Nothing in life is guaranteed. No game or series outcome in sports is a guarantee. No championship comes easy.
Don't buy the people who've placed the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series before postseason play has even begun. Anything can happen in a five- or seven-game series. Just last year, the Phillies were favored to get back to the Fall Classic but ran into a hot Giants team and were eliminated in the NLCS.
October is all about playing your best baseball. Time and time again, we've seen teams who dominated regular-season play, fail. It happens in every sport. The regular season has no impact on how a team will play in the postseason. The Phillies have a ton of work to do to accomplish their goal of winning a title, but so far it's been a hell of a ride.
Coming into the season, the Phillies had a bullseye on their backs. After acquiring Cliff Lee in the offseason, many believed the Phils' starting pitching staff could be considered among the greatest ever assembled. Roy Halladay, Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt were billed as the four aces. People across the country submitted nicknames for the quartet (the "Four Horsemen" and "R2C2," to name a few).
Expectations were sky high. It was World Series or bust. And boy did Charlie Manuel's club live up to the hype, buoyed by the best pitching Phillies team in the live-ball era (since 1920).
Here's some numbers* on the 2011 squad:
- For the second straight year, the Phillies had the best record in baseball at 102-60.
- Their 102 wins is the most in the franchise’s 129-year history.
- They led the National League East from start to finish, winning by an astounding 13 games over Atlanta.
- They allowed 3.27 runs per game in 2011 (San Francisco was a distant second at 3.57), the franchise’s lowest figure since 1917.
- They led the N.L. in ERA for the first time since 1952.
- Their 3.02 ERA was the lowest for any team since the 1989 Dodgers, who had a 2.95 mark.
- Phils pitchers compiled a 3.22 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the second highest in major league history. Only the 2006 Minnesota Twins had a higher one of 3.27.
- The rotation compiled a 1.11 WHIP, the best since the 1975 Dodgers (1.09), and their 4.20 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the best since 1969
- The team committed only 74 errors to establish a new franchise record
However, Philadelphia's work is not complete. In fact, the real season, the one everyone has been waiting for since spring training, really, is finally here.
But history is not on their side.
The National League's top-seeded team has not advanced to the World Series since 2004 and no NL No. 1 has won the World Series since 1995.
We know how good their pitching is, but don't forget about the Phils offense. The team still has five starting position players from the 2008 championship team. The lineup is not as good as it was from 2007-2009—they are an older group (only right fielder Hunter Pence is under 30) and coincidentally were bit by the injury bug. Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz all missed 20 or more games with various injuries.
However, they are still a deep, balanced lineup.
(By the way, the starting pitching of the 1993 Braves is the team many compared the Phillies staff to. Atlanta had three aces—and future Hall of Famers—of its own with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.)
After the All-Star break, the Phillies scored the second most runs in the NL. The acquisition of Pence at the trading deadline provided a huge boost, as he hit .324 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs in just 54 games with Philly.
One of the most interesting storylines heading into the playoffs for the Phillies lineup is after losing a season-high eight games in down the stretch, manager Charlie Manuel instituted a new-look lineup (below) for the final four games of the season, and the team responded by winning all four.
- Jimmy Rollins (S), SS
- Chase Utley (LH), 2B
- Hunter Pence (RH), RF
- Ryan Howard (LH), 1B
- Shane Victorino (S), CF
- Raul Ibanez (LH), LF
- Placido Polanco (RH), 3B
- Carlos Ruiz (RH), C
Manuel bumped a struggling Utley out of the 3-hole and into the 2-hole, a significant move since Utley has been the team's No. 3 hitter since 2006. Moving Pence from No. 5 to No. 3 gives the Phils an extremely balanced lineup.
“That’s our best balanced lineup against right-handed pitchers,” Manuel said. “It splits up our lefties (Utley and Howard), Victorino being a switch-hitter in the five-hole. I think that helps split up all our lefties that way."
This team does have a few question marks heading into October, starting with the bullpen.
Overall, the Phils' pen was very good for the most, finishing with a 3.45 ERA, good for seventh in the NL. Antonio Bastardo had a fantastic season as the eighth-inning guy but posted a 11.05 ERA in September. The Phillies need him to return to form as he is the only lefty on Manuel's roster.
Brad Lidge is no longer the team's closer, although he is second all-time with 18 postseason saves and is a perfect 12-for-12 as a Phillie. He made his 2011 debut in late July after battling elbow/shoulder issues and pitched well in 25 appearances. His fastball is no longer in the mid-90s but he sill has that nasty slider. He must locate his pitches and stay away from walks (13 in 19 and two-thirds innings this year).
With Lidge on the shelf for most of the year, Ryan Madson took over as the team's closer and saved 32 games, blowing just two. However, he has never saved a game in the postseason. The Phillies will need these guys to step up to challenge and get the big outs. The bullpen was last in the league in innings pitched because of how good the starters were (they led the league with 18 complete games).
I expect Halladay, Lee and Hamels to pitch at least seven innings, meaning the 'pen will be asked to get six outs or less. If they can do that, the Phils will be in good shape.
The consistency of the offense is another issue. The Phils inability to score was their downfall in last year's NLCS loss to the Giants. I think Manuel will stay with the new lineup and I think this will make a difference. The key will be if the middle of the order can produce with runners in scoring position. Pence, Howard, Victorino and even Raul Ibanez should have numerous opportunities with men on base and Manuel will need them to produce.
The Phillies will be making their fifth straight appearance in the postseason. This team has dealt with an unbelievable amount of pressure all season and again is heavily favored to win it all. The Phillies are as experienced and prepared for the playoffs as a team can possibly be and won't be fazed by the bright lights.
This team is built to win in October. The rotation is scary, the offense is deep and the bullpen has done its job. A title is there for the taking. You have to like their chances.
It all begins Saturday evening against St. Louis.
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