The 2011 Philadelphia Phillies posted 102 wins, more than any other team in the franchise's 128-year history. They had four starting pitchers who each would've been the ace on the pitching staffs of probably 75 percent of Major League Baseball. They clinched the National League East with a whopping 12 games remaining and clinched home field throughout the postseason shortly thereafter. They were the greatest team in Philadelphia Phillies' history...and perhaps the dumbest.
The Phillies, by virtue of their dominating play, had the luxury of resting players and setting up their rotation going into the postseason. This is not exactly rare, teams that clinch playoff berths often change how they play the remainder of the season. The Phillies also had the luxury to determine not just pitching matchups, but team matchups as well. That was something they earned.
There was an argument going into that final series of the season against the Atlanta Braves (who were desperately clinging to the wild card slot with the Cardinals breathing down their necks) about whether the Phillies should tank the series to prevent smoking hot St. Louis from making the playoffs. On one side of the argument is the adage that you never throw a game or series for any reason. This in and of itself should end that argument.
However, the Phillies could have set themselves up where "tanking" was not necessary mainly by playing the remaining two games of that Cardinals series in September to win instead of going through the motions while suffering from a "division clinching hangover."
The other side of the argument is the Phillies controlled their destiny and the destiny of the St. Louis Cardinals because over the entire regular season the Phillies were the better team. Matter of fact, they were the best team in baseball. As a result, they had a half month worth of baseball to manipulate the postseason to their advantage. They did not.
After the Phillies won their fifth straight NL East title on the night of September 17th they promptly went into a free fall losing a mind boggling eight straight games. Unfortunately, none of those were against the Braves. During these eight painful, though utterly meaningless games, the cracks began to show particularly in relief pitchers Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes. Maybe their young arms were overused by Charlie Manuel during the season. It's possible. But there was also plenty of time to rest those arms in September.
There was talk of righting the ship and gaining momentum going into that last series against Atlanta. The team wanted to get their full lineup in order. However there was plenty of time to do that as well, namely during those meaningless games between September 20th and September 25th when the Phillies played mostly bench players and call-ups and lost a combined six of seven games to the Washington Nationals and the New York Mets.
During that stretch, when the outcome of those games had no impact whatsoever on the postseason, was the time to get the lineup in order, get the bullpen confidence up and then when the Atlanta series arrived, it was time to rest arms and see what the bench and call-ups could do. If they beat Atlanta, fine. But to put your best lineup out there to defeat an opponent whose elimination would only hurt your chances at postseason success was totally asinine.
At the time Charlie Manuel spoke of playing each game to win. He spoke of honor and how the team owed it to Major League Baseball to play until the end. Rubbish. The Phillies earned the right to play those remaining games, however it would benefit them not Major League Baseball and certainly not the St. Louis Cardinals—who in the NLDS proved to be a better team than the Phillies.
When you win 102 games you owe it to yourself and to your fans to set up your postseason in a way that gives you the best chance to win a championship. Avoiding having to ever face the St. Louis Cardinals was the Phillies' best chance for success. A road to the World Series through Arizona and then Atlanta or Milwaukee would have been extremely easier than one through St. Louis—as we've seen.
As a team you owe it to yourself and your fans to make sure you play the final stretch of the season in a manner that allows you to have your rotation set properly. When you've dominated the sport for six straight months and have gone wire to wire in first place, then you have earned the right to set up who your postseason opponents are going to be.
The Phillies weren't concerned with matchups. They believed they were the best team and could take on all comers. They ignored the fact that the Cardinals were hotter than the surface of the sun and that St. Louis' killer lineup went 6-3 against them and their four aces during the regular season.
The Phillies have their honor. They played honest. They put their best lineup on the field and they played to beat the Braves when they didn't have to.
The Cardinals have their appearance in the 2011 World Series starting tomorrow.
I'd take the World Series over that hollow honor any day.