World Series 2011 Analysis: What Can the Phillies Learn from Cards' Triumph?
It would be interesting to know how many members of Phillies Nation watched the World Series (or even the Championship Series, for that matter).
As one of those members, I know that we can be a very provincial town, and not all of our denizens were ready to work through the grieving process by watching more baseball.
Of course, I am way too much of a MLB fan to kiss goodbye to the season just because my team was eliminated. For both of those reasons. I am still grieving about the Phillies' sudden elimination and the end of the baseball season in general. I am also not sure what an October snowfall is doing to my already miserable mood.
So while I am not quite ready to think about all of the moves that should be made for 2012 and beyond, I am ready to put some thought into what lessons may have been learned by seeing the wrong red-clad team win it all.
THE BEST TEAM IN THE REGULAR SEASON DOESN'T ALWAYS WIN IT ALL
It is not sour grapes to point this out—it's an easy statement to make, especially when we focus on the last 10 years.
From 2002-2011, the team with the best record in MLB only won the Fall Classic twice.
So, here's to you, the 2009 New York Yankees and the 2007 Boston Red Sox (tied with the Cleveland Indians that year). Only one other team in this stretch even had the best record in its own league—Ozzie Guillen's 2005 Chicago White Sox.
In 2006, the Cardinals won the whole ball of wax with a middling 83-78 record. That was after not hoisting the ultimate trophy in 2004 (a MLB-best 105-57) or 2005 (100-62, best in the sport once again).
As you may know, the Phillies won a MLB-best 102 games this year after leading the free baseball world with 97 in 2010. In neither case did they even return to the World Series, which they last won in 2008 with a 92-70 record, second best in the NL.
SO... TEAMS SHOULD TRY NOT TO HAVE THE BEST RECORDS, RIGHT?
Wrong! This ten-year trend aside, my only conclusion is that the best record in the regular season does not guarantee anything but home field advantage. Of course, home field advantage is not a guarantee of anything other than a home game to both start and conclude the series.
Clearly, it would not seem prudent for a team to kill themselves for home field advantage, but should they specifically play so as not to achieve it? Of course not.
To be specific, there is no logical reason—baseball-wise or otherwise—that the 90-72 Cardinals should have had an advantage playing on the road versus the 102-60 Phillies.
The Phillies had clinched early, went through that disinterested eight-game losing streak and then snapped out of it by winning a getaway game versus the Mets prior to sweeping a free-falling Braves team in Atlanta.
AHA... WE SHOULD HAVE LOST TO ATLANTA
It was not only said in hindsight that the Phillies should consider blowing a game or two to the Braves to pave their way into the playoffs and keep the Cardinals out.
I rejected that notion then, and I still do. Why?
For one, if you can recall that amazing last day of the regular season, a lot of scenarios were still in play up till the very end. It resembled the last two weeks of the NFL schedule in that respect. If Atlanta got in, the Phils would not have played them in the NLDS: it would have been either the Diamondbacks or the Brewers.
Secondly, after going through the motions during that eight-game losing streak, the wins were a good sign, or certainly seemed to be.
Thirdly? Should the NL and World Series favorites really be scared of anyone? I don't think so.
And it takes nothing away from the Cardinals to report this truth.
They were not that hot coming down the stretch, their bullpen had blown several games in the last week and they had to expend their ace, Chris Carpenter, in the season finale.
THE PHILLIES WERE CONSTRUCTED POORLY: Huh?
Does anyone really believe that?
Perhaps changes will and should be made this offseason, but the Phillies were set up quite well to win it all. The pitching rotation—especially the troika of Halladay, Lee and Hamels—really was "all that" and Oswalt had looked good in his previous two or three outings. They were also pitching in their proper order with close to their regular amount of rest.
The lineup had a lingering injury or two but nothing dramatic... and I don't say that to minimize what befell slugger Ryan Howard.
As to the lineup's construction, this lineup (with a huge assist from its rotation) was good enough to have amassed the most wins by a large margin. With the midseason acquisition of Hunter Pence, they were loaded and were thought to be close to a lock to win it all.
Much has been written about the team's approach at the plate, and I don't discount all of the analysis.
Of course, when you're going bad, it will seem as if you're constantly taking good pitches and swinging at junk. But once again, this very team won 102 games with this approach (and beat most of the good teams and pitchers they faced).
Perhaps a new batting culture should be implemented for the coming years, but I think this deficiency has been overblown.
Before moving on, it might help to take a look at Jimmy Rollins, who has never (other than his speed or penchant for stealing bases and scoring runs when he gets on base) been the prototypical leadoff hitter.
In the five-game NLDS, Jimmy went 9-20 with a slash line of .450/.476/.659 and six runs scored. Maybe it's just me, but I'd be thrilled to have my leadoff batter score more than a run per game, and post an OPS of 1.126.
Oh yeah—he's pretty good with the leather, too.
By contrast, shortstop and leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal added some much-needed stability to the Cardinals this year, He was also 4-18 with two runs scored versus the Phillies, and his OPS for the postseason was a putrid .569.
This is not to say that the Phillies should issue a blank check to Rollins this offseason. This is to say that Rollins more than did his job in the postseason.
SO, WHAT HAPPENED?
How do I say this with any measure of elegance? Spit happens, that's what.
The Cardinals happened, and they were not your typical 90-72. Or maybe they were, judging by all the wild cards (lower case) who have won it all.
Game 2 happened, and the Phillies could not win a 4-0 game at home with Cliff Lee on the hill versus a thought-to-be-inept Cardinals bullpen.
This is not to blame Cliff Lee. I'd consider doing so if he walked the stadium, pitched with fear or showed anything but complete class afterward. A desperate Cards' team—a team that obviously would go on to show its collective mettle—was able to handle a few pitches, and the Phillies' offense went cold.
I would still take Lee in that situation every single time. Three recent losses in postseason games (after winning his first seven postseason contests with Koufax-like brilliance) would not keep me from gladly handing him the ball in a must-win game.
How about that rally squirrel... ah, give me a break.
Sometimes, you just tip your cap to a team that was just that iota better in the big moments.
WHY ISN'T THE DIVISION SERIES A BEST OF 7?
Even if it would not have changed the results (and we'll never know, for sure), I would welcome a best-of-seven. You can always sign me up for more baseball, and presumably the longer format is more upset-proof.
Would the Phillies have beaten the Cardinals in a best-of-seven this year? They may have, but who really knows?
ONE MORE POST-MORTEM
I had heard at least one sports talk jock expressing the opinion that a team that had won more than 10 games more than its first-round opponent should get more than just one extra home game. Did you even follow that half-baked proposal?
Now, I am all for making regular seasons more meaningful, but I think MLB has it right when it comes to the postseason. I would extend the first round to best-of-seven (and see no compelling reason not to) but coming up with a formula to give a team four out of five, or five out of seven, home games does not seem fair. It also seems rather unwieldy.
And who is to say that if the Phillies would have won this series even if they had played four out of five at home. The Cards came in to South Philly and won two out of three, versus Lee, Halladay and an offense they were able to solve.
THERE'S ALWAYS 2012
Much as I can use a hot stove, I'm not ready to focus much energy on 2012 yet.
I do see no reason that the Phillies should not be in line for another playoff berth next year, and then we'll see what happens from there.
As for the Cardinals, picturing them with a re-energized (and re-signed) Pujols, a healthy Adam Wainwright and emerging stars in David Freese and Allen Craig is kind of scary.
Then again, they could win 105 games next year and lose in the NLCS to a Philies team that only wins 89.
Stuff happens, whether one calls it karma, destiny, the laws of baseball—or "spit."
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