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Phillies’ downward spiral highlights cracks of riding success


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.

The Cubs clinch World Series berth with NLCS Game 6 win

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 22:  The Chicago Cubs celebrate defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 in game six of the National League Championship Series to advance to the World Series against the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 22, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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After 71 years, the Cubs are headed back to the Fall Classic.

The dominance with which Clayton Kershaw attacked the Cubs in Game 2 of the NLCS was nonexistent in Game 6 as the Dodgers’ ace loaded the bases to start the first inning and scattered five extra bases and five runs over five frames. By the time Dave Roberts pulled his starter in the sixth inning, Kershaw was sitting on a Game Score of 33, the lowest he’s mustered since the start of the 2015 season. Only one of his strikes came via curveball, and whether he was having difficulty locating his off-speed stuff or felt more confident with the fastball-slider combo, it was the fewest curves he’d seen land for strikes all year (per David Adler).

Where the Dodgers were able to give Kershaw the edge in Game 2, they found themselves powerless against opposing hurler Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks turned out 7 1/3 scoreless frames with two hits and six strikeouts, preserving the Cubs’ second shutout of the postseason and the first since they bested the Giants in Game 1 of the NLDS. After his 1-0 loss to the Dodgers early in the NLCS, seeing the MLB ERA leader turn out a gem was a relief for the Cubs, especially one as spectacular as an 88-pitch two-hitter.

With Hendricks effectively stymieing the Dodgers’ best attempts to get on base, the Cubs played to their strengths at the plate. Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist cleared the bases in the first inning for a two-run lead, followed by a Dexter Fowler RBI single in the second. Willson Contreras came through in the fourth inning for the Cubs, lifting an 87 m.p.h. slider to left field for his first home run of October, while Anthony Rizzo hit his second homer of the postseason on a 1-1 fastball in the fifth.

Neither bullpen allowed a single run from the sixth inning onward. Dodgers’ right-hander Kenley Jansen took the ball from Kershaw in the sixth, scattering four strikeouts over three innings and denying the Cubs so much as a single baserunner through the end of the game. Aroldis Chapman, meanwhile, issued just one walk in 1 1/3 scoreless frames, inducing a Yasiel Puig double play to clinch the Cubs’ 17th franchise pennant.

With the win, the Cubs will face off against the Indians in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday at 8 PM EDT. And, in case you needed a reminder:

Video: Willson Contreras blasts first postseason home run off of Kershaw

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 22:  Willson Contreras #40 of the Chicago Cubs celebrates after hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers during game six of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field on October 22, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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So much for Clayton Kershaw posing a threat tonight. The Cubs got their knocks in early and often against the Dodgers’ ace during Game 6 of the NLCS, racking up three runs in the first three innings before rookie catcher Willson Contreras unleashed his first postseason home run in the bottom of the fourth inning.

According to MLB.com’s Phil Rogers, Contreras became the 10th Cub to homer in the 2016 playoffs, following big hits by Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo, Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Jake Arrieta, Kris Bryant, Travis Wood, and Javier Baez. Of the ten home run hitters, Contreras joins catchers David Ross and Miguel Montero as yet another backstop capable of driving the long ball (and, less importantly, as another player capable of a sweet, sweet bat flip).

Rizzo, whose last homer was a deep drive to right field off of Los Angeles right-hander Pedro Baez in Game 4 of the NLCS, piled on Kershaw’s five-run outing with another home run in the bottom of the fifth inning. Kershaw called it a night after five frames, and the Cubs currently lead the Dodgers 5-0 in the sixth inning.