Why We Should Be Worried (A Little) About the Phillies

The team finished the season with the best record in the National League. History says that might not be such a good thing

It was indeed mighty generous of the Phillies to clinch the NL East and the league’s best record so early last week. That circumstance allowed the Eagles and their fans to wallow in the drama of Donovan McNabb’s return without missing anything of note from the city’s favorite team. But even though the Birds are 2-2 after the most anticipated homecoming since Odysseus returned to Ithaca, it’s MLB post-season time, and the NFL will just have to wait.

The Eagles and their continuing QB drama will step into the shadows for what local fans hope will be a full month of baseball, during which the excitement will be confined to the field, rather than the front office, interview podium or doctor’s examining room. For the fourth straight season, we are treated to extra innings, and that means the Eagles will just have to wait if they want our undivided attention. [SIGNUP]

The Reds come to town Wednesday for an NLDS matchup, and the only subplot is whether the upstart Central Division champs are “just happy to be here” (see Phillies, 2007) or legitimately capable of knocking off the reigning NL champs. Then again, there is always the revenge angle, for those of us still stung by Cincinnati’s 1976 NLCS sweep of the Phils. That might be stretching things a bit, especially since only seven of the players on the Phillies roster that closed the 2010 regular season were even alive when that happened.

If you want something to chew on in advance of Wednesday’s series start, consider that no matter how good the Phillies looked during their September sprint to the National League’s best record, nothing is guaranteed. Even though the team has played in two consecutive World Series and has won the NL East four straight times, it could very easily be washed away by a week of silent bats or plain bad luck. Anybody who approaches the NLDS with a casual attitude could easily find himself surprised and saddened by an upset. For as good as the Phils look now, history suggests they should take nothing for granted.

The numbers back me up. Since 2000, only five of the 20 teams who have posted the best record in their respective leagues have made it to the World Series. And only three of them (2005 White Sox, 2007 Red Sox, 2009 Yankees) have won it all. In fact, the last time the top seed from each league reached the Series was 1999 (Yanks-Braves). Keep that in mind all of you forecasting a Phils-Rays Series. The NCAA basketball tournament may be mad, but the MLB playoffs are crazy.

Being a top seed means little, because the difference between winning big over 162 games and surviving a five or seven-game series is huge. Proof of that can be found in the 2001 ALCS struggle between the Mariners and Yankees. Seattle had won an American League-record 116 regular-season games, 21 more than New York. But the Yankees had a better starting pitching trio (Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens) than did the Mariners and cruised to a 4-1 series victory.

The good thing about the Phillies is that they, like those Yankees, are built for the post-season. Their starting triumvirate — Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt — is the finest in baseball and the perfect weapon for a short series or even a seven-game version. If the Phils end up playing all 19 games en route to a world title, Joe Blanton, their number four arm, will have to start only twice. That’s one hell of an advantage, especially when your first-round opponent is sending Edinson Volquez and his 4-3 record to the hill in game one.

But the Phils have a few deficiencies that could prove troublesome in a post-season series. First, their bullpen is anything but airtight. J.C. Romero aggravated his back Sunday against the Braves, not the best news for a situational lefty who hasn’t done such a great job getting lefthanded hitters out this year. While Ryan Madson has been great since his early-season temper tantrum, and Brad Lidge has become more reliable as the year has gone on, the depth isn’t there. Chad Durbin pitched well in September, but does anybody have confidence at all in David Herndon, Jose Contreras, Antonio Bastardo or (God forbid) Dannys Baez? Blanton, who struggled Sunday in a relief appearance, may have to play a big role out of the ‘pen this October.

The Phils also aren’t exactly known for manufacturing runs, another big part of post-season ball. That wasn’t a problem the past two years, when the team was clubbing homers at a tremendous rate. But after hitting 214 dingers in ’08 and 224 last year, the Phillies sagged to 166 this year, fifth in the NL. Granted, injuries played a role in the dip, but even when healthy, the team’s sluggers weren’t mashing like before. Unless the Phils do the little things to score a run here and there, they could stumble.

This is not a “The sky is falling!” warning call, rather a reminder to fans that no matter how jejune another trip to the NLDS may seem, anything can happen, particularly in a five-game series. The Phillies have a great pedigree and a hot streak dating back to the beginning of last month. They also face historical evidence insisting that doesn’t mean so much. The playoffs are here, and it’s time for baseball fun again. The fans shouldn’t take a return to the World Series for granted, and neither should the players. Both groups must be performing at peak levels beginning Wednesday and extending for — we hope — a month.

Then, we can go back to following that football team of ours.


* With the national media waiting for an abhorrent reaction to Donovan McNabb’s return, Philadelphia fans handled the situation perfectly. The standing ovation was a class act, and the subsequent jeering was the proper reaction to a visiting player.

* The Union gave it a good run but fell short in the playoff race. Still, it was a successful debut season and the perfect way to re-introduce professional soccer to the area.

* Don’t be surprised if Villanova makes its decision on a jump to big-time football by the end of the year. And don’t be surprised if that decision is a resounding “Yes!”