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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.

Video: Jacob deGrom pranks Daniel Murphy in postgame press conference

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After dominating the Dodgers in Game 1 of the NLDS last night with 13 strikeouts over seven scoreless innings, Jacob deGrom‘s best performance might have been pranking Daniel Murphy in the postgame press conference.

As you’ll see in the video below, deGrom sat down between David Wright and Murphy. Wright appears to lower the seat of the shaggy-haired right-hander. This gave deGrom the idea to do the same for an unsuspecting Murphy. The reaction was priceless…

Yes, Murphy let out a “yowzers.” Appropriately enough, “yowzers” is likely how the Dodgers would summarize facing deGrom last night.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly defends decision to pull Clayton Kershaw

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw reacts after walking New York Mets' Ruben Tejada during the seventh inning in Game 1 of baseball's National League Division Series, Friday, Oct. 9, 2015 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
AP Photo/Gregory Bull
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The Mets took Game 1 of the NLDS last night with a 3-1 victory over the Dodgers. A two-run single from David Wright in the top of the seventh inning ended up being the difference in the ballgame. Wright’s hit came off Pedro Baez, who replaced Clayton Kershaw after the Dodgers’ ace walked the bases loaded during the frame.

After Wright’s hit, some questioned why Dodgers manager Don Mattingly turned to Baez rather than stick with his ace. Per Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, this was Mattingly’s explanation after the game.

“Going into that inning we kind of looked at what his pitch count was, and kind of thought through Granderson, if we got back to Wright, the fourth time through, David pumps on lefties pretty good,” said Mattingly. “Felt like that was going to be a spot if we got to that point, thought we were going to make a move there.”

It’s hard to argue with the logic. Kershaw was nearly unhittable through the first six innings, with his lone mistake coming on a long solo home run from Daniel Murphy, but it was a different story in the seventh. He was missing his spots and the Mets had some great at-bats. Wright owns a 1.005 OPS against lefties in his career and Kershaw was obviously tiring at 113 pitches. Wright already had a 12-pitch at-bat vs. Kershaw in the first inning. Pulling him was the right call in that spot.

If you wanted to nitpick about anything, it might be the choice of using Baez over someone else. It’s unlikely that we would have seen Kenley Jansen that early, but you can’t get much more high-leverage than that situation. Chris Hatcher was another possibility. Still, Wright didn’t sound thrilled to see Baez, a pitcher he had never seen before.

From Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News:

“I think normally you’d be pleased to get Kershaw out of the game,” Wright said. “Then you look up and the next guy is throwing 100. When you get ahead 2-0 with the bases loaded, with a guy who throws extremely hard, you can get your foot down and get ready for that fastball.”

After last night, the focus will again fall on Kershaw’s postseason track record, but he actually pitched a heck of a ballgame until the end. Unfortunately for him and the Dodgers, Jacob deGrom was just the better pitcher on this night.

Playoff Reset: The National League takes center stage

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Zack Greinke warms up before Game 1 of baseball's National League Division Series against the New York Mets, Friday, Oct. 9, 2015 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
AP Photo/Gregory Bull

After a wild Friday in which all eight teams were in action, the National League will take center stage on Saturday with a pair of Game 2 division series matchups. The ALDS will resume on Sunday.

The Game: Chicago Cubs vs. St. Louis Cardinals
The Time: 5:30 p.m. ET
The Place: Busch Stadium, St. Louis
The Channel: TBS
The Starters: Kyle Hendricks vs. Jaime Garcia
The Upshot: After dropping Game 1, the Cubs will turn to Hendricks to even up the series headed back to Chicago. Hendricks got the nod over Jason Hammel due to his strong finish to the season. His 3.95 ERA isn’t going to blow you away, but he averaged 8.4 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 in 32 starts and had back-to-back scoreless outings to finish the season. Garcia has been great at home in his career and posted a career-low 2.43 ERA in 20 starts this season, but he was a bit more hittable down the stretch. It will be interesting to see what tweaks Joe Maddon makes to his lineup against the lefty. Jake Arrieta looms for Game 3, so this is a huge one.

The Game: New York Mets vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Time: 9 p.m. ET
The Place: Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles
The Channel: TBS
The Starters: Noah Syndergaard vs. Zack Greinke
The Upshot: It’s going to be difficult to top the pitching matchup from Game 1, but if anyone is capable of coming close, it’s these two guys. Syndergaard will try to bring the Mets back to Citi Field up 2-0 in the series. After posting a 3.24 ERA and 166/31 K/BB ratio in 150 innings as a rookie, he’s a serious threat to do exactly that. Fortunately for the Dodgers, they have NL Cy Young contender Zack Greinke on the hill. The 31-year-old led the majors with a 1.66 ERA during the regular season and is capable of rendering Syndergaard’s effort moot, much like Jacob deGrom did to Clayton Kershaw on Friday. This is another really fun matchup. One thing to note for the Mets is that rookie Michael Conforto will likely be in left field for Game 2 after sitting against the left-hander in Game 1.