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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Phillies-Giants, Game 6 -- And My Lost Opportunity

Hats off to the San Francisco Giants, who beat the "team to beat" to gain a chance to win their first World Series since 1954 (when they were in New York). The Giants have had a few chance since that time, the most recent opportunity being a loss in Game 7 to the Angels about a decade ago. While the Giants don't have a huge payroll or many marquis names among their position players, they kept on finding the right combination of pitching and hitting to beat the favored Phillies.

Last night, Phillies' fans thought that their team had the edge because Giants' lefty Jonathan Sanchez can have a tendency to be wild (he led the Majors among starting pitchers by walking 96 batters this year) and because they were in their home park. And, true to the script, the Phillies got to Sanchez early, knocking him out of the box after 2+ innings. The Phillies took a 2-0 lead, and Phillies' fans felt good about taking the NLCS to a seventh game. While Phillies' starter Roy Oswalt didn't have his best stuff -- he couldn't locate his curve and at times had trouble locating his fastball -- he gave them 6 solid innings while yielding only 2 earned runs after relieving a few nights ago in San Francisco. So, you'd figure that the combination of Oswalt's pitching and Sanchez's pitching would have been enough for a win.

Sadly for the Phillies, it wasn't. The Giants' bullpen roared to the occasion, bending intermittently but not breaking, and the Phillies continued their drought with men on base. You just can't keep on squander chances -- men on first and second with no outs a few times and the bases loaded once -- and win against your opponent in a championship series. But that's precisely what happened -- the team couldn't get the big hit, and, as a result, they are going home before they thought they would once the playoffs began.

Here are a few other thoughts:

1. H20 Wasn't All That It Was Cracked Up To Be. There's not much more to say on this point except to say that Roy Halladay didn't dominate (his performance in Game 5 was commendable after he tweaked his groin muscle), and neither did Cole Hamels (who struggled in Game 3, throwing more than 4 pitches per at-bat to almost half of the Giants' hitters).

2. It Was a Team Effort. While Ryan Howard will be singled out for not knocking in a run the entire post-season and for leaving 4 men on base in Game 6, you cannot pin the frustrations of the post-season entirely on him. The entire team struggled hitting with runners in scoring position. Some pitchers pitched better than others. But at the end of the day, the Phillies had their chance, and they couldn't knock in runs. Strand that many runners, and you're going home.

3. Ryan Madson Is Absolved. Yes, he pulled a silly stunt early in the season when he kicked a chair, broke his toe, and missed 2 months, but he pitched great after he returned and pitched well in the post-season. Yes, he gave up the NLCS-winning home run to Juan Uribe, but he was one of the mainstays who got the Phillies to the post-season, and relievers do give up hits and home runs. The timing, of course, was bad, but Madson is one of the best set-up men in the game and will continue to be.

4. The Oomph Seemed to be Missing from the Phillies. If you watch a video of the playoff run in 2008 and contrast it to the body language in the dugout this post-season, something was missing from the Phillies. Was it relaxation? Happiness? Confidence? Enjoyment? Hard to tell, but the team didn't show the oomph it did in 2008. That lack of oomph, at times, frustrated Phillies' fans. We all were waiting for someone to step it up and light up the entire team, but no one did. We thought it might have been Jimmy Rollins' steals in Game 5, but that didn't do it. And then few hit with men on base. It seemed like the Phillies were playing more to protect a reputation than to build upon one, and that's a lot of pressure to put upon yourself. There was a tightness to the Phillies that hadn't been present in 2008 or 2009, and no one stepped up to relieve the team of the burden they placed upon themselves.

In retrospect, Roy Halladay's no-hitter in Game 1 of the NLDS might have been a bad thing for the Phillies. The pundits had made them the favorites to win the World Series, and, as we know, many who go in as favorites go out as teams defeated along the way. Halladay's win might have given them a sense that the post-season would be easy, that the hitters could ride the wave of the "H2O" hype that, quite frankly, was a bit too preemptively celebratory. If you parse through the victory over the Reds in the NLDS, as a Phillies' fan you would have been more relieved than elated. True, the pitchers showed up big, but the hitters didn't hit, and the Reds helped defeat themselves more than you beat them (although a similar observations could be made about this year's Braves team). Did the hitters think that the wave of strong pitching would continue?

5. Who Does a Phillies' Fan Root For -- the Giants or the Rangers? Some would say that you root for the team that beat you so that it validates what a good team you lost to. For me, it's a choice between the story of redemption of the Rangers' skipper Ron Washington and centerfielder Josh Hamilton combined with the magic of Cliff Lee, versus the wizardry of skipper Bruce Bochy, the precociousness of catcher Buster Postey, the transcendance of a young pitching staff and the "scrap heap" aspects of the Giants' everyday lineup. There are compelling story lines, even if the executives at FOX Sports were probably rooting very hard for an East Coast presence in the World Series.

Both teams present sad ironies for the Phillies. If Cliff Lee excels, then Phillies' fans will feel even sadder (even if happy for Lee) because the team opted to trade Lee after acquiring Roy Halladay instead of coupling the two with Cole Hamels for what could have been one of the most devastating starting rotations in a few generations in the National League. Then again, most Phillies' fans would concede that if there is any non-Phillie worthy of a World Series championship ring, it's Cliff Lee. On the other hand, if the Giants win, then Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand would get World Series championship rings. Somehow, both are well-liked as Phillies alums by the Philadelphia faithful, although I would contend that Rowand is (much more) respected because of his grit and the memorable play when he ran into the center field fence to catch a ball, breaking his nose in the process. Burrell, on the other hand, went out with grace, but to many was an enigma who didn't make the most of his potential coming out of the University of Miami. Yes, he put up some good numbers, but he had significant holes in his game and was streaky to an extreme during his last two years in Philadelphia.

And, yet, who would have thought that Pat Burrell would be in a better position to earn his second World Series ring -- before Rollins, before Utley, before Howard? And who would have thought that he would have done so after failing in Tampa and getting released at mid-season? And, finally, who would have thought that he'd be more valuable to his team than Raul Ibanez is to the Phillies (and perhaps the Phillies could have used another righty bat to complement Jayson Werth and counterbalance Utley and Howard)?

Somehow, though, the former seems more agreeable than the latter. I want to see Cliff Lee win his first World Series championship ring. I am not jazzed about seeing Pat Burrell get one at the expense of his former teammates.

6. We Had Tickets to Game 7. I had explained that Game 7's are magical, that you never know who might step up, who might make an appearance coming out of the bullpen. And we had tickets, too, including one for me in the second row behind home plate should a Game 7 happen (a friend called at around 4:45 on the day of Game 6 asking me to join him for Game 7). The possibilities of a Game 7 intrigued us very much -- even if it were to be on a school night. Rooting for your favorite team knocks out a principle every now and then -- because Game 7's don't come around that often and, well, you just need to be there. You have to be there. Alas, though, it wasn't meant to be, with the result that we'll all get more sleep tonight -- even though we would have preferred not to.

7. Consoling a 10-year Old Boy is Hard. My son cried after the game, frustrated with the Phillies' futility with runners in scoring position and the inability to make timely plays or get timely hits to win. His father, after Ryan Howard took the called third strike to end the game, got over the loss pretty quickly. The son couldn't understand why his favored Phillies struggled or why Howard didn't swing at a close pitch with the game on the line. The father reasoned that the Giants outplayed and outmanaged the Phillies and deserved to win, credited the Giants and called it a night, masking his disappointment that after such a heroic regular season the Phillies couldn't honor it better with better hitting, pitching, fielding (yes, fielding, which was bad at times) and managing. Perhaps the son's expression of grief is better -- he got it out of his system. After all, being a fan is mostly about emotions, about connecting with a team, having a hobby, having a release -- and when that connection falters, it hurts. You don't wake up with the bounce in your step that your team did well or that your team has a chance to do better. No, that bounce is now gone for the winter, gone while two other teams will vie for a prize that you thought your team would have fought for. Something is missing, and that's bothersome, no, it hurts. Yes, you're thankful for the Series win in '08 and Series appearance in '09, and, yes, you realize that people in Kansas City and Pittsburgh have had nothing to cheer about for the longest of intervals, but that fact doesn't offer much consolation, because you don't live there and those teams are not yours. It's just that your favorites -- the very professionnal Utley, the first baseman of the mythical strength, Howard, the future Hall-of-Fame pitcher Halladay, the catalyst Rollins and the soul, Ruiz -- all let you down.

And that's just not supposed to happen.

Not to a ten year-old boy.

Not to a true believer.

8. Quo Vadis? It's hard to say at this point, but pretty soon the writers who cover the Phillies will dissect the team and the season, talk about who's under contract, who's eligible for arbitration, whether the Phillies will sign Jayson Werth or offer an extension to Jimmy Rollins, how they'll rebuild the bullpen and how they will get younger. And they'll do so in great detail. (The one thing I'll wonder about now is whether Werth will simply take the best contract from the highest bidder -- even if it means going to an also-ran -- or whether he'll focus on teams who have a better chance of winning sooner than later. I read in ESPN the Magazine that Detroit is the favorite for Werth, but last time I checked, I didn't get a sense that the Tigers are all that close to contending. I would think that the Dodgers, Padres, Angels, White Sox, Red Sox, Yankees and Rays would all be better fits for Werth).

And, perhaps, the biggest question of all is how much further can this nucleus of players go? They've enjoyed much success -- NLDS in 2007, World Champions in 2008, World Series in 2009, NLCS in 2010 -- but the position players average more than 30 years of age (and I'd bet closer to 31.5). 6 of the position players -- save Werth and the offensively challenged Raul Ibanez -- missed significant time to injuries this season. Was that a fluke, or is it a signal that as players age, if they have a tendency to get injured they'll continue to have that tendency and that age dictates they'll get injured more? That's a concern that the front office will need to think about in the off-season.

An off-season that, after the ups and downs of the regular season, came much too quickly and ended with an effort that belied the grit and determination the squad showed all year, and especially after mid-July.

Sure, if you had said to me in mid-July "hey, you're team will make the NLCS" -- after all the injuries -- I would have said, "wow, really? I'll take it." But somehow, some way, it just wasn't enough.

Not for the fans, and, I'm sure, not for the team, either.

It will be a long off-season.


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