Thursday, October 01, 2009

Three-Peat

Your World Champion Philadelphia Phillies have done it! Three straight National League East crowns. Division champions. Three times in a row.

Wow. Although this did happen on one other occasion during my lifetime, that was back in the 70s and I was but a mere babe at the time. But since the big National League reorganization into two divisions (East and West) in 1969, only three teams have managed to win the division three straight years before. The Pittsburgh Pirates did it twice, once from 1970-72 with Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente ,and then again from 1990-92 with the guy who formerly looked like Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, Doug Drabek and now-Tigers coach Jim Leyland at the helm. The Phillies also threepeated in the NL East from 1976-1978 (more on that in a minute). And of course the Atlanta Braves completely took over the division recently, winning 11 NL East crowns in a row from 1995-2005 in a streak that I imagine will never even come close to being broken again. But that's it. So capturing their third straight divisional title is no small feat by anyone's standards. And when you look a little more detailedly at the Phillies' franchise history, it quickly becomes clear why Philadelphia sports fans are rejoicing so hard today.

The Phillies first joined the National League in 1883 but did not make the postseason even once until more than 30 years later in 1915, where they promptly lost to the Boston Red Sox 4 games to 1 (this was pre-Boston Curse here, a curse that to this day has not been broken without huge amounts of aid from illegal performance-enhancing drugs as we now know). Unfortunately, after the 1915 World Series loss, the Phillies would then enter another 35-year streak of no postseason appearances, including failing to finish with a winning record for 31 consecutive seasons from 1918 to 1948. Finally in 1950 the team made its second post-season appearance, where this time the Phils were swept away by the Yankees. Almost unbelievably, it would be another 26 years between playoff appearances for the Phillies, who would however embark on their best run ever to that point in winning the NL East in 1976, 1977 and 1978, again in 1980 along with the franchise's first World Series title, the first half of the strike-chopped 1981 season, and then again in 1983 before losing the World Series to the Orioles 4 games to 2. But after this spectacular eight-year span, the team sank back into mediocrity (more like suckitude), and from 1983-2007 there was only one more playoff appearance, the scrappy 1993 pennant-winning squad that saw Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams give up the series-ending homer to Joe Carter of the Blue Jays.

So, to review, it was 32 years after the start of the franchise in 1883 until its first postseason appearance, a 4-1 beatdown in the World Series. Then another 35 years passed until the team's next postseason berth, a 4-0 sweep by the Yankees. Then another 26 years to reach the postseason, followed by a spectacular eight-year run of which I was only really old enough to have enjoyed the latter half of in full. Then another 25 years with only one postseason appearance, and this while the number of National League divisions was expanded and a wildcard was added, fully doubling the number of teams making the playoffs every year. So for the Phillies, the team of my youth, to once again have captured three consecutive National League East titles, I'm not sure I can describe how amazing it feels. I can tell you this -- as I drove home from the gym and listened to the postgame celebration on my satellite radio on Wednesday evening, I spontaneously rolled down my window at howled loudly at the clear moonlit sky. Repeatedly. It just felt like something I had to do, here at the extension of this incredible three-year streak that has seen a whole lot of trash talking and goings-on along the way.

Three years ago it all started with this.

"I think we are the team to beat in the NL East -- finally," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said Tuesday. "But, that's only on paper."

I literally remember that day like it was yesterday. To be completely honest, I thought J-Roll had gone crazy. I mean, the Mets had finished 12 games ahead of the Phillies in 2006 and nothing had really changed to make me expect a worse season from them in 2007. I thought the Phils had a chance of making the playoffs after having made a solid run at the wildcard before fading in the last week of the season, but I was not exactly pleased that our young starting shortstop had given such clear bulletin-board material to the defending division champs, and I figured it was probably a move that would look ridiculous in a few months. But instead, despite the Mets holding a seven-game lead on September 12, the team went on to crumble, losing 12 of its last 17 including on the final day of the season when the Phillies clinched their first division title in 17 years. It was unbelievable, and frankly I blogged about it here so you can go back to the archives and read my reactions any time you like. One of the absolute best parts will always be this article from the New York Post on August 26 of that year, with the Mets holding a seemingly-unassailable 6 1/2-game lead. There are so many gems in that thing, it's impossible to reproduce them all but if you just go and read it, knowing what we know now about how the Mets' season ended that year, it is pure gold, Jerry, gold.

Then as 2008 began, the Phils played like a team with something to prove. After getting beat down pretty good in the playoffs by that Colorado Rockies team that won something like 20 of its last 21 to come out of nowhere and make the playoffs in 2007, the Phillies came out hungry, despite having their typical slow first couple weeks out of the gate. But that ship quickly righted, and the team found itself once again in second place, a solid 3 1/2 games behind the Mets on September 12. And once again, the Mets collapsed, the Phillies caught fire, and three weeks later the Phils were on their way to the playoffs -- and eventually the franchise's second World Series title -- while the Mets stayed home and watched the playoffs from their barcoloungers.

Having already won the World Series in 2008, I am (and was) the first to admit that I expected the Phils to let up a bit after having attained baseball's highest peak. But I was wrong. Other than Brad Lidge, who I've been crystal clear for months here now has been the single worst player in the major leagues this year, the team has significantly improved from the 2008 World Champion squad, including swapping out Pat Burrell (.226, 14 HR and 63 RBIs this year with the Rays) for Raul Ibanez (.275, 34 HR, 92 RBIs), adding J. Happ (12-4, 2.85 ERA) to the full-time rotation, signing Pedro Martinez (5-1, 3.63 ERA) for a mere million dollars for the stretch run, and of course the addition of Cliff Lee (7-3, 3.28 ERA with the Phillies) just before the 2009 trading deadline in exchange for no one from the major league squad nor either of our top two young pitching prospects. As of this writing, the Phillies sit tied with the Dodgers for the fewest losses in the National League (66), though the Phillies have one more game to play (4) than the Dodgers (3). I am quite sure I will write some more about this later, but if the Champs can nab home field advantage throughout the playoff somehow in the remainder of this weekend, I will feel very confident in our ability to return to the World Series and see if we can find a way to vanquish the impenetrable Yankees.

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12 Comments:

Blogger Riggstad said...

And How! Moving forward, who scares you?

The cardinals have their own closer problem, the Dodgers have issues of their of their own up and down the line up, and Colorado is, well... Colorado (that will probably come back to haunt me).

I think the Phils square up nice with all three on first and second in the rotation if not best all of them. I also think they are better than each of those teams in the third and fourth spots.

Overall they are better than any of the three in talent.

If the team can stay focused and hungry, it looks like another parade. To which you better partake in this year.

Going back to back seems to be the biggest obstacle this year for them. It's a tough thing to do. Lidge will be out, mainly used as a one out getter in the 6th and 7th innings if needed. Madsen and Happ (yes, Happ), seem to be the closers. Madsen has said he is looking forward to it.

If Charlie sticks to his guns, and the players step up to playoff mode, kill everything that moves type mentality, we should be happy fans.

I can't wait for it!

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