Time to continue The Great Missed Opportunity Series with the Philadelphia Phillies. The last pre-expansion franchise to win a World Series (it took until 1980 to win a crown), the Phightin’ Phils saw some classic face plants along the way.
The collapse of 1964, the failures in the 1976, 1977 and 1978 playoffs and of course Joe Carter’s home run to end the 1983 World Series come to mind right away.
But as per the rules of the series I created, we can not cover pre Wild Card era teams. Also it can not be a pennant winner, so the image of Johnny Damon taking an uncovered third base in the 2009 World Series won’t be rehashed.
In coming up with the Great Missed Opportunity team, there really were only two options. One was the 2010 squad, who looked like they were going to steamroll to their third straight National League pennant, especially after the playoffs began with Roy Halladay’s no hitter of the Reds.
But the 2010 team hit a buzzsaw known as the San Francisco Giants. Tim Lincecum, Cody Ross, Brian Wilson and company stunned the Phillies in 6 games on way to their first West Coast title.
That was a missed opportunity to be sure, but nothing compared to what happened the very next season. 2010 was going to be turned into a hiccup. The Phillies went into 2011 into the year when not only were they going to create a dynasty but also replace the Yankees and Red Sox as the big bad boys of baseball.
When it was all over, the narrative was not about a dynasty but of a squirrel.
The second Ryan Howard stood at homeplate after a called third strike ended the 2010 NLCS, the Phillies began plotting their revenge.
Everyone thought the Phillies were World Series bound in 2010. One of the main players of their 2009 pennant was playing in the World Series. Cliff Lee was the ace against the Yankees in ’09 but the Phillies dealt him away in the complex deal that brought Roy Halladay from Toronto.
Lee somehow ended up in Texas and pitching against the Giants. Phillies fans and no doubt Phillies management wished that he could have been on their staff along with Hallday, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, acquired in 2010 to fill the Lee gap.
But that sort of payroll and free agent gluttony was reserved for the Yankees or maybe the Red Sox.
When Cliff Lee hit free agency in the winter, the narrative was a tired familiar one: Would a superstar stay with their team or take the big money from the Yankees?
But somehow the Phillies inserted themselves into the narrative. They knew Lee liked his time in Philadelphia and at the last minute decided to act like the Yankees. They didn’t offer the most money (the Yankees were willing to break the bank) but the Phillies got their man.
There was some praise of Lee taking less money to sign with the Phillies, the main question was “is this the best pitching staff since the Braves of the 1990’s?”
And with that, the Phillies did not simply become favorites. They were the consensus pennant pick. Anything short of a National League pennant would be failure. How could a rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt not succeed?
Poor Joe Blanton looked out of place with those big arms but the Phillies were poised for big things.
They came out swinging. On opening day in Philadelphia, the Astros took a 4-2 lead into the 9th inning. The Phillies responded with 3 in the bottom of the 9th, ending on a walk off pinch hit by John Mayberry Jr.
They finished April with an 18-8 record. Save for one day in April, the Phillies never fell out of first place for a single day.
Halladay still was his Cy Young worthy stuff, finishing second in the final voting. Cole Hamels refound his stuff and rookie Vance Worley helped make up for a mid season injury of Roy Oswalt and finished the year 11-3.
But it was Cliff Lee who came through big time. He was the Pitcher of the Month in June, going 5-0 with a microscopic ERA of 0.21. He had more RBI in June (2) than earned runs (1) for the month.
The season felt like a formality. Ryan Madson took over Brad Lidge’s role as closer. Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins were no longer MVPs but still producing runs. Hunter Pence was putting up big numbers in Jayson Werth’s place.
The Phillies took 11 out of 13 games in late August and early September, putting the division away. With the Division Clinched in mid September, the team went on cruise control, dropping 9 of 10 while playing out the string.
But in the last series of the season, the Phillies showed resolve and shaped the post season in ways they could not have imagined. The Braves were trying to clinch the Wild Card spot but were spiraling. Lee and Oswalt won their first two games. A Braves loss and a Cardinals victory on the final day would eliminate their division rival and put the weaker St. Louis team in the post season.
Atlanta was a mere 3 outs from clinching a tie for a playoff spot and Craig Kimbrel was on the mound. The Phillies rallied to tie the game and went on to take the lead in the 13th. Freddie Freeman grounded into a double play to end the Braves season. The Phillies were not only going to the playoffs, but they were on a roll and shaping the post season picture.
They were avoiding the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Division Series and facing a weak St. Louis Cardinals team that was only in the playoffs because the Braves collapsed.
The Phillies finished the regular season with a 102-60 record, 13 games ahead of the second place Braves. They had the best record in baseball by 5 games. 25 ESPN experts made their playoff picks at the end of the season.
19 of them picked the Phillies to advance to the World Series. 13 picked the Phillies to win it all.
All 25 had the Phillies defeating the Cardinals in the Division Series.
The Division Series opened in Philadelphia with Roy Halladay on the mound. Lance Berkman hit a three run homer in the first inning, giving the Cardinals a 3 run advantage before the Phillies had a chance to bat. There was no no hitter this way.
The Cardinals took that 3-1 lead into the sixth when Ryan Howard launched a three run homer off of Kyle Lohse to give the Phillies the lead. It was the magical post season moment that made people feel Howard’s bloated contract was worth it, especially after a disappointing season. Raul Ibanez hit a 2 run homer in the same inning and before long, the Phillies were pulling away.
When it was all over, Philadelphia cheered on an 11-6 victory and Roy Halladay got the win.
In Game 2, Howard again delivered with a 2 run first inning single and the Phillies were up 4-0 after 2 innings with Cliff Lee on the mound. The Division Series was beginning to look like a formality. The overmatched Cardinals were doomed to land in the obscure “swept out of the Division Series” pile of forgotten playoff teams. The usually reliable Chris Carpenter was knocked out of the game after just 3 innings.
But the Cardinal bullpen shutdown the Phillies bats. Six relievers held Philadelphia to no runs, one hit and no walks over the final 6 innings. A three run fourth cut the lead to 4-3. The Cardinals would tie it in the 6th, rallying with 2 outs and nobody on. In the 7th, Albert Pujols singled home the go ahead run that would stick. Somehow the Cardinals showed their survival skills and brought the series back to St. Louis tied.
The Game 3 thriller was a pitchers duel between former NLCS and World Series MVP Cole Hamels and the 24 year old Jaime Garcia who was making his post season debut.
Both pitchers kept the game scoreless through six. In the 7th, Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa intentionally walked Carlos Ruiz with 2 outs and one on to bring up a pinch hitter for Hamels. Ben Francisco made the strategy backfire by launching a 3 run pinch hit homer to give the Phillies a 3-0 lead. They would hold on to the 3-2 victory and be a game from the NLCS.
Game 4 looked like a mismatch as Roy Oswalt took on inconsistent Edwin Jackson.
The Phillies took the early 2-0 lead in the first. Three batters into the game, they had a double by Jimmy Rollins, an RBI triple by Chase Utley and an RBI single by Hunter Pence. With Ryan Howard coming to the plate with a runner on, nobody out and 2 runs in, the possibility of a blowout inning was imminent. But Ryan Howard grounded into a double play and took the wind out of the inning.
The Cardinals came back with a first inning RBI double by Lance Berkman and a fourth inning 2 run double by David Freese.
And, most famously, Roy Oswalt got distracted by a squirrel running across home plate during a pitch and was called a ball.
Granted, the squirrel didn’t really affect the game greatly, but seemed to symbolize a series that was skittering away from Philadelphia due to unpredictable circumstances.
Jackson and the bullpen all pitched well and St. Louis took game 4 by a 5-3 final, setting up a showdown between Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter in a winner take all Game 5.
Phillies fans seemed understandably nervous seeing the series go to a do or die finale. This was supposed to be an easy tune up for the NLCS and the march to their third pennant in four years.
Two batters into the game, the Cardinals struck Halladay for a run when Skip Schumaker doubled home Rafael Furcal.
Fortunately for the Phillies, Halladay was up to the task, pitching brilliantly the rest of the way. Unfortunately, Carpenter matched him inning for inning.
The Phillies put runners in scoring position in the second and fourth but could not score them.
The Cardinals loaded the bases in the 8th, but Halladay got out of the jam.
With every pitch, Carpenter was facing the tying run, but the mighty Phillies could not put a rally together.
With 2 outs and nobody on and down 1-0, the Phillies season rested on Ryan Howard’s shoulders. A game tying homer would cement him as one of the most loved Philadelphia sports figures ever.
On a 2-2 pitch, he hit one to second base and collapsed on the ground with a ruptured Achillies.
Carpenter and the Cardinals celebrated the series victory as Howard was carried off of the field.
The symbolism of the Phillies collapse ending literally with their expensive star unable to stand up seemed lost on nobody.
The Cardinals would go on to beat the Brewers in the NLCS and win the World Series in a wild come from behind 7 game series against Texas. They had the image of the squirrel on their World Series rings.
Imagine what could have been for the Phillies. Their wonderful run of Division Titles and post season appearances ended with Howard’s at bat. They fell to 81-81 in 2012 and 73-89 in 2013. Many of their high priced players started to fade and were unmovable because of their contracts. Both Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt retired.
Imagine if the Phillies had won Game 2 with Lee on the mound or captured the series in the fifth game. They probably would have cut through Milwaukee and Texas like a hot knife through butter, especially after being tested by St. Louis.
A World Series title in 2011 would have done more than cap a remarkable run. They would have gone from 2007 to 2011 with three pennants, winning two World Series and being the Division Champ each year for five years. In the modern age of free agency, that is as close to a dynasty that anyone could hope for.
Their multiple titles would have separated them from the Bobby Cox Braves in terms of a long term legacy. Perhaps they would have been seen as the best National League team since the Big Red Machine.
Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cliff Lee would have all received the rings that eluded them throughout their careers.
And the home grown players with multiple rings like Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Madson could have been the National League answer to Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera et al.
Plus Charlie Manuel could have been putting together a Hall of Fame resume as a manager. Instead he was fired midway through 2013 to make room for another Hall of Famer, Ryne Sandberg.
The Phillies would have become the dominating force in baseball and a place to go to in order to win a ring. And in the Northeast, where bragging rights have added venom for baseball, giving the advantage to Philadelphia over New York or Boston would have created a new dynamic.
But more than that, the Phillies could have laid claim to the unofficial title of “Greatest Philadelphia Sports Team Ever.” The run would have been better than the Mike Schmidt years, or the Broad Street Bullies Flyers, or any Eagles team. Perhaps only the Dr. J 76ers or Connie Mack’s Athletics from the 1920s and 1930s could challenge them, but the multiple World Series titles might have given the title to the Phillies.
Instead the Phillies had a damn good run of it. A title and back to back World Series appearances are nothing to be ashamed of, especially after going from 1983 to 2008 without a title of any kind in the City of Brotherly Love.
And the team does not seem to be able to let go, making strange roster moves as if a pennant is still right around the corner.
It is not and the Phillies will continue to fall back into the pack. The chance for a dynasty was so close. Truly a great missed opportunity.