This one hurts the most

Posted: October 08, 2011

By losing in the first round of the playoffs, the Phillies fell further and harder than they have since they stood at baseball's summit in 2008. Losing the World Series to the New York Yankees in 2009 was tough. Losing the National League Championship Series to San Francisco last year was tougher still, especially because Phillies fans had to watch the Giants celebrate at Citizens Bank Park.

But this? Squandering a 102-win season and the best starting rotation in baseball? Taking another step backward despite an enormous payroll and a never-ending string of sellout crowds? Losing a winner-takes-all game, at home, to the St. Louis Cardinals?

"I think this one hurts more," manager Charlie Manuel said. "Right now, I've got some anger, I've got some questions, and I just feel very empty."

This loss took the Phillies from feel-good breakers of the city's championship drought to the gut-punch territory long occupied by the Eagles and Flyers. Really, you have to go back to the Eagles' NFC championship game losses to Tampa Bay and Carolina - both at home, both against lesser teams, just like this - to find a one-game disappointment of this caliber.

"It sucks," said Ryan Howard, who endured the double pain of tearing his Achilles tendon while grounding into the final out. "It sucks to be in this situation, making the last out and having it happen the way it happened. We want to be on the other side of that and we came up short."

In time, this season will be remembered for the fun times. For watching Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels work their magic, for that feeling that the Phillies were going to win every time they took the field.

In simpler times (like, say, 2007), that would have been satisfying. No longer, especially as this team has stockpiled Cy Young Award winners.

"You only play this game so long," Hamels said. "It's hard to watch it slip through your fingers."

There are only so many realistic opportunities to win championships, and this franchise just squandered its third in a row. That is the real pity for the Phillies and especially their fans. Halladay and Lee have only so many great years left in their golden arms. Jimmy Rollins could be playing elsewhere next year. So many things can derail a team this good over the course of a season - injuries, slumps, a hot division rival - that you just can't count on being where the Phillies have been five years in a row.

After bringing Lee back to join Halladay, Hamels, and Roy Oswalt, the Phillies were compared in the most favorable ways to the great Atlanta Braves teams of the '90s and '00s. They now will fear the less-favorable comparisons. Despite all those great pitchers and all those division titles, the Braves had just one World Series title to show for their greatness.

"We had a championship-caliber team from the beginning of the season," Lee said. "We had higher expectations. This is a disappointing year."

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. put his chips on pitchers, but it was his hitters who failed for the third consecutive postseason.

The Phillies hit just .227 in the 2009 World Series. They hit .216 and scored just 20 runs in six NLCS games against the Giants. In this series, they hit .226 as a team. After scoring 11 runs in Game 1, they scored less than half that (10) over the final four games. The Phillies scored exactly zero runs, on just three hits, in what they all knew was the most important game of their season.

Howard's injury was both serious and unmistakably symbolic. Before he tore his Achilles tendon, the postseason had become his Achilles heel.

Manuel's reputation also will be tarnished. The Cards' Tony La Russa changed his lineups for every game. He played hunches and kept the Phillies reacting to his aggressive approach to his pitching staff. Manuel kept his lineup the same for all five games, with the single exception of starting John Mayberry Jr. against a lefthander in Game 3.

With Manuel, it's about the players. He showed confidence in his and was rewarded with listless offensive performances in four consecutive games. For example, Manuel never replaced or pinch-hit for Placido Polanco, who looked utterly lost at the plate. At least Polanco can spend the offseason feeling respected.

With La Russa, it is about the manager and how he can position the players for different situations. It worked at least partly because the Phillies could not find a way to make him pay. They meekly gave in to every reliever they faced after the first game.

Another year passes, then, without a ring for Halladay and Lee, who came here to win.

For the first time, you have to wonder whether they picked the wrong place.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan.

 

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