PHILADELPHIA – Three years ago the Phillies were swept in the division series by an opponent so hot the month was renamed. Two years ago they won the franchise's first World Series in 28 years, braving inclement weather and a delayed game to squash a fairy-tale foe. Last year they again made it to the World Series, only to falter in the lavish new home of baseball's pinstriped pedigree.
That's a lot of, well, … experience. And as in most of life's endeavors, the accumulation of knowledge and skill is a plus in baseball. It can be drawn on in times of torment, leaned on when circumstances disorient, used for traction when churning forward is the only option.
On the day before beginning the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants, the Phillies players took comfort in their been-there, done-this status.
Utley, Victorino, first baseman Ryan Howard(notes), shortstop Jimmy Rollins(notes), catcher Carlos Ruiz(notes) and right fielder Jayson Werth(notes) and utility man Greg Dobbs(notes) have been on the last four Phillies playoff teams. So have starter Cole Hamels(notes) and relievers Ryan Madson(notes) and J.C. Romero(notes).
Closer Brad Lidge(notes), starter Joe Blanton(notes) and reliever Chad Durbin(notes) were added in 2008. Left fielder and 15-year veteran Raul Ibanez(notes) was signed before the 2009 season and third baseman and 13-year veteran Placido Polanco(notes) was added before this season. The most impactful additions are at the front of the rotation; No. 1 starter Roy Halladay(notes) hooked on as a free agent before this season (essentially replacing the departed Cliff Lee(notes)) and No. 2 starter Roy Oswalt(notes) was acquired in a trade at midseason (essentially replacing the ageless but injured Jamie Moyer(notes)).
Postseason chops are something the Phillies earned together. The Giants have a few individuals with playoff experience – interestingly, outfielders Pat Burrell(notes) and Aaron Rowand(notes) accumulated some as Phillies – but nothing as a group. No player remains from the last Giants team that made the playoffs, in 2003.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy can't help but admire what he sees in the opposing dugout.
"What a great foundation they had [in 2008]," he said of the Phillies. "They tweaked it a little bit. But no, I'm not surprised to see what they've done. You'd have to say they are the elite club in the league."
When Ruiz, who his teammates consider the Phillies MVP this season, lifts his mask from behind the plate and looks onto the field, he doesn't just see eight teammates. He sees eight friends, eight brothers, eight fellow warriors.
"The key is, we are like a family," he said. "I know how each guy is going to play. I know how each guy is going to respond. Whether it's positioning and cutoff plays or running the bases or throwing a certain pitch at a certain time, I know what is going to happen."
Communication is done in shorthand.
"When we get to the dugout, I say, 'Time for action,' and it triggers something," Ruiz said. "Everybody knows what I mean. We start swinging the bats."
Their failures count, too. The idea is, they are stronger for them. Hamels was the World Series MVP in 2008 and disparaged a year later for seemingly displaying a weak will when he said during the World Series that he couldn't "wait for the season to end."
This year he appears primed to excel, shutting out the Cincinnati Reds in Game 3 of the Phillies' NLDS sweep. He held court Friday afternoon, explaining in an authoritative voice what it takes to win in the postseason.
"In order to win a World Series, you have to do everything right," he said. "Hold runners on base, field your position, back up bases, hit behind the runner, move guys up. Everything is magnified. Everything is different. The stats don't show it all the time.
"It's not like stock market trends. You can't easily predict what's going to happen. The guy you least expect can be the hero. Look for the unexpected."
Asked if he could have made similar observations three years ago, Hamels grinned sheepishly. "I guess not," he said. "Experience counts for something. I hope for us, it counts a lot."