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Phillies Preview: Expecting a Wild (Card) Ride in 2012

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In Philly, perhaps even more than in other cities, we have the cockeyed optimists and the hard-wired pessimists. Okay, maybe that’s in every sports city, but it just seems more magnified here. Maybe that’s because within each one of us lives both of those personas and we switch them on and off continually, alternately showcasing both with our trademark Philly fervor and passion.

 

So with that said, it’s time to project the fortunes of our beloved Fightin’ Phillies, the five-time defending NL East champions. We now interrupt what serves as a dispassionate analysis with a word from my inner voices…

 

COCKEYED OPTIMIST (or Philly Homer): What, you kidding me? None of the other teams in the division are any good. The Mutts? Irrelevant. The Gnats? They play baseball in DC? They don’t even have any fans. What, Miami’s Ozzie Guillen is gonna get Hanley and Jose, those two head cases, to play together on the left side? Sure. The Braves? They’re horrible. Nobody’s gonna touch our pitching and we have the number one closer in base…

 

HARDWIRED PESSIMIST (or Philly Little): Ah, geez. Doc can’t get anyone out in Spring Training. We’rRoy Halladay photo: APe signing senior citizens who have to now start for us. Hamels isn’t inked long-term yet; is his head gonna be in it? And who’s gonna scare anyone at the plate with Howard and Utley out? Freddy Galvis? All 150 pounds of him?! We’re gonna need breaks just to play .500 ball this year.

 

As usual, a realistic projection is somewhere in between these two extremes, and I hope to stay somewhere in the middle lane long enough to stake out a reasonable prognostication. Even so, I can’t keep forgetting that the NL East is getting even tougher and the Phillies aren’t quite what they used to be. Will they have enough to contend?

 

Let’s take a step back to not only appreciate the historically terrific (for these parts, anyway) last five years of Phillies baseball, but to also put a couple trends in some sort of perspective. I recognize that even a stat-geeky sport like baseball is more art than science, so this will be the only numbers-heavy part of this piece.

 

Inside Baseball has zillions of metrics, but in the chart below, I have provided some essential numbers for the Phillies (with their NL ranks alongside them).

 

YEAR

RUNS

HR

ERA

W/L

OUTCOME

2007

892 (1)

213 (2)

4.73 (13)

89-73 (3)

Loss in NLDS

2008

799 (2)

214 (1)

3.88 (4)

92-70 (2)

World Champions of Baseball

2009

820 (1)

224 (1)

4.16 (6)

93-69 (2)

Loss in WS

2010

772 (2)

166 (5)

3.67 (4)

97-65 (1)

Loss in NLCS

2011

713 (7)

153 (8)

3.02 (1)

102-60 (1)

Loss in NLDS

 The above numbers certainly are a testament to how the Phillies have evolved—even in the midst of this great five-year run. Gone is the lineup that socked over 200 homers a season and averaged 5.17 runs per game from 2007-09. In its stead is the 2011 bunch that hit less than a homer per game and averaged only 4.4 runs per contest. Of course, this was more than offset by a team ERA that dropped more than one-and-a-half runs per game from 2007 to 2011. Somehow, Citizens Bank Park has transformed itself from a phone booth to Yellowstone National Park right before our very eyes.

 

And what’s been the best thing for Phillies fans? During this transition, our team has kept on winning. The best hitting team in the NL won, and so has the best pitching team. It should also be noted that the Phils have amassed the best record in Major League Baseball the last two years despite suffering a bunch of injuries the last two campaigns.

 

Now, before you accuse me of being Philly Homer, I readily admit that it’s hard to foresee our hometown unit scoring even four runs per game with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, their 3-4 cornerstones, on the shelf to start the season…and until when, exactly? It’s very hard to replace two guys who resembled Hall of Famers at their peak, and just expect the team to keep on rolling.

 

Despite an impressive spring, we don’t know exactly what we have in the 22-year-old Galvis, and our left side of the infield—Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco—can still flash leather but don’t figure to put up big offensive numbers. Another question mark: How will the presumed platoon of Laynce Nix, Juan Pierre and John Mayberry (when not playing first to start the year) do in left? And do we really have a player named Laynce? I’m missing Raul.Hunter Pence

 

Catcher (Carlos Ruiz), right field (Hunter Pence) and center field (Shane Victorino) should produce prime, All-Star-caliber performances. I know, Philly Little, that Chooch is 33 and may have to get more rest, but he’s still a big time all-around player.

 

But, let’s halt the doom-and-gloom parade. This team is blessed with, arguably, three of the top five starting hurlers in the NL: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. Yes, Halladay looked a little un-Doc-ish in Clearwater, but it’s hard to imagine him not carving up hitters again. Vance Worley may fall a little bit, but I’ll take Worley and Joe Blanton as my 4-5. And oh yeah, the bullpen is now anchored by Jonathan Papelbon, who deserves to be regarded as a Top 3 closer in the game.

 

What does this all mean? The Phillies, who somehow won the NL East by 13 games—even after that panic-producing, late-season eight-game losing streak—figure to face bigger challenges this year from the Braves, Nationals (and just wait until both Steven Strasburg and Bryce Harper start fulfilling even half their vast potential) and Marlins.

 

Something tells me that the Phillies’ string of division titles will come to an end, and this will be a wild year, as in a wild card year. That is realistic, and even a tad pessimistic; with all of the pitching they throw out there, I cannot envision them winning fewer than 88 or so games.

 

I’m not sure which of the teams will wrest the crown from our boys, but my crystal ball sees the red-pinstriped bunch hosting the new wild card series, er, one-game playoff.

 

Should that cause panic, or simply portend a great opportunity? One should consider that the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series in both 2006 and 2011 with units that won 83 and 90 games, respectively. The 2008 Phillies had only the fourth-best record of their five consecutive division winners. Indeed, having the best record in baseball did not punch the Fightins a ticket to the World Series in either of the last two years. While we’re discussing these trends, the team with the best record in the NL has only advanced to the Fall Classic once in the last 10 years. Once!

 

So take heart, Phillies fans. Our amazing infield nucleus of Howard, Utley and Rollins has aged and suffered tough injuries, and the rest of our division is rising up to slay us. Someone will take the pennant, but our boys will not die. Not yet. Our team’s extraordinary pitching, valued, winning experience and whatever it is that skipper Charlie Manuel  does will be enough to get us into the postseason for the sixth straight year.

 

Once there, well, given the success of recent underdog teams, is it too much to hope that the Phillies will have someone step up and play the part of Cody (Stinkin’) Ross or David (Ice Man) Freese?

 

Or, how about this vision? World Series, Game 7, two outs in the bottom of the ninth…the NL won the All-Star Game…Two men on, down by two, and a well-rested Ryan Howard steps into the box versus Mariano Rivera. It’s a long drive, deep to right center, watch that baby…

 

I’m not sure if that was Philly Homer talking, but I will tell you this. The Phillies will find a way to make the postseason and don’t be surprised if they take us on a long, wild, giddy ride from there.

 

 

Along with being a lifelong Philly sports fan, Matt Goldberg is a unique, award-winning writer, speaker and all-around humorist who resides with his wife and son in South Jersey. He is a featured columnist for the Phillies for Bleacher Report, and is also the author of two new humor books—Wordapodia, Volume One, and All That Twitters is Not Goldberg. They are not sports books, per se, but definitely have a lot of sports, and Philly flavor.

 

For information on ordering books, requesting customized writing, media requests and special events, please contact matt@tipofthegoldberg.com  or visit www.tipofthegoldberg.com

 

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