The Philadelphia Phillies, winners of 102 regular-season games, owners of the greatest starting rotation in years, the New York Yankees of the National League, are one game away from doing what the Yankees did Thursday: end their season with a throaty, dying yowl, like a thoroughbred being put down.
It's great theater, the drama that coursed through Game 5 of Detroit punking New York expected in equal measures when Philadelphia plays host to the St. Louis Cardinals in their NL Division Series finale at 8:30 p.m. ET Friday. Still, these are the Phillies, Sports Illustrated cover boys every third week, about whom hymns and paeans have been spoken and written – including by yours truly – and they're being bullied by a team that sneaked through the playoffs' backdoor on the last day thanks to some neat puppeteering from their manager, Dorian Gray.
On the surface, the Yankees losing makes a lot more sense than the Phillies. New York entered this postseason with the same rotation issues as last and bowed out in the same fashion, and Yu Darvish could not thank them any more. Philadelphia, on the other hand, threw Roy Halladay(notes) in Game 1, Cliff Lee(notes) in Game 2, Cole Hamels(notes) in Game 3 and Roy Oswalt(notes) in Game 4. They won Halladay's start on a fierce offensive showing – the sort of which they're capable of unleashing every now and again – and needed a three-run pinch-hit homer to account for all the scoring in Hamels' turn. They spotted Lee a 4-0 lead and Oswalt a 2-0 advantage and couldn't stomp on St. Louis' throats in either.
The numbers that matter more to the Phillies' postseason struggles than their ERA or slugging percentage are 32, 31, 32, 32, 35, 39, 30 and 28. Those would be the ages, respectively, of regulars Carlos Ruiz(notes), Ryan Howard(notes), Chase Utley(notes), Jimmy Rollins(notes), Placido Polanco(notes), Raul Ibanez(notes), Shane Victorino(notes) and Hunter Pence(notes). One 20-something in a game that features the rigors of a 162-game season without the amphetamine pick-me-ups on which so many 30-somethings subsisted for years.
Just as the Phillies' inability to hit San Francisco's pitching doomed them in the NLCS last season, their troubles with St. Louis' inferior arms remain the story of the series entering this NLDS Game 5 – certainly much more than the prevailing plotline of the finale.
Halladay and Chris Carpenter, his opponent, are good pals, fishing and golfing buddies in the offseason, similarly monotonous pitching robots who came up in Toronto, flamed out and found success after failure. Now, best of all, they are about to face each other for the first time. Fans, worms and fish win alike. They should make a buddy movie or something.
Amid the warm fuzzies and Kumbaya, meanwhile, the city of Philadelphia relishes the prospect of hosting a squirrel-less Game 5 while trembling at the possibility of another inert offensive performance. Front and center so far is Howard, whose 2-for-15 NLDS has looked an awful lot like Alex Rodriguez's(notes) awful ALDS. A-Rod has six years and $153 million remaining on his contract. Howard's five-year $125 million extension kicks in next season.
Ruiz has one single in 14 at-bats and an ailing Polanco two singles in 16. Victorino and Pence each have four hits, all singles. The Phillies have mustered a .299 on-base percentage and .381 slugging percentage against a Cardinals' staff that started Kyle Lohse(notes), Carpenter on three days' rest, Jaime Garcia(notes) and Edwin Jackson(notes). And it's not just the postseason, either. Philadelphia scored the second-fewest runs of the eight playoff teams this season, only six more than Tampa Bay.
The Phillies' pitching masked their offensive vulnerability. The addition of Pence helped, certainly, imbuing their Social Security lineup with a talented whippersnapper. It couldn't change anyone else's birth certificate. The Phillies were the oldest team in the major leagues, with an average age of nearly 31, and they bear a slight resemblance to the Yankees teams of the mid-2000s whose veteran savvy never could make up for their comparative lack of talent.
"These guys got old quick," said one scout who saw the Phillies late in the season.
"I don't care how old they are," said another. "They still can play."
Which is a silver lining in all of this: The Phillies' offense really shouldn't need to do that much. After giving up a three-run homer in the first inning of Game 1 to Lance Berkman(notes), Halladay threw seven perfect innings. Even if Cardinals manager Tony La Russa wants to preemptively deem the game a "classic," and Carpenter's gem on the season's final day got the Cardinals here, the Phillies send out Doc, and the odds remain with them accordingly.
"We're facing the best pitcher in the game, and you never know what that'll bring," Berkman said. "It's a tall task. We're not looking at it like it's an impossible task."
Nor should they. This is a Phillies team whose incredible strength may not be enough to overcome a glaring weakness. Yes, Rollins is on fire (.563/.588/.813 in the first four games), Utley is right there with him (.462/.588/.813) and those are the lineup's top two pieces. What comes after them needs to do more, now, unless the Phillies want their most hopeful season yet to whir counter-clockwise down a porcelain bowl.
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"I think [the] setting here is ideal for us," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "We're in our ballpark, and we're going to have a full house, and everything is going to be going for us. I think basically what we've got to do, we've got to just be ourselves and play like we can."
The Phillies can be great. They can win the World Series and they can shut down Broad Street for a day again to celebrate and they can claim themselves the true dynasty of this era.
They can also be improbably troubled, pressed against the wall by a Cardinals team with the bats the Phillies sure could use. They've got one night to find them before baseball hears its second yowl in as many days.
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