Philadelphia Phillies: 5 Ways Wrapping Up Division Early Could Doom Them

Alec SnyderContributor IIISeptember 22, 2011

Philadelphia Phillies: 5 Ways Wrapping Up Division Early Could Doom Them

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    For the Philadelphia Phillies, the goal for the season has been accomplished: to win their fifth straight NL East division title. They did so last Saturday, led by a Raul Ibanez grand slam and nine total runs of support for Roy Oswalt to give the team a 9-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.

    Although the champagne celebrations were fun to watch, the team hasn't been since. They've lost five games in a row since then, consisting of the last two games of their four game series to the Cardinals and three to their division rivals, the Washington Nationals. In those five games, the Phillies have scored just 11 runs total, whereas the opposition has scored 23 runs. And in their last 10 games, the Phillies are 4-6.

    While the Phillies are still most likely on their way to having the best record in the majors (or at least the NL) by the season's end, their production right now and total attitude towards passing their team-record 101 wins has seemed to diminish. In order for the Phils to be successful in the postseason, they need to start winning again so it doesn't seem foreign to them come the NLDS.

    Despite being an optimist, sometimes I have to play devil's advocate, and unfortunately, this is one of those times.

    So, without further ado, I pessimistically present to you five ways why the Phillies winning the NL East could bring them their demise in the playoffs.

Confidence vs. Cockiness

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    Remember this picture? This was Ryan Howard following his looking strikeout to lose the 2010 NLCS to the eventual World Series Champions, the San Francisco Giants. It's a memory us Phillies fans would forever like to forget, but until the Phillies redeem themselves, it's all that lives in our minds.

    Last year in the playoffs, the Phillies' biggest problem wasn't that they lacked run support, or fantastic pitching, or a solid defense. It was the fact that they were so sure that they would make the World Series for a third straight season, which would have been the first time an NL team made three consecutive Fall Classic appearances since the Cardinals did it from 1942-44.

    The odds were in favor of the Phillies to win it all last year. I remember watching SportsCenter one day last season and Tim Kurkjian, among others, predicted that the Phillies would not only make the World Series, but win it, and with class. But even experts and analysts can be wrong, and it's especially excruciating when they happen to be wrong about your team.

    The Phillies' arrogance is what led them to be in such disbelief that they didn't win the World Series. With Roy Halladay pitching a no-hitter to lead things off for the Phils' 2010 postseason run and Cole Hamels pitching a complete game shutout to win the NLDS, all looked good for the Phillies. How could they lose to a team that made the postseason on the last day of the season?

    Well, they did. And it still resonates within us.

    Don't get me wrong. I love being confident about winning. I love being able to say, "the Phillies have a great shot at winning it all this season." But you won't hear me say "the Phillies are going to win the World Series this season." The postseason is an element of its own, and even the best teams from the regular season often fall come October. It's like saying that Roy Halladay is going to pitch a perfect game when it's only the first inning and he's shut down the opposition 1-2-3. While a perfect game would be nice, there's only been 20 official perfect games in history. It doesn't happen every day.

    If the Phillies aren't able to make the distinction between confidence in themselves and cockiness in winning it all, then their egos could prove to be bigger than their bats come the postseason.

Too Much Rest

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    Nobody ever said rest was a bad thing. If you're ever sick and/or hurt, rest is usually what helps more than anything.

    In the case of Ryan Howard, rest is exactly what he needs. He's currently fighting bursitis in his ankle and he received a cortisone injection in the ankle earlier this week. When it's all about resting starters for them to be healthy for the postseason, I'm all for it.

    I'm not for resting perfectly healthy starters just so they're well-rested for the playoffs. There's a difference between well-rested and over-rested.

    Players like Hunter Pence, who got his first day off as a Phillie Tuesday night only because of a tweak in his knee (that turned out to be patellar tendinitis), deserve their occasional day of rest. However, players like Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins, who aren't hurt at the moment, should keep playing as much as possible. The division might be locked up, but home field advantage isn't just yet, and some of the backups taking the places of the starters aren't exactly experienced veterans who know everything about experiencing the major leagues.

    I'm all for minor league prospects making their major league debuts. Justin De Fratus was excellent out of the bullpen in his debut Tuesday and was decent last night. Joe Savery was also impressive in his debut out of the bullpen Tuesday afternoon. Brandon Moss and Erik Kratz were very neat to see as well. But for all of these players, is it really worth it having them playing right now?

    The Phillies, assuming they win every game from here on out, would have 105 wins. However, the chances of that are very unlikely, and with the Phillies avoiding using their starters, those chances plummet more and more.

    I have no problem with a game of rest. It's the resting of the players practically every day that I've got a bone to pick. The Phillies need to win, and winning involves their starters. If the starters rest for too long, not only will the Phillies not win, but their starters will be out of it in terms of playing time. If they're rested for too long, they could lose their consistency and ability to produce when they're needed to step up to the plate. Playing the players is essential for the team's success down the stretch, and their continued success throughout the postseason as well.

Effort

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    Many of the Phillies players are known to give it their all every single time they play. Among those players are second baseman Chase Utley, who works so hard that his knee is worn down as a result.

    Other current Phillies who work hard every time they play (in no particular order) are Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco, and Carlos Ruiz. There are others, but these are the standout stars who obviously give it their all.

    Another player I'd personally put into that category is outfielder John Mayberry, Jr. However, on Tuesday night when he took over center field for Victorino, he lazily ran up to a bloop single that was easily within reach of catching. Rather, he jogged up to where it landed and allowed the batter to reach base on a play that could have resulted in an out with more hustle.

    This got me thinking: are the Phillies really putting in as much effort as they should be? The team has been losing lately, and I became curious as to whether it was attributed to a lack of effort.

    The Phillies losing their first four-game series of the season to the Cardinals at home doesn't come because the team is in a slump. They're the best team in baseball; they don't go through long-term slumps to hold that position. Because of this I realized that effort could be the reason why the Phillies are losing. Maybe they just don't care anymore about the regular season. They want to play October ball and only October ball.

    I'll admit that I agree. I don't see much a point in the Phils playing the rest of their games. I just want to see the postseason already. But I don't condone a lack of effort. Games are games, and maximum effort should be put into every play of every game. If the Phillies aren't doing that, they need to pick it up.

    The Phillies haven't been in a position like this in recent memory where they've had a good chunk of games left following clinching the division. But why change what's worked for five years running? Play your hearts out, because in the end it'll pay off.

Playoff Seeding

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    At this point in the season for the Phillies, everything is important. Every pitch of every inning of every game is just as important as every pitch of every at-bat of every inning...well, you get the idea.

    The Phillies have to win. Losing is not an option. They came into the season with higher than high expectations. With the team's pitching staff consisting of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels, the team had a good shot of having at least three 20-game winners and at least a pitcher or two in contention for the Cy Young Award.

    While the season has passed and not all initial predictions have occurred as thought, the Phillies have still made the playoffs once more and clinched the division yet again. However, the fun doesn't stop there.

    What's worth noting here is that the Phillies still have control over who they play in the first round of the playoffs. Why, might you ask? It's simple, really. In the National League, the Atlanta Braves currently hold the top spot for the Wild Card. However, the Cardinals are only a game and a half behind, and the San Francisco Giants are just four games out. So why do the Phillies have control over this?

    Well, it's because the Phillies end the season by playing the Braves for three games in Atlanta. Although the fact that the regular season ends for the Phillies on the road, they have been very successful away from Philly, going 46-29 outside of Citizens Bank Park. If the Phillies take two games out of the three or sweep them, then the Wild Card standings could change very quickly.

    With the Cardinals lurking just behind the Braves, they stand a very good chance at taking the Wild Card away from Atlanta. If St. Louis remains behind Atlanta for the next week or so, then if we take two games from the Braves and the Cardinals win their series, then the Braves miss the playoffs. The opposite is also true: is the Braves defeat the Phillies and the Cardinals lose their series, then the Braves would win the Wild Card.

    However, the question standing is this: would the Phillies rather play the Diamondbacks or the Cardinals in the first round? Seeing as the Cards won the four game series here at CBP, and the D'backs lost two of three to us here at home, I'd take the D'backs, which means that the Phillies would have to let Atlanta win the Wild Card at the end of the season if it boils down to that.

    Is it cheap to give up like that? Yes. But if the Phillies want to win it all, the Cards would be their toughest potential opponent, and with the way things are looking right now, they could very likely face St. Louis in the first round. If they hadn't won the division (i.e. they would win the Wild Card), then they could be facing Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs, which might be better. But since they hold the number one seed, things aren't going to go like that, and the Phillies will have to deal with it.

Desire to Win

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    Really summing up the slideshow here. We've seen that the Phillies need to remain confident, not cocky. We've covered that Charlie Manuel needs to ensure that he doesn't excessively rest his players until they become rusty. We've also seen how effort wins games, and that how the Phillies do down the stretch can affect who is the eventual NL Wild Card winner (and ultimately their NLDS opponent).

    The main topic we've discussed is the Phillies' recent lack of winning. It's a problem. They've lost five straight games, including three to a sub-.500 team in the Nationals. That makes a bad statement against the Phillies, and it makes many fans and players alike wonder whether the Phillies are biting off more than they can chew.

    But is it really a lack of effort, or is it that they're cocky? Is it that the players are being used too much or too little? Or is it simply because they just don't care anymore?

    Or could it be that the Phillies are just tired of winning games in the regular season?

    Sure, it's an odd thing to think about. Why would a team want to lose? Well, I'm not saying they necessarily want to lose, but maybe they just don't care about winning (or losing, for that matter). Now that the rest of the season technically doesn't matter, why should the Phillies try so hard to do well?

    The Phillies are burning out right now. Whether related to injury, benching players, or simply because the light in the gas tank is running near empty, the team needs rest. Starters Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels were all underwhelming in each of their last respective starts. And while a lack of run support can be partially to blame for each loss, the pitchers themselves have also seemed less like normal.

    If the Phillies don't have to win, why should they? Winning means putting in effort, and while the Phillies do try in their games, perhaps they are intentionally not trying hard enough.

    The team's already matched (and in some ways exceeded) expectations for the season. Taking some losses to ease into October could be what they need. But it could also be their downfall. If the Phillies don't take the next few games seriously, they could start a losing trend that could very well transition into the postseason.

    And if they do just that, who knows? Maybe the Phillies won't even be in contention for the NL Pennant this year.