Some Phillies pin poor season on injuries, but facts suggest otherwise

Leftfielder Juan Pierre robs Mark DeRosa of a home run in the first inning.
Leftfielder Juan Pierre robs Mark DeRosa of a home run in the first inning. (GREG FIUME / GETTY IMAGES)
Posted: October 05, 2012

WASHINGTON - Some teams gradually rise to the top, like a long-distance runner completing his first marathon. Others are stagnant, the equivalent of riding a stationary bike.

The Phillies, meanwhile, would be that stationary bike if it came off its hinges and rolled down a hill.

In each of the last four seasons, the Phillies have gone backward in their pursuit of a second championship. They followed up a World Series win with a World Series loss in 2009 and lost to San Francisco in the National League Championship Series, two wins shy of returning to the World Series in 2010. Last year, they got bounced in the first round of the playoffs.

In 2012, they finished 81-81 and missed out on the postseason altogether.

Despite the consistent decline, the Phillies have not lost their swagger.

When a lost season came to a fitting end on Wednesday in Washington, with Cliff Lee as a hard-luck loser in a 5-1 defeat to the Nationals, the Phils spoke with confidence.

As the Nationals moved on to the postseason and the Phillies fled for their offseason homes in the first week of October, the former champs figured the roles could have been reversed pretty easily with a regular, healthy lineup.

"They had a good year, they're a talented team," Jimmy Rollins said of the Nationals, who won 98 games and secured the top seed in the National League playoffs. "But with us being healthy, they're still second place. But we weren't."

It was a bold statement from a former MVP who's been known for bold statements. And it doesn't exactly hold up when you consider the Nationals players lost a total of 1,121 games to injuries this season, including 380 from their core players, including their All-Star third baseman (Ryan Zimmerman), closer (Drew Storen), catcher (Wilson Ramos), shortstop (Ian Desmond) and their most expensive player (Jayson Werth), among others.

But it was a refrain that was popular in the visiting clubhouse on Wednesday afternoon because it was something they could all cling to and rally around when they meet again in 4 months in Florida.

"Injuries hurt us pretty bad this year," Lee said. "Yeah, the other teams in this division have gotten better, so nothing is going to come easy. If we're healthy and guys are out there playing the way we can, then we can beat anyone. We're not as concerned about what the other teams are doing."

The Phillies' season ended not unlike it started, without a full stable of able players.

Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz were the only regulars who played in the final three games. Rollins and Ryan Howard ended the season nursing injuries and even rookie starter Tyler Cloyd was scratched with arm fatigue this week.

When a season filled with promises of a long postseason began 6 months ago, Utley was out of the Opening Day lineup for the second straight year and so, too, was Howard. They didn't begin to play games together until the Friday before the All-Star break.

A week later, the last-place Phillies were 37-51 - a season-high 14 games under .500 and 15 games back of the Nationals in the National League East. By that time, Roy Halladay also had been on the disabled list for 6 weeks.

"I don't think we had a chance this year to come together as a team," closer Jonathan Papelbon said. "We didn't have all the pieces in place. It's just tough to do. For me, if you have a group of guys who play together and play with a certain camaraderie and a brotherly attitude, I think that goes a lot further than just having talent . . . We never really got in sync."

The Phils flirted with consistency for the first time all year when they went on a spirited run in September, sneaking their way into the wild-card race. But they couldn't make up in the final 4 weeks what they created in the first 4 months: a deficit that was too large to climb out of.

"When you pull two of the main pieces out, it's hard to find who you are and keep your identity," Rollins said of the Utley and Howard injuries. "That was a lot in the first half. It was, 'Which way are we going to go with what we have?' But when they came back, everything started to settle in and we played better."

According to the players, the Phillies can reboot and regain their status as the division's top team with a full, healthy roster in 2013.

But according to the manager, the Phillies' troubles in 2012 probably ran much deeper than having a roster crippled with injuries to key players. As he sat solemnly in the visiting manager's office after a defeat that clinched the Phillies' first non-winning season since 2002, Manuel didn't sport the same bravado as his longtime leadoff hitter.

"I'm not making any excuses," Manuel said. "We didn't play good baseball. We made a lot of mistakes . . . We still have a ways to go to be a top-notch club and compete for our division."

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