Phillies’ downward spiral highlights cracks of riding success

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This is about the Philadelphia Phillies, but let’s start with the Chiefs. I have always been fascinated by the Kansas City Chiefs of the 1970s. You probably know that the Chiefs of the late 1960s and early 1970s were among the best teams in football. They played in Super Bowl I, and they won Super Bowl IV. In 1971, they went 10-3-1 and lost the game I believe was the greatest ever played — a 27-24 playoff overtime loss to Miami on Christmas Day. For most of those incredible years, they featured SEVEN Hall of Famers: Quarterback Len Dawson, dominant defensive tackles Buck Buchanan and Curley Culp, brilliant linebackers Willie Lanier and Bobby Bell, cornerback Emmitt Thomas and kicker Jan Stenerud. I have long believed receiver Otis Taylor also should be in the Hall of Fame. Their coach, Hank Stram, is a Pro Football Hall of Famer. We are talking about an all-time team.

But as the 1970s progressed, the players got old. And the Chiefs just, well, they just watched the players get old. The year after the Christmas Day game, the Chiefs went 8-6 with 37-year-old Len Dawson at quarterback and aging players everywhere. In 1973, they were 7-5-2 with the same aging players — they still had enough class to hold their own but not enough youth or energy or exuberance to more than hold their own. In 1974, the Chiefs imploded. They went 5-9 with most of the same players, Hank Stram was shoved out, and the Chiefs would have losing records for 12 of the next 15 years, making the playoffs only once, and becoming such a non-factor that there was serious talk of moving the team out of town.

This comes to mind because in 2010, the Philadelphia Phillies had to make a decision. The Phillies were an amazing team. They had won the World Series in 2008, lost the World Series to the Yankees in 2009 and lost in NLCS to San Francisco in 2010. They were on a spectacular high, and the city was alive with baseball, and the atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park was fantastic, and the core of players — Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth and so on — were Philadelphia icons. It was a magical time.

But you know — you could see the cracks. They weren’t hard to see. I have little doubt that general manager Ruben Amaro — for all the heat he has taken in Philadelphia lately — saw the cracks. Look:

  • Howard had turned 30, he’s the type of player who doesn’t age well, and his production had dropped significantly.
  • Utley had turned 31, he missed about 50 games with injury, his power numbers had dwindled.
  • Rollins had turned 31 and his offensive production was way down from his MVP season.
  • Victorino was about to turn 30.
  • Werth, coming off a career year, was a free agent and about to leave.

These were impossible to miss signs. And Amaro, manager Charlie Manuel, ownership, the fans of Philadelphia, everybody had a decision to make: What do you do? Do you break things up now, when things are so good? Do you begin the process of rebuilding when the team is at its height? OR do you double down, add a few big money pieces, hold on tight and hope that the ride will last for a while longer? It’s one of the great questions in sports.

The Phillies, as we know, did not just double down. They tripled down. They quadrupled down. They signed Ryan Howard to a huge extension that would not even kick in for two years, an extension that made absolutely no sense when it was signed and made progressively less sense every single day that passed. But they were committed. Utley was already signed. Rollins was already signed. They signed Cliff Lee to a huge contract, thus securing what many of us called the greatest four-man rotation of the generation — Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. They brought back everybody except Werth — eventually replacing him with Hunter Pence — which meant that their starting team had nothing but 30-somethings. No player under 30 got 300 at-bats for the 2011 Phillies.

And … they were awesome. The pitching staff was so absurdly good, it almost didn’t matter how many runs they scored. Halladay finished second in the Cy Young voting. Lee finished third. Hamels finished fifth. In games when the Phillies scored three or more runs, the 2011 Phillies won EIGHTY PERCENT of the time. That made up 90 of their 102 wins. Yes, the team finished seventh in runs scored. Yes, Utley got hurt again, and Howard’s decline continued, but the season was glorious. Well, the regular season. Then it was the playoffs, and the Phillies lost to the Cardinals in five games — losing the last game 1-0 when Chris Carpenter out dueled Roy Halladay. Howard also got hurt running to first. And it was the beginning of the end.

Amaro had to see this. Manuel had to see this. But what was there to do? The Phillies had to double down again — they were too far in to fold now. They signed Jim Thome. They signed Jonathan Papelbon. They signed Juan Pierre. They signed Chad Qualls. At this point, it was like Amaro was jamming his fingers underneath the window, trying to keep it from closing. There was some vague talk about getting younger — start prospect Dom Brown was about ready, young Vance Worley had shown some moxie as a 23-year-old pitcher, but that was basically window dressing. They were old (or “experienced”). They were declining (or “accomplished”). Amaro knew all about the holes in the boat. He believed it had enough strength and experience to make it to shore one more time. He really had no choice but to believe it. He had made his bet.

The boat didn’t make it to shore. Halladay collapsed. Howard caved in. Utley got hurt again. Victorino at 31 wasn’t the same player. Like those early 1970s Chiefs, the team had enough class to break even — they finished 81-81. But the ride was over. This year, the Phillies came in as a bloated and ancient team of the past. They have tried to get younger. The lineup now has players in their 20s, the rotation too. But the team is 15-games under .500, in fourth place, and manager Charlie Manuel was fired.

Manuel talked with CSN Philly’s Leslie Gudel and in his folksy way said that he knew the Phillies were doomed the last two years and seemed to blame the Phillies for not adding pieces. I can’t blame him for feeling that way — I mean the guy just got fired and I’m sure he’s hurting — but I kind of think he’s talking out of pain. I suspect he believed. I think they all believed. That’s the human equation. The Phillies could have played it differently when they were the best team in the National League. They could have gotten rid of Howard, traded Utley or Rollins or both, gotten a lot younger, not signed all those old players to patch the holes, taken a step or two back in order to take a step or two forward (and heard the screams and boos that come with such maneuvers). They chose to ride it out. It was the human thing to do. And it led to where it always leads.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Indians 9, Twins 3; Twins 4, Indians 2: Yan Gomes and Jason Kipnis each had three hits and a homer in the first game, helping the Indians win their sixth straight. That streak ended in the second game, however, as Aaron Slegers, making his big league debut, allowed only two runs while pitching into the seventh and Max Kepler hit a go-ahead homer that inning. Eduardo Escobar knocked in two on a 3-for-5 evening.

Diamondbacks 4, Astros 0: Patrick Corbin fell one out short of a shutout, allowing only four hits in eight and two-thirds, and Archie Bradley retired the final batter to make it a team effort. Jake Lamb homered. Daniel Delscalso hit an inside-the-park homer. Lamb called that weirdness and raised by striking out on a wild pitch that allowed David Peralta to scores from third.

Reds 13, Cubs 10: The Reds scored nine runs in the second inning. Normally that’d be enough to ensure a win, but this one was wild, with the Cubs coming back to tie it in the fifth. The Reds kept scoring, however, winning it going away. Lots of crooked numbers in this box score, with Reds outfielder Phillip Ervin driving in four, including the two-run homer which broke the 9-9 ties, and Jose Peraza and Joey Votto each driving in three for Cincinnati. The Cubs hit six homers: Ian Happ had two and Kris Bryant, Alex Avila, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber each hitting one. Jon Lester gave up nine runs — seven earned — and left before he could finish two innings. Scott Feldman allowed six in less than four.

Braves 10, Rockies 4Ender Inciarte hit two of Atlanta’s four homers as the Braves bounced back from Wednesday’s rout. Freddie Freeman and Tyler Flowers also homered as Colorado and Atlanta split their four-game set. A scare for the Rockies: Nolan Arenado had a ball smack his hand as he tried to field it at third, forcing him out of the game. X-rays came back negative, however, which is positive.

Blue Jays 5, Rays 3: It was tied 3-3 in the eighth, thanks in part to two solo homers from Josh Donaldson, when Justin Smoak hit a two-run homer. Donaldson is on fire, having hit 11 home runs over his past 19 games, including four times in this series. He’s batting .400 (20 for 50) with 21 RBI in the month of August. There are nine teams in the AL realistically competing for two Wild Card spots, with the Blue Jays — previously written off for dead — among them, three games out of the second spot. September is gonna be nuts.

Cardinals 11, Pirates 7: Dexter Fowler drove in three, two of which coming on a triple, as the Cardinals come back after being down 5-0. Game highlight, though, was Josh Harrison dancing.

Yankees 7, Mets 5Gary Sanchez homered and drove in five runs as the Yankees sweep the Mets in the Subway Series. Which is misnamed, as I figure that few if any of the players involved actually take the subway to the games anymore, what with the subway being an absolute disaster these days.

Rangers 9, White Sox 8: Nomar Mazara homered in drove in five too, hitting a tie-breaking three-run homer in the fifth. The Rangers have won four straight and seven of eight, climbing back to .500. Mazara has 25 RBI in his past 19 games and is on a pace for 111.

Nationals 2, Padres 1: The Nats only had four hits in the game, but one of them was a Ryan Zimmerman homer to break a 1-1 tie in the eighth. Edwin Jackson — who, at this point, we must refer to as “Edwin Jackson of all people” every time he’s mentioned — allowed one run over seven, scattering eight hits.

Giants 5, Phillies 4Jeff Samardzija was solid, winning for the fourth time in his last five starts and Jarrett Parker hit a two-run double in the fifth that led to Denard Span and Hunter Pence scoring within seconds of each other after Pence almost caught up with Span on the base paths:

Don’t look back, somethin’ might be gainin’ on ya.

Kris Bryant on Joey Votto: “He’s the best player ever … He’s a future Hall of Famer, that’s for sure.”

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The Cubs wrapped up a four-game series against the Reds at Wrigley Field on Thursday afternoon, suffering a 13-10 loss to split the set. They’ll match up again against the Reds next week for a three-game series in Cincinnati. That’s good news for Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, because that means he’ll get to see Reds first baseman Joey Votto some more.

As CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney reports, Bryant has grown quite fond of Votto. Bryant has already won a World Series ring, a Rookie of the Year Award, and an MVP Award, but he still looks up to Votto. According to Bryant, Votto is “the best player ever.” He added, ““He’s my favorite player. I love watching him. I love talking to him, just picking his brain. He gets a lot of (heat) about his walks and working at-bats and some people want him to swing at more pitches. But, gosh, I mean, he does an unbelievable job. You know that he’s going to give you a great at-bat every time he goes up there. It’s definitely a guy that I look up to and I can learn from.”

Bryant said that Votto is “a future Hall of Famer, that’s for sure.”

Bryant also explained how his approach changed by watching Votto. He said that in his rookie season, he was “swinging at everything.” Votto, however, is “aggressive, but he’s not going to swing at a pitch until he wants it.”

Indeed, in Bryant’s rookie season, he struck out in nearly 31 percent of his 650 plate appearances. This season, he has struck out in only 19 percent of his PA. His walk rate has also increased by more than 2.5 percent since his rookie campaign. Compared to last year, Bryant is down in HR and RBI, but his average is the same, his on-base percentage is markedly better, and his slugging percentage is only down by a minute amount.