Starting pitching is what has propelled the Nationals from pretenders to contenders: They added Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson in the offseason and got (nearly) a full season out of Stephen Strasburg. It's also what fueled the Phillies to a franchise-record 102 wins in 2011.
But the best-laid plans don't always pan out, as 2012 in South Philly has illustrated.
With Halladay's aforementioned health and age and Vance Worley's so-so sophomore season, there are plenty of uncertainties in a rotation that has largely underachieved this summer. One of the pitchers who began to represent one of the few reasons for hope in 2013 has once again looked a question mark this month.
Three of the first 22 pitches Kyle Kendrick threw Wednesday night went for souvenirs as Washington powered passed the Phils, 8-4.
Despite six shutout innings from the first three relievers who followed Kendrick, the Phillies couldn't recover from his second uneasy start in his last three games.
Kendrick, who had allowed just seven home runs in his previous 76 1/3 innings, walked the game's first batter before Bryce Harper reached out and launched the first pitch he saw over the fence in left-center for the first of three Nationals home runs in the first two innings.
Kendrick was gone after the first two batters of the third inning reached safely. He was charged with five runs (four earned) in two innings.
It was his shortest start of the season.
"He had a rough go," manager Charlie Manuel said of Kendrick. "It looked like he left some offspeed pitches up. He wasn't putting the ball where he wanted."
Said Kendrick: "Most of the night I was behind in the count and up in the zone. That's what happens."
Since going 5-2 with a 2.72 ERA in his first eight starts since replacing Joe Blanton in the rotation, Kendrick is 1-2 with a 6.59 ERA in his last three starts.
Kendrick, who is as much of a lock for a rotation spot next spring as Worley, is 8-11 with a 4.09 ERA in 24 starts.
But Kendrick is just one of five. And in a year when the Phillies will spend October at home for the first time since 2006, the much-hyped starting rotation has flopped.
After 155 games, Phillies starting pitchers have a 3.84 ERA, which ranks eighth in the 16-team National League. It's also nearly a run higher than last season, when their 2.86 ERA was the best in baseball.
Take away Cole Hamels' stellar stats and the rotation's ERA climbs to 4.03.
"It gets back to consistency," Manuel said. "There are spots on our staff that we definitely need to fix. There are weaknesses there that we definitely need to concentrate on."
Of course, a sturdy starting staff isn't the only way to build a World Series-or-bust team. The Phillies' rotation had ERAs of 4.23 and 4.29 in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
But on a team where the offensive players either fall into the aging and declining category or the young and unproven, a starting pitching staff that will earn nearly $70 million in 2013 can't underachieve for a second straight season.
"It's been a tough year, obviously, teamwise," Kendrick said. "We want to some back next year and have better years than we're having. Next year is a ways away. Anything can happen."
A night that began with a hat trick of home runs off Kendrick ended with an unexpected barrage of boos at a former Phillie. With the game still within reach - the Phils trailed 5-4 at the start of the ninth - Jayson Werth fielded a foul ball from the on-deck circle and faked tossing it to fans before tossing it into the dugout.
"They wanted to get on him - that's all part of it," Manuel said. "It was no big deal to me, it didn't bother me one way or another."
The previously dead ballpark immediately broke out into a chorus of boos, which Werth only fueled further when he hit a two-run single to ice the game.
"That was the first time I've heard it get that loud while I was playing," said reliever Justin De Fratus, whose second pitch to Werth was high and tight. "In that sense, it was cool to hear the crowd get that loud."
Werth, of course, will be going with Washington to the playoffs. A rowdy Citizens Bank Park, meanwhile, will likely host its last game of 2012 on Thursday night.
Contact Ryan Lawrence at email@example.com.