The Phillies Need Character to Beat St. Louis

Forget homeruns and solid pitching. If they're going to make it to the World Series, the Phils need to summon strength from within

Since Major League Baseball has yet to learn that the object of staging a playoff series is to identify the better team between the two combatants, the Phillies find themselves in an extremely precarious position heading to St. Louis. Sunday night’s gag job in South Philly put the local nine in a 1-1 tie with the Cardinals and filled fans with fear and trepidation as a three-game series looms with Genius LaRussa’s bunch, two of which will be played under the Gateway Arch.

There is the real possibility that the game-two loss is the last time we’ll see the Phillies in person this year. These five-game series are fraught with peril, and the better team doesn’t always win. Of course, judging by Sunday’s implosion, when the Phils stopped playing offense after the second inning, and the St. Louis bullpen saved the day, perhaps the Cardinals deserve to move on. But that’s an analysis for another day.

Right now, this is about the Phillies’ character and how it manifests itself over the next few days. All season, anyone who dared criticize the team was shouted down. We were told that we shouldn’t be agitated while the team was riding high was counterproductive and that the franchise had done a fabulous job assembling a team with the necessary components to win it all. One can argue whether there was necessary strength in the bullpen and bench talent to handle that chore, but it was impossible to challenge the team’s veteran leadership and ability to handle any trouble that arose.

Now is the time for that character to take over. The Phillies face a tough road. Instead of heading west with a comfortable 2-0 lead in the NLDS quickie, they must summon the necessary grit and toughness to win two of three. That mission begins Tuesday evening, when the Phils see lefty Jaime Garcia, who has surrendered all of one run in 15 innings pitched against them this season and is a much better pitcher in front of the soft St. Louis fans than he is on the road.

If this were July, it wouldn’t matter whether Garcia continued his mastery. The Phils would just rev it up again the next day. But a loss Tuesday would put the Phils on the precipice of a galling first-round post-season exit and trigger anger and frustration in a city that has convinced itself that the bad sporting times are over. That’s where the character comes in. Veterans like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard have faced adversity before and prevailed. Howard’s famous, “Get me to the plate, boys” request and subsequent huge hit in the ’09 NLDS against Colorado is evidence of the vets’ confidence and track record in tough situations. It’s time to summon that again.

Despite Sunday night’s offensive silence against a bullpen that was considered easy pickings, the record crowd at Citizens Bank Park expected the Phils to take back the lead after the Cardinals assumed it in the top of the seventh. They had seen it happen so many times before, and this would be another chapter in the team’s great run over the past five years. But it didn’t happen. One hit over six innings doesn’t often produce a storybook ending.

Just as it was wrong to panic completely—although, I’ll admit, it was tempting—when the Phils staggered down the stretch, losing eight straight, it isn’t time to start screaming right now. A lot of baseball is yet to be played, and the Phils’ great road performance this year is enough to inspire confidence among the faithful.

The key to success moving forward is not just talent. It’s a more nebulous characteristic that the Phillies have displayed over the past several seasons and that they have relied on during the few rough patches they experienced during the regular season. It’s a combination of playoff experience, quiet confidence and the knowledge that the team has what it takes to overcome tough times.

And this qualifies as a tough time. Were this a seven-game series, splitting the first two at home would be cause for concern but hardly reason for serious trepidation. Plenty of time would remain. That’s not how baseball does it, even though the NBA and even NHL understand that picking the real winner between two teams requires seven games. The Phils now face the reality that stumbling twice this week will end the dream and likely cause the team to have a different personality next season.

Overcoming that frightening scenario will take character. Fortunately for Phillies fans, this team has demonstrated that quality again and again throughout this season and the four that preceded it. It has come back from deficits in games and made up ground in the standings. In the aforementioned ’09 series with the Rockies, the Phils blew game two at home by the same 5-4 score and then won a pair of tight ones in Denver to move on to the NLCS. That required the type of attitude needed now. There’s no reason to think the Phillies can’t summon what’s necessary.

And no reason to think about what happens if they don’t.



  • Sunday’s loss to San Francisco–coupled with the previous stinkers against Atlanta and the Giants–proves that this Eagles team just isn’t very good. The Birds can’t tackle, and their offensive line is weak. Opposing defenses have figured out how to contain DeSean Jackson, and the defensive coaching staff is overwhelmed. Don’t think a tweak here or there will do the job. This team has been sliding slowly since the ’09 NFC title game loss, and it appears the fall isn’t complete yet. A turnaround is possible, but great things are not.
  • Temple’s football team proved Saturday that a little bit of prosperity can be a bad thing. The ugly home loss to Toledo–the day before Big East presidents met to discuss expansion–was poorly timed and sad to see. The Owls have to realize that they must bring maximum effort every week, or they’ll be in trouble. The program is sound, but it’s time for the kids to learn how to be consistent winners.
  • Hard to believe hockey starts for real Thursday night. Here’s how the season plays out: New goalie Ilya Bryzgalov has a fine year, but the offense struggles at times without Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. Jaromir Jagr looks good early, but his old legs sag late. Chris Pronger fights injuries throughout the season and is rarely 100 percent. The Flyers finish fourth in the Eastern Conference and exit in the second round of the playoffs.