpected momentum swings that can be the difference in a game or a series. Some might call it luck or karma or the baseball gods smiling on the more deserving team. In 2008 the Phillies had several intangibles going for them.
After finally making it into the postseason the year before for the first time in 14 years, they were swept in the first round by the upstart Wild Card Colorado Rockies. The Phillies were determined to go further in 2008.
There was the spark plug named Jimmy Rollins who started this whole Phillies surge the year before with his now-famous “team to beat” mantra. There was the sad news of the deaths of both Charlie Manuel’s mother and Shane Victorino’s grandmother within days of each other which served to bring this tight-knit group even closer.
And there was the story of Brad Lidge’s redemption. When Lidge was with the Astros he famously gave up a three-run homer to Albert Pujols, costing the Astros a chance to clinch the series. Although Houston did go on to the World Series, Lidge's troubles continued as he gave up game-winning runs in Game 2 and Game 4. After that he was never quite the same.
That is, until 2008 when Lidge, now a Phillie, entered the World Series after a perfect season where he didn't blow a single save. With all that Lidge had gone through in 2005, the baseball gods owed him one this time, don’t you think?
So all that was in the Phillies' favor in 2008. How does 2011 compare?
For starters, the way the Phillies lost in 2010 is certainly driving them this year. They lost in Round 2 to the Giants, a series in which they were favored to win. They lost because their fading high-powered offense faded to black. The lingering image of Ryan Howard taking a called third strike, his bat on his shoulder, is one the Phillies certainly want to erase. Especially the Big Piece.
And though several members of this squad already wear a ring, there are many notables who do not. How can karma not be in Roy Halladay’s favor, the consummate pro who gives it everything he’s got every time he’s on the mound? And, of course, there is the return of the prodigal pitcher Clifton Phifer Lee, despite all odds. Not only did he choose to come to Philadelphia, once the laughingstock of baseball most known for reaching 10,000 losses, but he said no to the big bad Yankees leaving $30 million on the table to come back to The City of Brotherly Love. If that’s not good karma, what is?
And the final intangible is the Phillies fans. They root for this team like it's their job. They fill Citizen's Bank Park night after night and they even follow their team on the road. In 2008, the crowd was electric not even letting pouring rain dampen their enthusiasm and they stand ready (and I mean stand!) to do the same for the 2011 Phillies.
So though the last Phillies World Series team and this season’s hopeful may look different at first glance, a deeper look tells another story. But the question left unanswered is whether these two stories will have the same happy ending.