Growing up, the Atlanta Braves were the rulers of the NL East and its five kingdoms. Year in and year out the Braves were celebrating yet another division title and playoff berth while I painstakingly hoped for a savior to come to the Philadelphia Phillies. Could it be Curt Schilling or Scott Rolen? Unfortunately, they couldn’t deliver the goods. However, after eleven straight division titles and a championship by the Braves, intermingled with two World Series titles in as many playoff berths from the Florida Marlins, the Phillies time on the throne would eventually arrive.
Philadelphia fans have seen a lot of success the past few seasons: Five division championships, two World Series appearances, and a title back in 2008. But for the first time there is a sense that this might finally be the end.
The baseball version of Ned Stark will tell you: Summer is coming. This means fortunes can change, sometimes quicker than others. For the Phillies this means a possible end to their reign of dominance. With aging players, injuries galore, and an ailing farm system, the window to win is closing fast. As the Phillies embark on a weeklong tour of interleague play, they find themselves in the midst of a nasty losing skid and an 8 game deficit of the division lead. Unlike slumps from season’s past, this one has a certain feel to it. One that might actually represent the team’s identity this season: a .500 team that has seen its glory days.
No doubt the NL East is stronger than years past. Every team in the division has upgraded this season: every team but the Phillies. Just scan the roster of the Nationals, Marlins, and Braves and the talent and youth combination jumps out. It’s these characteristics that are reminiscent of those mid 2000 Phillies, when the potential and possibilities were endless.
However, it may be too quick to write off the Phillies this year. If I were to tell you before the season, that come June 11th Cliff Lee would be winless, the bullpen ERA would be 27th in MLB at 4.27, Roy Halladay would have a 3.98 ERA and be out for possibly 2 months, and that the Phillies would have played every game without Ryan Howard or Chase Utley, you might expect that margin in the Games Behind column to be deep in double digits.
It has been an ugly season to watch, but baseball is a marathon, not a sprint, and teams go through peaks and valleys. The Phillies fortunes may seem like the darkest of valleys, but things can change in a week or two. Just look at the St. Louis Cardinals last year for inspiration. Cliff Lee will win some games. Roy Halladay will come back and Cole Hamels is having the best season of his career, ironically as his contract sets to expire.
True, the season is getting deeper and deeper into the heat of summer and the Phillies cannot mingle along in mediocrity for much longer. While it’s foolish to put all your eggs in the Howard and Utley basket, at some point they will get back on the field and contribute. The team and fans alike should not expect them to be the saviors, but having them in the lineup will take pressure off Hunter Pence and the surging Carlos Ruiz.
While the Phillies time on the iron throne of the NL East appears to be fading, what the Phillies need to do is focus on damage control. Find a hot hand or two in the bullpen to set up and keep things close enough to make a push when guys are healthy. If this Phillies team plans on making the playoffs it will be with those familiar faces of Octobers past. Because the future of the Phillies is not as bright as 2007 but it certainly isn’t completely dark, yet.