Phillies look a lot like Braves of the 1990s

"I know everybody kind of tries to judge it by how many rings you have," Cole Hamels admitted. (Yong Kim/Staff file photo)
"I know everybody kind of tries to judge it by how many rings you have," Cole Hamels admitted. (Yong Kim/Staff file photo)
Posted: October 10, 2011

COLE HAMELS grew up in the Phillies organization at a time when the Atlanta Braves were the role models with the Achilles' heel.

"Even now, every time I go to Atlanta I still see all those banners," he was saying in the wee hours of Saturday morning, after the Phillies' season had abruptly ended. "And that's showing some serious kind of success. But I know everybody kind of tries to judge it by how many rings you have, like the Yankees . . . and I know we've kind of fallen into that judgment now."

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, and most of the hours since, that is what you are left with. The undeniable awareness that the baton has been passed, that this five-straight-division-championships thing for the Phillies has become as much asterisk as it is exclamation.

World Series win, World Series loss, National League Championship Series loss, and now, National League Division Series loss. The more they spend, the more the Phillies go for it, the less is accomplished come October. They have a starting staff that everybody salivates over. They had a core intact that just a couple of years before led the league in runs. When they struggled to score, they traded for All-Star rightfielder Hunter Pence. They have become artists at picking up Rule 5 guys. This year, their farm system produced a starting pitcher (Vance Worley), a seventh-inning guy (Michael Stutes), a setup guy with closer stuff (Antonio Bastardo). John Mayberry Jr., acquired in a minor trade after the 2008 season, emerged as a righthanded offensive threat, belting 15 home runs and driving in 49 runs in limited play.

So why aren't they playing tonight? What's wrong with the model?

"I don't know," said Hamels, whose offseason will include minor surgery to remove loose bodies from his pitching elbow, followed by hernia surgery. "Shoot, I thought last year we had a great shot. And this year we had a really good shot. That's the hard thing about baseball. It's not necessarily how many All-Star players or champion guys you have on your team. It's who's playing the best at that moment. We had some guys playing pretty good but . . . "

But not many. Ryan Howard struggled. From the 3-hole, Pence hit everything into the ground. Chase Utley was thrown out twice trying to take an extra base. Raul Ibanez and Shane Victorino found their swings too late. The truth is, this was a season in which the entire lineup save Pence struggled with injuries and consistency. The postseason was not an aberration in that regard. It was emblematic.

But let's not forget what happened here. Two of the Fab Four allowed four runs or more in their starts. After listening all season about complete games in the playoffs, three of the four did not get past the seventh. If anything reminded of the Braves' shortcomings, it was that. It is one thing to rack up pitching statistics over 162 games against a league of foes. It is quite another to duplicate those numbers against a team fighting for its life.

Only twice did Phillies starters get to pitch with an early lead. They lost both of those games.

"You look at that other lineup and see what kind of batting averages those guys had, it's pretty impressive," Hamels said of the Cardinals. "And that was for a whole season and they were fighting to the end. Everything has to align."

It did for the Phillies in 2008. The opponents, how they got there, were tailor-made for that run. But they still needed Carlos Ruiz to squib that ball so perfectly down to third, still needed Geoff Jenkins to bang that pinch-hit double and Utley to make that heady throw home, still needed Hamels to pitch out of his mind. Had he been even a shadow of that guy in 2009, we'd likely be talking about a team with two rings.

And now? Threatened by injury, age and contract status, the core group that enabled a baseball era so often called golden in this town might finally fracture beyond identity this postseason. Jimmy Rollins dropped big hints down the stretch that he would issue no discount nor was particularly enamored with his non-adoring public. Howard's Achilles' problem could further accelerate his power decline. At this point, no one knows if Utley will ever hit .300 again, never mind hit for power.

Ibanez, who came here via free agency as a highly touted replacement for Pat Burrell, is likely to leave via free agency. There will likely be no Brad Lidge in Clearwater next spring. There might be no Ryan Madson, as well. That's all natural, even for teams amid a run. Terry Pendleton was the Braves' third baseman when their string of 14 straight division titles began. He was their hitting coach when it ended.

One ring. Five tries. Overachievers to underachievers.

"You don't get to play this game for too long," Hamels said. "So it is kind of tough to see it slide through your fingertips. You don't want to see the core guys exit without at least something to show for it. And the last few years, we really haven't had anything to show for it."