The Phillies lost the NLDS, to the Cardinals ?

As strange as that may seem to some, it did in fact happen.   Along the way, fans of both the Cardinals and Phillies were treated some some of the best baseball their respective teams can play.   There was pitching galore, including some that will be lost if you just look at the box score.   Those big bats of the Phillies unloaded as expected, although most of that damage was limited to Game One.  And the defensive plays – oh, there were some gems on both sides of the diamond.   Chase Utley was involved in two of the best, once as the play maker and once as the victim.   At the end of this great series, there was one clear winner – the fan.

As one of my Baseball Bloggers Alliance friends, Ronni Redmond (Garlic Fries and Baseball) said recently, “I don’t see how the 2011 World Series is going to be any more exciting than tonight’s game”, and she is right.  Of course, we have seen that before, and recently.  Game Seven of the 2006 NLCS in New York had more twists, turns, and thrills than anything offered up in that World Series.  The memory of Adam Wainwright’s curveball for the final strike still gives fans goosebumps, and perhaps Carlos Beltran nightmares.  Ronni is right, it is hard to believe that there is anything more exciting than that pitching duel we just witnessed.

For all of the winners in this great season, there is one big loser, the disappointed sportswriter that takes his or her frustration out on the Phillies.   I have already read a few such articles and most of them contain something like, “the Phillies were knocked out of the playoffs, by the Cardinals?”

Perspective and Respect

Let’s start with the obvious, the Philadelphia Phillies are a baseball team, not a supernatural force from another dimesion.   They are not a team of destiny.   What they are is a tremendous organization that methodically built a winning team the right way.  Their draft picks from early last decade were brilliant, and they have formed a core group of players that should be the envy of any team.   They have also filled the gaps on their roster with the right kind of players to win a championship.   To top this off, they have assembled one of the most fearsome pitching rotations the game has ever seen (I’d still take those ’68 Cardinals, but that’s a topic for another day).   That should be the story, not how they failed to advance to the NLCS.   With the exception of the last five games, I am a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Pitching, pitching and more pitching

The first rule of baseball: pitching wins championships.   More often than not, good pitching will defeat good hitting.   Not always, but most of the time.   The Cardinals were a very good hitting team in 2011, and the Phillies pitching really did their job in neutralizing that potent offense.   They did exactly what they were supposed to do, and that should be the dominant narrative of any post-season analysis.  Not the collapse or the failure, but just how well those starters pitched.

As should be the effectiveness of the Cardinals pitchers.  With the exception of Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals hurlers don’t have the body of work and associated awards as their Philadelphia counterparts, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t just as effective.  Kyle Lohse, loser in Game One, pitched some of the best baseball during the Cardinals September drive.   Edwin Jackson has been as good as advertised since coming over from the White Sox/Toronto at the trade deadline.   Jaime Garcia continues to improve his game and demonstrates why he is one of the most exciting young lefties in the game today.  No, they can’t fill a trophy case with awards, but they can get the job done.

All the game is a stage…..

There are three parts to the modern baseball schedule.   For a team to win the grand prize, the World Series, they must be victorious in all three.

The first is the long and grueling 162 game regular season.   It is a game of attrition.   Injuries will come into play and test how well an organization can react to them when they happen.   Fatigue becomes a huge factor as the summer wears on and innings mount on young arms and legs.  Old ones too.  Often overlooked is the ability of an organization to rebuild the team during the course of the long season, changing things that didn’t go according to the pre-season plan.    A balanced team with lots of organization depth can thrive in this part of the game.

Then comes the short series, the second test.   After surviving six months of battle, your best forces are matched against an opponent in a lightning round.   The pitching rotations are shortened significantly, with 4th of 5th starters moving to the bullpen, or left off the post-season roster entirely.  All of the depth that was so critical in surviving the regular season means little in this short series.   As we have seen so often in the three division era, all it takes is one or two hot pitchers to win a series.

Another element of the short LDS is the element of luck.   Execution is an analysis of many plays over a game or series, but luck is what happens when you take one event out of context.  Four such plays determined the outcome of the Cardinals/Phillies series.  Remove these four, and the series is still being played – that’s how well these two teams matched up.

Of the four, three were pitches.   One was a 3-2 changeup from Kyle Lohse that Ryan Howard nearly hit into the Atlantic ocean.   Oh, there were several more cases in and around that errant pitch.   Howard fouled off an earlier 3-2 changeup to stay alive in the at bat.  A hit off the end of the bat found its way though the infield.  Even later when Raul Ibanez hit the game winner, it was all set up by that pitch that Lohse left in the plate.

Another pitch was from the arm of Jaime Garcia in Game Three.   After walking the 8th place hitter, Ben Francisco, hardly a home run threat, hits a three run homer off Garcia.  That would prove to be the game winner.   There is a bit more execution in this one though as it was pretty clear that Garcia did not like the idea of walking batter before facing the pinch hitter.  It was still a low percentage play that totally worked out for the Phillies.

In the deciding Game Five, the Cardinals only got two solid hits off Roy Halladay.  One was a leadoff triple by Rafael Furcal.   The second, and this is our third luck play, was a pitch that Skip Shumaker pulled into the right field corner for an RBI double.   Schumaker’s career numbers against Halladay are very good, but that was the first bad pitch thrown by Halladay since the first inning of Game One.

And finally, one for the highlight reels, the normally dependable Shane Victorino slipping on the St. Louis turf when trying to play a Lance Berkman line drive coming off the wall.  As he planted his foot to make the throw, the turf gave way and he fell.   And threw the ball behind him – the wrong way.

Umpire calls, spectacular defensive plays, one or two hot pitchers, and a big dose of luck play can determine the outcome of the short series.   These are all evened out over the regular season, but make or break a team in the LDS.

The final test is the best of seven, and this is a little part regular season and and a little but short LDS.   The extra two games nullify the luck factors to some degree, but don’t tell that to a Cardinals fan that remembers Jack Clark dropping a foul ball off the bat of Steve Balboni.  Since a team must go through the rotation twice, not only are the top two starters important, but three and four come into play.   In 1968, Bob Gibson was better than Denny McLain, but Mickey Lolich was better than both of them, and that’s why Detroit won that series.   If Nelson Briles (the number 2 starter) or Ray Washburn (the number 3) wins one more game, the series ends differently.

Applying this to the 2011 season, and the Phillies in particular, there is no question that they were built to win the regular season and long best-of-seven series.   Their 102 regular season wins, a franchise record, tells us the former, and we can just nod in acceptance of the latter.   They were even built, as well as any can be, for the short LDS – but that was their vulnerability.   If the Phillies were to be defeated, it was going to happen in the short series, where one or two players and a bit of luck can determine the outcome.  It is as simple as that.

And that is why, while disappointing, this is not on the same level as the 1964 collapse.  This was just three games, and it was won by pitching.   Edwin Jackson, Chris Carpenter and collection of Cardinals relievers.  Nothing more, nothing less.   It happens.

Some respect, please

It is important for the sportswriters throwing the Phillies under the bus to recognize that the Cardinals aren’t exactly a minor league team in disarray.   Sure, they were the wildcard, and maybe purists think that only a team winning their division should be in the playoffs.  I can go along with that, but that’s not the system today.   One team from each league gets in, and if they happen to be playing good baseball at the end of the season, they can defeat an opponent with a better record.

But it’s more than that.   The 90 win record of the Cardinals does not really tell the whole story.   At the beginning of the season, when the bullpen was a mess, there was no way the team would get to 90 wins.  A .500 record seemed a stretch most days.   Likewise, since the trade trade deadline, the Cardinals played much better than those same 90 wins indicate.  The very thing that led to the early collapse was totally rebuilt at the trade deadline, and the bullpen became a key to the Cardinals winning the wild card, and defeating the Phillies in the NLDS.

Over the entire season, maybe the Phillies were 12 games better than the Cardinals.  But they were not 12 games better than the team they faced in post-season.  In a purely defensive measure, we Cardinals fans looked past the head to head records of the two teams.   The final outcome of the NLDS tells us that record, favoring the Cardinals in Philadelphia, was not aberration, but a good indicator of what to expect.

It is OK to be disappointed if you are a Phillies fan.   The last few years have given you reason to have high expectations.   Please don’t be too harsh when you write about your team, they gave you 102 regular season wins, and 2 more in post-season.   Before taking out your frustrations on the players and coaches, take a moment and read Charles Simone’s excellent piece, World Series or Bust.   If you still feel the need to vent, remember the Cardinals deserved to be in the post-season just as much as your Phillies.   Your team lost to a formidable foe, and there’s no shame in that.

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