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: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Dodgers 5, White Sox 4: Yu Darvish was OK, but not great in his Dodger Stadium debut and his teammates could only manage two runs off of White Sox starter Carlos Rodon, so they found themselves down 4-2 heading into the bottom of the ninth. As has so often happened this year, however, L.A. rallied. Cody Bellinger singled, Logan Forsythe doubled him in, Austin Barnes singled to put men on second and third and then Yasiel Puig came up to bat and doubled both Forsythe and Barnes in for the tying and winning runs. In so doing, Puig — who has been both hot and a consummate team player of late, will wonders ever cease? — becomes the ninth different Dodger to have a walkoff hit in their ten walkoff wins this year. They’re now on pace for 116 wins, which would match the all-time record.

 

Ok, let us all note right now that four games finished with the final score of 7-6 last night. This is important. This means something.

Brewers 7, Pirates 6: Milwaukee hit five homers yesterday, with Manny Pina‘s two-run shot in the eighth putting them over and giving the Brewers their fourth straight win. Keon Broxton homered twice and Neil Walker and Travis Shaw also went deep as Milwaukee moves into sole possession of second place in the central, a game and a half back of the Cubs.

Royals 7, Athletics 6: Oakland tied it in the bottom of the eighth with a Matt Chapman two-run homer but Alex Gordon hit a go-ahead RBI single in the top of the ninth to give the Royals the win. Here’s A’s manager Bob Melvin after the game, offering comments which basically mirror my internal monologue every time I have to recap a 7-6, 9-8, 10-7 (or something like that) game with lots of lead changes and crap pitching:

“It just was an ugly game all the way around. There was no pace to the game, and it just seemed like one of those games that was just blah.”

I’ve been recapping scores for a decade now and I can say that such games are the hardest to recap, mostly because there’s no great through-narrative. The easiest to recap are ones where a starter dominates. Not the best, just the easiest (“Shlabotnik tosses eight shutout innings, striking out 11 as . . .”). The best are ones are ones with big dumb fights and controversies or bad ump calls or something. Dramatic walkoffs are a close second. I should probably do a post some time with a bunch of bullet points discussing all of the dumb little things about writing these recaps that y’all probably don’t realize. The only thing stopping me is that you probably don’t care.

Mariners 7, Orioles 6: Yonder Alonso hit his first homer for Seattle and drove in three runs, Leonys Martin homered to give the M’s what would be their winning run and Marc Rzepczynski struck out Chris Davis with the bases loaded to end an O’s threat and the game.

Cubs 7, Reds 6: This game had everything. A first-inning grand slam, a stolen base from John Lackey (followed by Lackey getting picked off because he flew too close to the sun, apparently) and a walkoff wild pitch:

Mercy. I mean, really, how often do you see a game end when a catcher can’t handle a throw to the plate?

Red Sox 5, Cardinals 4: Oh, well, more often than I imagined, I suppose:

That was Mookie Betts lining that two-run double off the Green Monster with two outs in the ninth inning, capping Boston’s three-run game-winning rally. Xander Bogaerts opened the ninth with a solo homer. In between all of that, one of the weirdest things I can recall happening went down: Cards reliever John Brebbia was in his motion, when home plate umpire Chris Segal called timeout, negating the pitch and, you assume, messing with Brebbia’s rhythm. It wasn’t because the batter called time and Segal simply granted it too late — that happens a lot. No, it was Segal calling time on his own because “needed a break.” Really. That’s what he said to Mike Matheny when he came out to ask for an explanation. Matheny understandably went nuts and got ejected, saying “it’s not your show.” I’m no Matheny fan, but I’d be just as pissed in his place.

Padres 3, Phillies 0: Clayton Richard had a three-hit, complete game shutout. See: those are easy to write up. That’s really the whole story of the game. Next!

Ah, damn, not the whole story:

Wil Myers‘ feat marks the first time a player has stolen all three bases in the same inning since Dee Gordon did it in 2011.

Yankees 5, Mets 3: Aaron Judge hit a massive homer into the third deck of Citi Field — I’ve been up there, brother, and let me tell you it’s far — and Didi Gregorius broke a seventh-inning tie with a two-run double. I was watching this game at someone else’s house as I had been drafted to babysit their toddler. Observations: (1) it’s been almost ten years since I had a toddler, and no matter how cute and adorable they are (and this one is) I forgot how much is sucks to not be able to turn on a game until the fifth inning or so because of the playing and bedtime rituals and all of that, but I managed it; and (2) being forced to watch a Rick Sutcliffe-called game because you’re in a place where you can’t access your MLB.tv account is a high class problem to have but, buddy, it’s a problem. Lord he’s awful.

Blue Jays 3, Rays 2: Marcus Stroman allowed two runs while pitching into the seventh inning and Steve Pearce homered and scored twice. The Rays have scored two or fewer runs in nine of their past 12 games. They’re 1-8 in those games, which makes a lot of sense.

Rangers 12, Tigers 6: Texas sweeps the three game series thanks to Elvis Andrus‘ four RBI, which included the go-ahead run in the form of a solo homer. Joey Gallo (natch), Nomar Mazara and Adrian Beltre also went deep for the Rangers.

Astros 9, Diamondbacks 5Josh Reddick hit a two-run homer in a four-run eighth inning and Charlie Morton allowed one run in six and a third. The Astros win back-to-back games for the first time in three weeks.

Rockies 17, Braves 2: Well that was a beatdown. Trevor Story had two homers and knocked in six, Mark Reynolds homered and drove in four, knocking four hits in all, and Gerardo Parra added three hits and four RBI. This was only the second-highest run total for the Rockies this year because Rockies.

Marlins 8, Giants 1: Giancarlo Stanton‘s home run streak ended but he still had two hits, scored a run and stole a base, so maybe he’ll now go on some crazy small-ball tear. Tomas Telis drove in three for Miami. Jose Urena allowed only one unearned run over five and three Marlins relievers held San Francisco scoreless for the final four frames.

Angels 3, Nationals 2: Ryan Zimmerman hit a two-run homer in the first but Luis Valbuena hit a solo shot for the Angels in the fifth and Cole Calhoun hit a two-run blast in the sixth and that was all the scoring there was. The Angels have won seven of eight and sit alone in the second Wild Card spot in the American League. Who woulda thunk it?

Indians vs. Twins — POSTPONED:

I’ve been loving you a long time
Down all the years, down all the days
And I’ve cried for all your troubles
Smiled at your funny little ways
We watched our friends grow up together
And we saw them as they fell
Some of them fell into Heaven
Some of them fell into Hell
I took shelter from a shower
And I stepped into your arms
On a rainy night in Soho
The wind was whistling all its charms

Travis d’Arnaud’s position in Wednesday’s box score read “3B-2B-3B-2B-3B-2B-3B-2B-3B-2B-3B-2B-3B-2B-3B-2B-3B-2B”

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The Mets had to scratch both Jose Reyes and Wilmer Flores an hour before Wednesday’s game against the Yankees due to ribcage injuries, so Travis d'Arnaud — normally a catcher — borrowed David Wright‘s glove and played third base for the first time in his career. He had played some third base in spring training, but as far as an official professional game goes, he’s never been there.

The first two batters the Yankees sent up to the plate in the first inning were left-handed. But when the right-handed Aaron Judge came up, manager Terry Collins swapped second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera with d’Arnaud. It became a thing. The two swapped once more in the first inning, three times in the second, once in the third, five times in the fourth, once in the fifth, three times in the sixth, four times in the seventh, once in the eighth, and twice in the ninth. It worked, as d’Arnaud didn’t have an opportunity to make a play until catching Todd Frazier‘s pop-up for the first out of the ninth inning — as a second baseman. Cabrera had a handful of opportunities, including immediately after having swapped with d’Arnaud.

The Mets lost 5-3. At the plate, d’Arnaud went 0-for-3 with a sacrifice fly. Cabrera was 1-for-4.

Matt Reynolds and Gavin Cecchini are being recalled from Triple-A Las Vegas so the Mets don’t have to do the “3B-2B shenanigans,” as MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo put it, again.