2008 Phillies in Review
As I put the bow on the 2008 Phillies season, I have a lot of reflections and a few interesting questions. This championship, perhaps more than any other in recent baseball memory, really was a full team effort. So many of the "little guys" made big contributions in huge spots down the stretch, it really is hard to believe. Even the choice of World Series MVP was a very close one -- I have no problem awarding it to Cole Hamels after the incredible pitching performances he put up in Game 1 and Game 5, leaving the game in line for the win in both of them and giving up 2 runs, including errors leading to most of those runs, in each game. Hamels was awesome, all season, all playoffs and all World Series. But just think of all the big efforts made by different members of this team in the World Series overall.
First, you have to mention Chase Utley, who somewhat unheraldedly made the two biggest defensive plays of the entire series in my view. First was in the hard rain in the 5th inning of Game 5, with Hamels needing a big double play on a slow roller through the soggy grass to second base. Utley charged right into the basepath, picked up the ball and spun backwards to tag the runner, before spinning the rest of the way around and gunning out the batter at first base. It may not sound like much, but if you watched the first half of the clinching game on Monday night you know exactly the play I'm talking about. And then of course there was that incredible fake-out play in the second half of the clincher, a play that only a few human beings alive would ever make. As I said when I live-blogged the game, if Derek Jeter makes that play then he is called the greatest fielder who ever lived for ten years by Yankee fans. After somehow reaching the ball bouncing directly over and behind second base, Utley knew he had no shot of catching the speedy Iwamura at first. But with Bartlett chugging fast towards third base in a crucial one-run game, somehow in real time Utley realized he could dupe the runner into making a mistake. So he faked the throw to first, causing Bartlett to round third and break head-down for home, where Utley threw and nailed the runner by a good 8 to 10 feet. It was sheer brilliance, and again for those of you who have played a lot of baseball, try to imagine that Utley made that play completely on the fly. In other words, it's not like he planned that play. You don't plan for what you will do if the ball is hit slow up the middle and you don't have a play to first but the runner from second base is running hard to third. Not a chance. That baby was all improv. And that's what makes Utley so fucking special. As I said, there's only a couple of human beings alive today who have that field awareness, that presence, it takes to make or even conceive of making a play like Utley did there. Wrap that in with his big home run in the first inning of Game 1 and his two-run shot in Game 3, and Utley was obviously a huge factor in the Phils' series victory.
Although I don't think he was a serious contender for MVP, Phillies slugger Ryan Howard contributed in his own way to the Series victory as well. Howard played a nearly flawless first base throughout the five games, and despite his 9 strikeouts, he still ended up a respectable 6 for 21. Double respectable when you factor in his team-leading 3 home runs and also team-leading 6 RBIs for the series. In a 5-game series where the Phillies scored a total of 24 runs, Ry Guy knocked in 6 of them. His series was pretty much typical of his entire season this year, where he easily led the league in strikeouts with something like 190, and yet also crushed everyone in both leagues with 48 home runs and a whopping 146 RBIs. Howard single handedly won us Game 4 with his two absolute crush-jobs against Rays' pitching, including a mammoth shot to right in the 8th which put the game out of reach.
And what about Pedro Feliz. This guy played a very quiet yet awesome third base for us all season, where he was brought in for his glove and not for his bat, and yet there he was knocking in the go-ahead run in the clinching Game 5 with a nice up-the-middle liner. It's not often that your #7 hitter plays such a big part offensively in a series, but keep in mind that it was also Feliz who got our first hit and RBIs with runners in scoring position in this entire series in Game 3 with another line shot, this one to left field. Feliz literally had as many big hits as anybody in the entire World Series, and again for a guy who was brought here to play defense and simply not be a huge offensive liability, he came through big time in the clutch.
It's a similar story for Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, another guy who is here because of his stellar defense behind the plate, but who otherwise bats 8th and is just hoping to keep us in an inning here and there. Instead, Ruiz busted out with 6 hits in 16 at bats, including a crucial home run in our 5-4 Game 3 victory. With the stacked lineup the Phils brought to every game this year, having a guy hitting that good at the very bottom of the lineup was just a sickening turn of events for the overmatched Rays.
Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth also came to play in the Series, leading the team in hitting with a .444 series average on 8-for-18 hitting through the five games. Werth also chipped in with a team-leading 6 walks to go along with his team-leading 8 hits, putting him on base 14 times or nearly three times a game. He also led the team with 3 stolen bases in the series, and did not make an error in the field. Hard to argue with his contribution to the team's first championship in 28 years.
Let's not forget Geoff Jenkins btw, who had a pretty horrible season for the Phillies, but when he was brought in for his first at-bat in three weeks to start off the resumed Game 5 in the bottom of the 6th, he promptly bashed one off the center field wall for a leadoff double. Jenkins would later score, putting Cole Hamels in position for the win, and saving the team from falling behind when Rays' outfielder Rocco Baldelli would homer off Phillies reliever Ryan Madson in the top of the 7th inning. And there is bench player Eric Bruntlett, who came up with another critical home run in just three World Series at-bats.
And then of course there is the pitching. Cole Hamels dominated the Rays, posting a 2.77 Series ERA beat only by Rays' Game 2 starter James Shields who pitched 5 shutout innings in the Rays' only win of the series. And every other Phillies starter completely outperformed every other Rays starter as well, with Brett Myters (3.86 ERA), Jamie Moyer (4.26 ERA) and Joe Blanton (3.00 ERA with a big home run to boot) each surpassing starting rotation counterparts Scott Kazmir (4.50 ERA), Matt Garza (6.00 ERA) and Andy Sonnanstine (6.75 ERA) of the Rays. Moreover, the Rays' pitchers not only gave up 10 more runs but also a whopping 27 walks over 5 games. That is more than 5 walks per game, while the entire Phillies' staff surrendered just 10 free passes over the series. In every aspect of the game, the Phillies' pitchers whooped down on the Rays, which was supposed to be the Rays' big advantage coming in to this World Series.
And last but surely not least there is JC Romero, Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge, the cornerstones of the Phillies' major league-leading bullpen. Between them these three came up with two wins, including Romero's victory in the clincher by getting four key outs to bridge the gap between Madson and Lidge, and Lidge's two huge saves including the final pitch of the 2008 World Series. These three combined to give up just 6 hits and 2 runs in 10 1/3 earnings of action in the series, a truly dominant performance that, when you combine it with the stellar starting pitching the Phillies saw during their final five games, made us almost unbeatable by any team who stood before us.
Lastly, apparently Mike and Mike in the morning were talking on ESPN Radio on Thursday and one of them made the comment that "we all know the Phillies were not the best team in baseball this year, but they did what they had to when they had to do it" or something like that. I spent a lot of time over the past 36 hours thinking about this. Are the Phillies the best team in baseball in 2008? And let me start by assuring you: I don't actually care about the answer to this question. You could argue that the Phillies were the 10th-best team in the league; I don't care as long as our team goes into the books as the 2008 World Champions. But just for interest sakes, let's see.
We had the second-best record in the National League with 92 regular season wins. Only the Chicago Cubs had more, and they got swept out of the first round of the playoffs, even with home field advantage, in three straight by the LA Dodgers. So the Cubs were not the best team in baseball, I am putting my foot down on that one. And then the Phillies basically completely crushed the Dodgers on both sides of the ball in the NLCS, easily winning in five games including two of the last three wins at Dodger Stadium. In my mind, there's no plausible argument that the Phillies were not the best team out of the National League this year.
Turning to the American League, the Anaheim Angels led the majors with 100 wins during the regular season. However, the Red Sox came into the Angels' house and beat them not once but twice to start the series, and the Angels could muster only one 12th-inning win before the Sox closed them out easily, 3 games to 1. With a playoff performance like that, at home no less, I'm putting my foot down again and saying no way the Angels were actually the majors' best team in 2008. Now in the ALCS, the Rays pretty much took it to the Red Sox early, nabbing a 3-1 lead before the Sox fought their way back after a ferocious 7-0 comeback in Game 5 to even the series at 3. But the Rays came through in Game 7 at home, just as they had all through the season in beating out the Red Sox by two games to win the always hard-fought AL East and in winning the season series with the Sox during the 162-game regular season. Bottom line, I think it is clear that the Rays earned the right to be called the AL's best this season.
And then we completely schmeistered the Rays every which way in the World Series. We won in 5 games despite the Rays having home field advantage. Over five games the Philies outscored the Rays 24-15, we outhit them 44-33, and we outwalked them 27-10. Our pitchers out-pitched them with a team ERA of 2.86 to the Rays' 4.50, giving up 14 earned runs to the Rays' 21 (and two of the Rays' earned runs from Game 5 were not really earned runs either). In my mind there is simply no way to argue that the Rays were a better team than the Phillies in 2008; five more regular season wins does not undo an absolute drubbing in every aspect of the game on baseball's biggest stage at the very end of the season. I suppose the best argument that can be made is that the Red Sox might have been a better team than the Phillies, but think about that assertion for a minute. In order to argue that, you're now saying that a team that finished with the third-best record in the American League, a team that couldn't even win their own division and who lost the season series and then the ALCS to the team that did win their division, was the best team in baseball. That just makes no sense if you are able to look at it objectively.
Now I won't argue that the experienced veterans on the Red Sox would likely have put up a better fight against the Phillies in the World Series. That much is almost certainly true, and is probably true of just about any team moreso than the Rays. The Rays ended up playing like exactly what I had thought they would -- a team full of young, wide-eyed kids who were still trying to absorb the fact that they hadn't lost 100 games again this year, let alone won their way through the toughest division in baseball and two playoff series to find themselves with home field advantage in the World Series. But in my mind, an objective look at 162-game records leaves only the Angels, Rays, Phillies or Cubs in contention for the best team in baseball, and after you consider what happened in the playoffs and eventually in the World Series, I think Mike Greenberg is just plan wrong. There is only one sensible, objective conclusion in my mind, and that is that the Philadelphia Phillies were in fact the best that baseball had to offer in 2008. I would not have said that prior to the playoffs this year, but what does that prove? It was in the playoffs where the best team really showed itself, as is almost always the case.
Today for the first time one of my brothers asked me if this Phillies team has the capability to become a dynasty. I told him no way. I love the Phillies as much as everyone else in Philadelphia does, but I don't believe Philly as a city is cut out for team dynasties. I will root as hard as ever for this team next year, don't get me wrong, but right now I am sensing too much contentment, too much relief, to be able to forecast this team winning their way to back-to-back titles in 2009. We certainly have a very solid young team, with a few key young starters to go along with what is the best bullpen and the best lineup in baseball. But Jamie Moyer is what, 85 years old now? Brett Myers is shaky at best. It's highly doubtful that closer Brad Lidge can go a perfect 48-for-48 again next year. Pat Burrell is (hopefully) leaving, which will take out his 33 home runs and 86 RBIs from our lineup, a guy I won't personally miss at all but whose numbers will need to be replaced from somewhere. But it's all the contributions we got through the regular season, the incredible 24-6 push starting in mid-September and lasting all the way through our 11-3 run in the playoffs and World Series that I think will be the hardest to duplicate in 2009. Ruiz, Feliz, Shane Victornio, Matt Stairs, Eric Bruntlett, Geoff Jenkins, these guys all stepped up big in huge spots when we needed them most, and that's the kind of lightning in a bottle that it takes to win a championship in this sport. So no, right now I flat refuse to think for even one second about dynasties. I'm still gonna take some more time to bask in the glory of the city's first professional sports championship in 25 years. A quarter century is a loooooong fuckin time with no hardware to show for it, easily worthy of a few more days of baskage until turning my sights squarely to the Eagles who are stuggling to find their footing in once again the best division in the NFL just like it has been for the past 25 years straight.
What a year for the Phillies. The Drought is finally over!!