For six months, it seemed impossible that the Phillies season could end this way. Behind the arms of their four aces, the acquisition of Hunter Pence and the complete domination of the rest of the National League, this team was destined for the World Series. It just had to happen. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels--these men deserved to pitch again on the greatest stage in baseball No matter how much of a crapshoot baseball playoffs are, no matter how small of a sample size a five-game series is--none of that mattered to Phillies fans.
Was the offense perfect? Of course not, but it wasn’t too shabby either. Could the aces fold? Of course, but the work ethics and mentalities of Lee, Hamels and Halladay were never questioned. And yet, as Ryan Howard crumpled to the ground in pain, as Nick Punto casually flipped the ball to Albert Pujols for the final out in last night's clincher, the nightmares became reality. The Phillies were out of the playoffs. The World Series would not come to Philadelphia. And there was nothing anybody could do about it.
That’s the worst part about the whole thing. As well as the aces pitched--and they did pitch well, good enough to give any offense a chance to win--it just wasn’t good enough. As great as the acquisition of Pence was, his going four-for-19 in his first career playoff series wasn’t the offense the Phillies were looking for. As hard as the team played the whole season, as good as they looked--that was all useless, nothing more than another great team that didn’t win it all.
Even with a 1-0 deficit in the first inning, there wasn't a single Phillies fan watching who didn’t believe their team would at least tie the game. There was no way that team, with all those veterans, would go down without a fight. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins...there was just no way it was going to happen. A bloop single, a stolen base. A moment like we’d seen time and time again with these Phillies--a moment just like Ben Francisco provided in the third game of the series. It had to be coming. It needed to come. It always had.
Except, as you all know, it didn’t. The Phils managed just three hits all game against Cards ace Chris Carpenter. That offense, inconsistent for the last three years, failed to show up. There weren’t any major mistakes, no costly errors that are easy to point out. Sure, Shane Victorino’s relay throw wasn’t great in the first inning, but Furcal would have scored that inning whether he’d been at second or third.
If you think about it, what happened to the Phillies is no real surprise--everybody knows what the baseball playoffs are. They’re called the second season for a reason. Everything that happens over those previous six months--not the 102 wins, not the pitching domination, not the Braves sweep--is forgotten, gone, vanished. What was a 30-team marathon becomes an 8-team sprint, with every team back on even footing. The fact that the Cardinals were 10.5 games out in August is meaningless, just as much as the fact that the Phillies had packed it in halfway through September.
Even the best teams lose thirty or forty percent of their games. That’s not a small percentage, and a one-game sample size is no way to determine a season--that’s a reality. Unfortunately, sports aren’t based on regular season performance, they’re based on playoff performance, which is to put quite a load in the hands of lady luck. As badly as the Phillies wanted it--as badly as their fans wanted it--that’s just simply not enough to win a game, especially when your opponent wants it just as badly. This wasn’t a matter of not playing hard enough, not caring or not taking the Cardinals seriously. This was a matter of two teams with great pitchers on the mound playing one game for their season, and one team having just a slightly better night than the other.
So now we have to look forward to 2012, which suddenly seems full of questions. Ryan Howard’s probable Achilles tear on the final play of the game was a fantastic way to add injury to insult, taking the Phillies first basemen out for the offseason and probably part of next year as well with rehab. Ryan Madson, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels are all free agents, and it’s possible that only Hamels will return. Roy Oswalt has a mutual option for 2012, and it would be unlikely the team would pick that option up when they need money for Hamels and potentially Rollins.
However, it’s not really as bad as it seems. Shane Victorino, John Mayberry, and Hunter Pence still make up a very solid outfield, both offensively and defensively. Polanco and Utley will be back, though what the Phillies will get from them offensively is highly questionable. The bullpen should be very solid (and young) next year, between Antonio Bastado, Mike Stutes, Michael Schwimer, David Herndon and either Justin de Fratus or Joe Savery. Toss in a veteran or two over the offseason--or bring back Madson, which I prefer--and there is talent in the back end. The rotation still features Halladay, Hamels, Lee and Worley, none of whom showed any signs of regression at the end of the season.
On a day like today, though, nobody wants to be looking forward to next year. The only image is that of the Cardinals celebrating, while Howard is down on the ground in pain. The only feeling is emptiness--today was a day Phillies fans should have been celebrating an upcoming series against the Brewers, not trying to come up with answers about what went wrong and who to blame. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. Not this year. Not this team.
Josh Verlin is the lead columnist for BuzzOnBroad.com. He can be found on Twitter @jmverlin