Last night in Philadelphia, the Phillies lost to the St. Louis Cardinals, 1-0 in the 5th and deciding game of the NLDS. The magic and hope that the Phillies franchise has represented for 5 years crumbled to the ground in the form of heavily-burdened (and heavily paid) Ryan Howard, as seemingly the 27th ground ball out of the game concluded the season for the Phillies. Of course, it could be the end of much more in the City of Brutal Losses.
They weren't all ground balls, as Raul Ibañez came within 3 feet of putting 3 on the board and making a winner out of Roy Halladay. Doc gave a prize fighter's effort, reminiscent of Rocky from Rocky 1, but the Phillies lineup didn't stand a puncher's chance against a grizzled Chris Carpenter. 27 nervous swings later, Docky had lost.
While shoddy pitching did the Phillies in against the Yankees in 2009, it should forever be remembered that the Phillies won a World Series in 2008 featuring a rotation of Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, and Joe Blanton. Let me repeat: Myers, Moyer, Blanton. Basically, the pitching stars aligned (perfectly, in Brad Lidge's case) around a powerful, clutch lineup oozing with what has now come to be known as "swagg" (symbolized here by Pat Burrell doing shirtless curls in the clubhouse). Unfortunately, the bipolar 2011 Phillies' lineup could make a college pitcher look like Cliff Lee.
Who's to blame? Looking at the box scores, one could point a finger at the bottom of the Phillies order. Everybody needs to chip in during the Playoffs, i.e., even your scrubs have to hit. Placido Polanco / Carlos Ruiz / Pitcher didn't do a damn thing in 5 games. Polanco's "Pit Bull" walkup theme music is pretty out of place for a guy wielding an impotent bat and currently nursing like 16 different injuries. No, Placido, we don't want you.
And perhaps the myth of Chooch has come to surpass the reality of Carlos Ruiz, as the little man from Panama with the big heart came up small when the Fightin's desperately needed a big hit. As for the pitcher's spot... any chance the Phils' can sign Prince Fielder to play DH next year? (The answer is no.)
However, this failure falls squarely on the shoulders of the Phils' triumvirate of homegrown stars: Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard. 2 League MVP's and the best 2nd basemen in team history, a once-in-a-lifetime collection of talent. But now? Age, injury, and pitching adjustments have caught up to them, and the run might be over for the Big Three.
Old Man James Rollins, the longest tenured Phil, was seemingly the only player who raised his game to another level when the spotlight got brighter. Yet, his contract with the Phillies is over, and the often-injured 32 year old JRoll is said to be seeking Puff Daddy money. Chase Utley will forever be a legend in Philly for his inspiring play and shockingly loose tongue, but his knee injury seems to have rendered him nothing more than an ordinary hitter. One has to hope that an offseason of conditioning and training will restore the power to Utley's legs that's so vital to his quick, axe-chop swing. Then there is Ryan Howard. Easily the most polarizing athlete in Philadelphia (now that McNabb is gone), "The Big Piece" was the final out of the last 2 Phillies seasons. Since Howard's blazing debut in 2006, Einstein managers around baseball slowly figured out that he can't hit lefties, and that his swing has more holes than the current Eagles defense. Watching Howard with 2 strikes is like watching a wounded buffalo, staggering helplessly, surrounded by lions. And now, our cleanup hitter may be lost for all of next season pending the results of an MRI on his Achilles, torn in the desperate act of trying to race through the Phillies closing window of opportunity. Fortunately, or unfortunately for the Phils, Howard is still signed long beyond 2012.
My authentic #6 jersey with the World Series Champions patch now hangs in my closet like a relic to a previous reality. A legacy is a fragile thing. A legacy is what hung in the balance this post-season. And last night, the legacy of this team and these players, and the memories of millions of fans, was forever altered. The saddest part of it all is that now we have to root for the Eagles.