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NLCS Loss to Giants Changes Phillies’ Image Overnight

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Those who follow baseball have often heard the parallels that are drawn between No, it wasn't just Ryan Howard's fault the Phillies lost, but the Phillies aren't paying him to hit singles and doubles. Photo credit: Sipkin/NY Daily Newsour national pastime and real life. The long-term nature of the sport with its alternating highs and lows lends itself to such comparisons.

One of the most appropriate of these parallels is the way in which reputations are developed. In real life, one’s reputation can take years to establish, only to be tarnished in the blink of an eye. The same can be said of a baseball team’s image.

Since 2007, the Philadelphia Phillies have forged the image of a team that embraces the big moment. The heat of the big spotlight was no match for the coolness of their demeanor. When the autumn months arrived, it was always their opponents whose grips tightened and stomachs churned.

Any team with aspirations of beating the Phillies knew it would have to survive a 9-round bare knuckles fight, during which nothing would be conceded. The Phillies’ explosiveness on offense and fundamental soundness on defense made them tougher to kill than the bedbugs that have set up shop in countless hotel boxsprings.

Regardless of the score and the names listed beneath the “Due Up” graphic, fans and opponents knew that if the Phillies had one more at bat (or even one more out), they had life. This identity, along with a roster rich in talent, made the Phillies the envy of the league and the odds-on favorites to reach a third straight World Series.

Yet, in the course of the past week, the Phillies air of invincibility was damaged irreparably by a Giants team demonstrating the same “never-back-down” attitude that once made the Phillies so intimidating to face. So, as they prepare to watch the World Series from somewhere other than field-level, it is striking how many question marks suddenly exist for the NL East Champs.

Until the past week, we were still referring to the Phillies lineup with terms such as “powerful” and “superior”. And had the Phillies sealed the World Series deal, we would have ignored the signs of decline that have arisen among the team’s offensive starters. Any drops in production would have been viewed as an off-year, and any medical maladies would have been interpreted as the product of a long, hard season.

So, before the loss to the Giants, Jimmy Rollins’ three-year decline in productivity and health would have been viewed as reversible after an off-season of rest. Instead, it is a sign that the soon-to-be 32-year old whose batting average has dropped precipitously over the last four years may no longer be the spark that powers the Phillies’ offense.

Before the loss to the Giants, Chase Utley’s 2010 struggles would have been attributed to the serious thumb injury that interrupted his summer. Instead, we will remember that his average and power numbers were poor before the injury occurred and after it healed.

The struggles of Ryan Howard during the NLCS went well beyond his series ending strikeout, and are getting as much attention as any factor in the Phillies playoff loss. His 2010 season could have been remembered as one during which solidified his role as Mr. September, but will instead be signified by his complete disappearance in October. It will also leave everyone with the concern that the Phillies $20 million clean-up hitter can be completely nullified by left-handed pitchers who serve a steady diet of down-and-away offerings.

Unfortunately, the crushing loss to the Giants will affect the images of more than just Rollins, Utley and Howard. The loss of Jayson Werth, although significant, may have been compared to the loss of Jim Thome had the Phillies participated in another parade down Broad Street. Instead, the transition to Domonic Brown will be viewed as a step backward by a team whose window of opportunity is getting mighty narrow.

With a World Series win, Phillies fans would already be giddy over the prospects of a full season with Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels. Instead, the focus is shifting to the deteriorating play of Raul Ibanez and the impending rehabilitation of Placido Polanco‘s ailing elbow. And then there are the questions that now surround the once-reliable bullpen as it approaches a youth movement with unproven arms.

To be sure, the NLCS was an ulcer-inducing week of baseball that changed the image of the Phillies from world beaters to just plain beaten. And while the true identity of this team is somewhere between those two extremes, it is amazing how different things look as a result of their failure to win just six more games.

Matt Babiarz was born and raised in the Philadelphia area.  He graduated from the University of Alabama, but remained a very close observer of the Philadelphia sports scene.  He recently began covering the Phillies for Philly2Philly.com.   You can also read his work at Bleacherreport.com within the Philadelphia Phillies section. 

Matt can be contacted at mattbabz@comcast.net