The 2011 season for the Philadelphia Phillies has been a joyride for most of the year. Their much-hyped starting rotation actually lived up to the hype, some unknown names at the start of the season became bullpen stalwarts and with the acquisition of Hunter Pence at the trade deadline even their on-again off-again offense seemed to hit its stride.
The Phillies won their record fifth straight NL East title faster than they ever have in team history and clinched home field throughout the playoffs. And what did they do for an encore? They haven’t won a game since.
Yes, it might be expected that the Phillies would have a bit of a letdown after their champagne-clinching celebration. Yes, it’s true that the team really doesn’t have a lot left to play for. Yes, it has been a long season and maybe they are conserving their energy for a long playoff run.
But whatever the cause, the Phillies have picked a bad time to start looking less like a juggernaut and more like the team that got unceremoniously bumped in the second round of the 2010 playoffs. A temporary setback? Maybe. But here are five obstacles the Phillies must overcome to keep their championship dreams alive.
Despite evidence to the contrary (see above photo), it’s not a celebration hangover that is slowing down Hunter Pence these days. It’s the patellar tendinitis in his left knee. Hmmm, that sounds familiar. Isn’t that the same condition that sidelined Chase Utley for 47 games?
After leaving the first game of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader against the Nationals in the sixth inning with a noticeable limp, Pence was scratched from the lineup for Game 2. After the game, however, he downplayed the situation saying that he has had the condition for a long time, and this is the first flare-up since he’s been with the Phillies.
He will have a precautionary MRI at the urging of team doctors but Pence insists his knee will be fine and he hopes to return to the starting lineup as soon as tonight. The Phillies and their fans better hope he's right. Since joining the team, Pence has rejuvenated the Phillies offense and having a healthy Hunter Pence in the lineup is critical to the Phillies going deep in the postseason.
Pence is not alone in the Phillies' untimely mash unit. Chase Utley is still working his way back from a concussion; Jimmy Rollins is trying to regain his stride and speed after being sidelined with a groin pull; and both Placido Polanco and Raul Ibanez have received anti-inflammatory injections for nagging groin injuries.
But perhaps the Phillies biggest concern is the “The Big Piece.” Ryan Howard will be sidelined for at least several more days after receiving a cortisone injection in his left ankle to help with the bursitis pain he has been struggling with for several weeks now. The hope is that the shot will work well enough to get him through the postseason.
And did I mention that Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz complained of pain in his ankle during yesterday’s second game. Fortunately, after a check by the trainer, “Chooch” stayed in the game with no further incident.
Injuries are a part of the game and no team can get through a long baseball season without them, but the Phillies can ill afford to lose any of these key players with the playoffs looming.
The Phillies' once-unhittable bullpen has picked a bad time to be, well, hittable. Antonio Bastardo, who was on pace for a record-low ERA for most of the season, has hit a rough patch in September. He has allowed at least one run in three of his last five outings and at least two baserunners in four of those outings.
Rookie Michael Stutes has had an equally difficult month. He has allowed 16 runs, 31 hits, including five home runs and 11 walks in his last 28 innings, a far cry from his stingy start.
Aside from closer Ryan Madson, who has remained consistently strong, Brad Lidge has surprisingly emerged as the most reliable bullpen option recently even after his long layoff.
The hope is that when the playoff adrenaline kicks in, both Bastardo and Stutes will revert back to their early season form. But along with that adrenaline comes the intensity of a postseason run, a pressure cooker that neither young reliever has yet experienced.
Perhaps the hardest one to figure out this season has been the Phillies' inconsistent hitting. This once-feared offense has now scored three runs or fewer in 11 of their last 12 games. And, perhaps of most concern is that they haven't been facing Cy Young-caliber pitching.
While every hitter will experience a slump during a season, the unfortunate fact for the Phillies is that their entire lineup seems to slump at the same time. Does the 2010 NLCS loss to the San Francisco Giants ring a bell?
Charlie Manuel says that he will do whatever it takes to get his struggling offense on track including possibly moving Chase Utley, hitting .207 in his last 20 games, out of his normal No. 3 spot in the lineup. Whatever Manuel comes up with he better do it fast. His team only has about 10 days left to find its stroke.
Baseball is a funny game, filled with numbers, statistics and averages. And these numbers can determine everything from the team with the strongest pitching to the team that has the best batting average with runners in scoring position. But it’s what numbers can’t quantify that often determines the team that will win it all.
The team that gets hot and stays hot at the right time can beat a team that is much stronger on paper or even may have been stronger for the entire regular 162-game season. They’ve got momentum on their side and a "have to win every day" mentality that will serve them well in a short playoff series where one win or loss makes a much bigger difference than in the regular season.
In fact, only twice in the last 14 years has the team with the best regular season record gone on to win the World Series, the 1998 Yankees and the 2007 Red Sox. This seems to be evidence that resting players and hoping to turn it back on for the playoffs is a dangerous proposition and the Phillies better hope that Atlanta can hang on against St. Louis for that Wild Card or the they might have to face a scarily hot Cardinals team in Round 1.
But Phillies fans (and full disclosure dictates that I admit that I am one), don’t despair. There have been two teams with the best record who went all the way, and they do say the third time's the charm. (OK, yes, I’m reaching.)