Phillies' playoff-tested core sets tone for team

Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are among five Phillies who have started 33 straight playoff games for the team. (Michael S. Wirtz/Staff file photo)
Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are among five Phillies who have started 33 straight playoff games for the team. (Michael S. Wirtz/Staff file photo) (Jonathan Tannenwald)
Posted: October 15, 2010

When the Phillies take the field Saturday night to a sold-out, towel-waving crowd in South Philadelphia, they will continue a major-league record. Five Phillies - Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, and Shane Victorino - have each started in 33 consecutive postseason games, the longest such streak for five players on any one team. Another, Jayson Werth, has started 32 straight in the postseason.

So it is no coincidence the Phillies are 6-0 in their last six elimination games in the postseason. When given the chance to close out an opponent, they do. No series in the last four seasons has reached a deciding fifth or seventh game.

So here they are, winners of 52 of their last 71 games, four wins away from another trip to the World Series. They meet the San Francisco Giants in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at Citizens Bank Park as the prohibitive favorites to become the first NL team to win three straight pennants since St. Louis did it from 1942 to 1944.

Perhaps NLCS Game 1 starter Roy Halladay, he of the NLDS no-hitter in his postseason debut, provided the best insight, when he compared this clubhouse to the one he spent 12 seasons in with Toronto. He was shocked at the dedication and quiet poise the Phillies have. He called Utley "the Derek Jeter of the National League."

After sweeping Cincinnati in the division series, there was no grand celebration as before. The players sprayed one another with champagne, but it was almost like going through the motions.

Away from the pack, a soaked Roy Oswalt could see the differences.

"These guys have been to this place before," he said. "The biggest celebration is that last game of the World Series."

While the Phillies have added parts along the way to the larger puzzle - Brad Lidge, Raul Ibanez, Placido Polanco, Halladay, and Oswalt - they remain able to rely on the confidence and experience the core group of position players has created in the clubhouse.

"It helps players feel like they don't need to do more than what they can do," Lidge said. "They know they can rely on other players to do their jobs. In the postseason, everyone has had a good measure of success. So we can fall back on that. 'You get your job done, I'll get my job done.' "

It is this unbridled confidence many of the Phillies possess. They carry it over from the postseason to the regular season, when a 162-game schedule rarely calls for panic simply because of the ups and downs that can occur.

But this regular season was the greatest test yet for the core group of players that has been on this rewarding ride from the beginning.

It was the undisputed low point of the season. Following another deflating loss in St. Louis, the Phillies filed solemnly into the visitors' clubhouse at Busch Stadium. A few feet away in the manager's office, Charlie Manuel was again at a loss for words.

Earlier in the day, in that same room, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had meetings with Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee. The starting rotation was in shambles - Kyle Kendrick was sent down, Jamie Moyer's elbow was fraying, and J.A. Happ was a giant unknown. Amaro and the rest of the Phillies' brass had debated the idea of breaking up parts of the Phillies' core - the players there from the beginning of this run - for pitching help, for some kind of spark.

After the 5-1 loss to the Cardinals on July 21 that kept the Phillies seven games back of first place, Manuel - sensing the critical point of the season had been reached - went on the offensive.

"I've been giving everybody in that locker room a chance," the manager said tersely. "If you can hit, please do. What the hell? That's not taking a shot at one guy. That's covering all the territory."

That night in St. Louis, a few players put their arms in the air as if to say, "What else can we do?"

"That's not the team we are," Victorino said that night.

Who were they? "I don't know," Victorino said. "We're a better team than that. We're not showing it."

During those four days in St. Louis that resulted in three losses, more than a few players repeated the refrain: "There is plenty of time." Another popular one: "We've been here before."

Turns out they were right.

"That was the day when we were looking at each other and saying, 'We have to go now,' " Lidge recalled recently. "That's what it took for us to do it. We had to. Otherwise, it was going to go the wrong way."

Sure enough, it went the right way. Obviously, a major factor in that was Amaro and his assistants shrewdly working out a deal for Oswalt without trading away any core pieces. A few players said they were aware of what the front office was kicking around. They chose not to worry about it.

"It's not over," Rollins said to reporters after the first loss in St. Louis. "It's not over. You can write it like it's over. But the guys with the bats and the balls - they control what the pen says."

Maybe that's where the confidence morphs into a bit of cockiness, but the majority of the clubhouse takes its cues from those core players. Each does it a different way, but they all have been major contributors to winning.

In the days leading up to the NLCS, the Phillies' numbers during the regular season against San Francisco's pitching have been repeated over and over as a warning sign. When presented with the stats, Victorino laughed.

"It's baseball," Victorino said. "It's a totally different time of year. You guys keep throwing out that this guy was 5-0 and this guy was 3-3. You can write all that down on a piece of paper, hand it to me, and I'll throw it in the trash. It's a different experience."

These Phillies would know.

Contact staff writer Matt Gelb

at 215-854-2928 or Follow on Twitter @magelb.

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