Someone tell me when I can breathe.
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the Cardinals’ 1-0 win over the Phillies was the best pitching matchup I’ve witnessed since Morris vs. Smoltz. Not when you figure in the stakes involved. Not when you appreciate just how brilliant Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter each were. This, to put it bluntly, was pitching porn. It was a shame that either of these two aces had to lose. But Roy Halladay losing after such a brilliant performance reminds us that it takes a full team, not just a dream rotation, to win it all.
You’d be excused if you thought that Philly had, in fact, won it all several months ago. The moment Cliff Lee signed last winter was treated as a coronation by some. How could a team with Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Oswalt not lead the Phillies to a world championship? Over the past five years it’s been understandable to see Phillies fans adjust from rooting for a team that loses a lot to a perennial favorite, but even the world championship in 2008 didn’t change the tone surrounding this team like putting these four aces together did. The mood changed from one of hope and confidence to one of expectation in the winter of 2010-11, and it carried on throughout the year as the Phillies built an insurmountable lead in the NL East.
But those of us who’ve been around the block in the NL East a little bit — specifically, those of us who knew and loved the Braves of the 1990s — know that the regular season is a very different beast than the playoffs. Those fantastic rotations are great for building a lead over the course of months. They give you an advantage four out of every five nights or so between April and September and they allow you to steadily — almost boringly — put yourself ahead of the competition. Depth and pitching rule all in the summer.
But in the postseason, with so few games in play, that advantage is greatly reduced. Even against a seemingly overmatched opponent, that advantage only persists in a couple of games. And even in those games, it takes nothing more than a hit or two — like, say, a Rafael Furcal triple and a Skip Schumaker double — to neutralize even that. Roy Hallday pitched brilliantly after falling into that 1-0 hole. But he needed help to get out of it, and that help never came.
In June, a team’s bats can go to sleep for four or five games and no one thinks anything of it. I bet there were a number of stretches where Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz and everyone else in that Phillies lineup slumped around the same time. It’s survivable then. It’s a death sentence in the postseason, and that’s what the Phillies received this past week. The game story surely breaks down Howard’s 0-for-15 to end the series and all of the other similar ugly numbers, but you don’t need to know those specifics to know that Halladay was on his own tonight. For as valiantly as he pitched, he needed someone to come through and they didn’t.
But it’s not just a story of failure. Credit Chris Carpenter for brilliance of his own. A three-hit shutout — indeed, the first 1-0 shutout of his career — tied this one up in a bow. He had help from some spectacular defense by Rafael Furcal too. And of course those two hits by Furcal and Schumaker. Neither of which were part of the Cardinals’ plans for dominance of the National League last winter. Neither of which carried the Cardinals through the regular season. They just … happened.
And the fact that they just happened should be well-remembered by fans of the next team that assembles a seemingly invincible roster. Fans of the next version of 2011 Phillies who believe that, because of some audacious moves by the front office, the regular season is a formality and that postseason glory is theirs for the taking.
Baseball just doesn’t work like that. It takes more than just a great pitching staff. It takes more than a great lineup. It takes more than great defense. It takes all of those things playing the ying to the other two things’ yangs for six months. And then it takes them all converging at once for a week or two in October.
Didn’t happen for the Phillies this year. And to expect with any degree of certainty that it was going to way back in the winter was folly. Let it be a lesson we all remember in the future.