Phillies knew they had flaws
Baseball saves its sharpest rebukes for those with the hubris to believe they have solved its mysteries and finally cornered the most elusive game of all.
That's an easy moral to draw from Game 5 of the Phillies' opening and closing playoff round when the greatest pitching rotation ever assembled proved it could, indeed, overcome anything - with the exception of giving up one run, of course.
The Phils relied all season on the construct that no matter what else happened, their pitching would be enough to carry them through, particularly in October when other teams would be forced to match them with lesser beings.
It was a pretty good theory and - although this isn't the popular view at the moment - the front office did the best it could given the situation it faced. The Phillies didn't fail because they believed they outsmarted the game by hot-wiring the pitching staff to offset a balky offense. They failed because they tried to give the aging core of their roster one more chance at a championship before the whole thing fell apart. It didn't work. Boy, oh, boy, it didn't work. But it's difficult to fault the try.
"It is baffling. In baseball, a lot of times the hot team ends up winning, but I didn't think it would happen this year because our starting pitching is just too good," said reliever Brad Lidge. "Chalk that up to the mysteries of baseball, because I'm shocked that we lost."
The series can be reconstructed and deconstructed a dozen times, and the conclusion will be that the Phillies didn't really lose because Chris Carpenter beat Roy Halladay in a taut, 1-0 Game 5, but because Cliff Lee blew a four-run lead against a short-rested Carpenter in Game 2 and because Roy Oswalt couldn't outduel Edwin Jackson in Game 4.
"If I had [held that lead], we would have swept," Lee said. "I feel a lot of responsibility, but it's all of us. Each of us can look back at what we could have done to prevent this. For me, it's pretty obvious."
He's right, but it's also obvious that even great pitching rotations are composed of human beings, and the four Phillies starters were sometimes given the superhuman task of needing to be perfect. Or at least feeling that way.
Regardless, the front office did its best in rolling the dice with this staff. There was very little wiggle room with the position players coming into this season. The Phils were locked into almost every position with the exception of right field, and when that proved to be a gap that couldn't be mortared by Ben Francisco, Domonic Brown, and John Mayberry Jr., they went out and got the best available outfielder in baseball, Hunter Pence.
The team won a franchise-record 102 games, but came to the finish line tired, injured, and gasping. Third baseman Placido Polanco, who hit .105 against St. Louis in the series, needs surgery for a sports hernia. Catcher Carlos Ruiz was beaten by the pounding of 132 games, the most in his career. First baseman Ryan Howard was hobbling around on a left ankle and foot that had been troubling him all season.
It wasn't ideal - particularly against a St. Louis team that survived a heart-pumping drive to the playoffs and was still on a wide-eyed adrenaline high - but, hey, what about that pitching staff, huh?
The plan very nearly worked despite a .226 batting average in the series. All it took was a comeback against a very average Kyle Lohse on one night and a three-run Ben Francisco home run on another to get them to Game 5. After that, there is only the game of ifs, which is always dissatisfying. If Ibanez had met the ball a centimeter higher in the fourth inning, he would have had a three-run home run instead of a two-out drive to the wall. If Shane Victorino had located the cutoff man on the Rafael Furcal triple that opened the evening - well, the game would probably still be 0-0 in the 127th inning by now - but that run wouldn't have scored. If, if, if.
The hard fact is that in their last five postseason series, the Phillies have batted .231, .227, .212, .216, and .226. That isn't going to win a World Series, regardless of the pitching staff. Too much can go wrong.
The front office will probably shrug and concede that now, and begin a rebuilding process that might be very dramatic. The dividing line between patch-and-fill and total reconstruction will be the decision whether to bring back 33-year-old free-agent shortstop Jimmy Rollins or to use that money elsewhere.
There will be plenty of decisions that must be made during the offseason, and plenty to worry about for the future. Howard, who begins a five-year, $125 million contract in the spring, will apparently begin it on the disabled list. He ruptured the Achilles in his already injured left leg on the final at-bat of the season, and the symbolic center of a prostrate offense finished the year literally splayed on the field.
"It sucks. Being in this situation, making the last out, and having it happen the way it happened. It sucks," Howard said. "You want to be on the other side, but we came up short."
He said it felt as if the bat came around and smacked him on his left leg, but the replay shows that it didn't. An Achilles injury is like that. Those who suffer them say it feels as if someone punched them there.
Sudden losses are like that, too. One minute there is hope and the next you are on the ground, feeling the sting of the blow. Baseball likes to bring down the teams that consider themselves invincible, but that wasn't the case here.
The Phillies knew they had flaws and knew that the game was aware of them. They hoped baseball would choose to look the other way and let them survive a while longer.
Not this time, though, and as you study the team, maybe not for quite a while longer.