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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Phillies Combined No-Hitter - Why Weren't the Pitchers Excited After the Game?

You would think that this was something to celebrate.  You have a team that has had another bad year, continuing a decline that began after the World Series victory in 2008.  They are playing sub-.500 baseball and are struggling for an identity.  They have a few good starting pitchers and a bullpen that could be starting to scare people.  They lack sufficient hitting muscle to scare anyone with their lineup. 

Yesterday, in Atlanta, ace Cole Hamels went six plus before yielding his bullpen.  The trio of Kenny Giles, Jake Diekman and Jonathan Papelbon helped him seal up a no-hitter.  All were excellent.

That said, in the post-game interviews, you would have thought that the foursome was relieved to have survived a collective hemorrhoidectomy.  Hamels smiled slightly but reverted to standard, trite post-game speech.  Giles had the bill of his cap so far down that you couldn't see his eyes, and he said he was happy even if his body language told you the last place he wanted to be was on camera.  Diekman was more relaxed and even mustered a smile, but his reaction was muted.  And then there was Papelbon, who was arrogant with the good-natured post-game reporter and simply said it was all in a day's work.  There was no joy in the man.

Attendance is down.  People still remember that spark that existed through the 2011 season, which now seems like a distant memory.  They realize that Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard aren't the players they were five years ago.  They like Hamels and adore Cliff Lee.  But they need something to keep them coming back and something to cheer about.

While the no-hitter most certainly is a season highlight, the pitchers' reaction seemed to indicate that it was not the biggest deal in the world and that there wasn't a lot of joy in it.  Okay, so they're competitors and wish the team were doing better, fine.  But at least have some fun in the moment and be happy, long season or not, hot day or not.  Jimmy Rollins looked excited, and the game to a degree is about entertainment. 

Teams win when they have a bounce in their step.  Fans latch onto teams that they can relate to, that give off positive energy and that play to the last out.  The Phillies were that team through 2011, playing at times with three bench players because of injuries, and then they got key contributions from the likes of Cody Ransom, Chris Coste, Juan Castro, Wilson Valdez and Dane Sardinha.  They had that special, extra something.  True, they were younger and better, but they also made it seem that there was nothing else they would rather be doing and that they loved performing in front of their fans.  When you energize the fans, they energize you right back.  And while yesterday's game was on TV, there wasn't a whole lot of energizing going on. 

I recall about eight years ago when the Phillies traded Bobby Abreu, their star, to the Yankees for four players who didn't pan out.  Then-GM Pat Gillick remarked that he had nothing against Abreu, but that it was time to let other leaders emerge on the team and that he didn't believe they could do so until Abreu left.  It wasn't anything that Abreu did per se, but it was that the energetic trio of Rollins, Utley and Howard was deferring to Abreu, who was more laid back.  That addition by subtraction, as it were, helped set a great team in motion.  Chemistry is key, even in a sport where players don't have to interact with each other all that much for a team to win the way they do in basketball or football.  Put differently, it's hard to believe that Jonathan Papelbon adds a whole lot to the mix in the locker room.

The Phillies, of course, have other problems.  Historically, their farm system hasn't been that good, and history even compels a conclusion that it wasn't all that good when it had the ability to trade prospect after prospect for the likes of Lee, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence.  That's because none of those prospects became a star and almost none became a regular.  Fast forward to today, and the cupboard down on the farm is rather bare.  A big payroll and few prospects doesn't augur well for a while.

Neither does a culture that has lost its mojo.


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