October 22, 2009
It continues to surprise me that we can't get deep into a postseason series despite having evenly matched teams battling each other. The Phillies and Dodgers were the top two teams in the NL this year, and statistically, there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between them. In the NLCS? There was a hundred-dollar bill's difference. The Phillies outscored the Dodgers 35-16. They out-hit them by 60 points of OBP and 140 points of slugging. The Phillies drew 23 walks to the Dodgers' 12, with the converse of that being that their pitchers had a stellar 33/12 K/BB ratio to the Dodger pitchers' much uglier 33/23. The Dodger bullpen was supposed to be its one big edge: it allowed 14 runs in 21 innings, with a catastrophic failure in Game Four and a poor performance in a winnable Game Five.
The Phillies simply beat the Dodgers in every phase of the game. There's no Chase Utley foul ball, no Jim Tracy brainlock, no two-day-long sixth inning to point to and ask, "what if?" The series swung on a four-batter sequence in the ninth inning of Game Four that turned a 2-2 series in to a 3-1 Phillies lead, but Tim McClelland and Phil Cuzzi were nowhere to be found. It was just Jonathan Broxton making critical mistakes, and Jimmy Rollins making him pay for them in one devastating swing of the bat.
Even with the cheers from Monday night's dramatic win still echoing through the ballpark, last night's game didn't have an air of inevitability to it. It didn't feel like a coronation. Even after Jayson Werth gave the Phillies a two-run lead in the first inning with a three-run opposite-field homer, Cole Hamels didn't make 3-1 feel like 8-1 the way he did so many times last October. Hamels struggled with his location and left too many pitches up, giving up one, two, three solo homers. Hamels would be pulled after 4
It was Charlie Manuel who was taking the role of aggressor on a night when Joe Torre played far too passively. With my comment about "every phase of the game," let's not forget the dugouts, where Manuel continued to manipulate his complicated and convoluted pitching staff as deftly as anyone named Martin or Herzog or La Russa, while Torre made just enough mistakes to put his Dodgers at a disadvantage. Once again, Matt Kemp and his tremendous ability against southpaws were relegated to the fifth slot in the lineup. Once again, Torre had chosen to push a left-hander back-this time saving Clayton Kershaw for a potential Game Six-in favor of a right-hander, Game Two hero Vicente Padilla. And on a night when Padilla put the team behind, in a game with days off before and after it, giving him a nine-man bullpen, Torre passed up an opportunity to take the lead and instead let a pitcher who had been on waivers 10 weeks ago to effectively end the Dodgers season. Torre allowed Padilla to bat with his team down 3-2 in the second, and after the inevitable out, Pedro Feliz made the mistake clear by hammering Padilla's next pitch into the right-field seats, giving the Phillies back their two-run lead.
It wasn't the last mistake Torre would make on the evening, but it was the one that put the lie to everything I have written about the man this postseason. Torre, the man who lifted Randy Wolf 11 outs into the first game of the Division Series, the man who has spent 14 seasons winning the game in front of him in October, got passive at exactly the wrong time. By the time Padilla was excused in the fourth frame, the score was 5-2, and it was over. Torre's greatest weapon in this series was his bullpen, and he went down with Vicente Padilla with the whole lot of them well-rested.
Even at that, the vision of Dodger pitchers warming up and not being called into the game isn't the one that will stay with me. No, when I think about the Dodgers' failures-Torre's failures-I will recall an isolation shot on Jim Thome, alone in the on-deck circle, studying Ryan Madson, just as he'd studied so many pitchers before hitting his 564 career home runs, including 23 this season. I'll think about a team down five runs with five outs to go, with the bases loaded, with a glimmer of a hint of a ghost of a chance against a bullpen just aching to be exposed. I'll think about the decision to let first Russell Martin and then Casey Blake try their luck against Madson, someone who, throughout his career, has been tougher against righties than lefties. I'll think about how, when you start the eighth inning down six runs, you just hope for the opportunity to make a big score with one swing, to make a game of it, to pull off a miracle. I'll think about that miracle never getting closer than that on-deck circle.
I watched last night's game with friends, among them Jay Jaffe, who says that no manager in baseball would have made the move I insist was so obviously the correct one. Perhaps he's right. I could only come up with one name, and after sleeping on it, I don't think even he would do it. But winning a championship isn't something you do by following the path of the other 29 guys. It's something you do by making the right move at the right time to win that game. The right move was to get Jim Thome and his power to the plate with a chance to make it 9-8 with the top of the order batting in the ninth inning against Brad Lidge. Maybe Manuel goes to Scott Eyre (which is why you hit Thome for Martin, rather than wait for Blake), and even if he does, well, that worked out in Game Two. But you don't go down with Martin and Blake without getting 564 home runs and a .557 slugging average to the plate. The entire reason you put Jim Thome on the roster is so that maybe he can get you four desperately needed runs with one swing of the bat. Whatever the considerable skills of both Martin and Blake, they were the wrong men for the job. Their failures are Joe Torre's failure.
Charlie Manuel did something Joe Torre would have done. Joe Torre did something any Joe could have done. That, perhaps as much as any ringing double or overpowering fastball or dazzling glove work is why the Phillies not just beat the Dodgers, but beat them in five games.
By reaching the World Series, the Phillies now separate themselves from the pack. They're the first team since 2001 to play in consecutive World Series (how's that for parity, kids?), and the first since those Yankees to win as many as five straight postseason series. They're 18-5 over two seasons, a mark no one's really come close to since the Yankee dynasty ended at the hands of the Diamondbacks. The 2005 White Sox were 11-1 in the playoffs, but didn't make the postseason in either season surrounding that championship. The Phillies have never once trailed in those series, and have never once faced elimination. I'll be the first person to talk about small sample size and short series and not making too much of three weeks of baseball, but within the context of the postseason, the Phillies' performance the last two years has been remarkable. The 1998-99 Yankees won 18 of 19 postseason games over two seasons, starting with Game Four of the ALCS, which is the last multi-year run we've seen of this nature. You can appreciate the performance without jumping to conclusions about it.
Those Yankee teams, of course, won the World Series in both years. The Phillies now have a chance to match that, and in doing so push their way into the conversation for NL team of the decade. If they do, perhaps it's time to think of the Mike Arbuckle Phillies in the same way that we do the Theo Epstein Red Sox and the Logan White Dodgers, the positive result of one executive's outstanding work over a period of years. Arbuckle is now with the Royals, but is the one man most responsible-more than Manuel or Ruben Amaro Jr., more than Cole Hamels or Ryan Howard, and certainly more than Ed Wade-for the team that finds itself four wins away from history.