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: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Happy Memorial Day, everyone.

Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Blue Jays 10, Padres 1: Cavan Biggio had three hits, including his first career home run, giving the Biggio family 292 combined career homers. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. hit a homer too. He, his brother Yulieski and their father Lourdes Gurriel Sr. have a combined 299, depending on how much credence you want to give to Cuban stats from the 1970s-90s when dad played. No matter the exact number their dad was amazing, jack. He substantially outhit both Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi head-to-head in amateur play back in the day, even though he was older than Bonds and much older than Giambi. He would’ve been a certified stud in the majors. Vlad Guerrero Jr. had three hits on the day. He and his dad have a combined 2,610 hits now. Justin Smoak hit two homers. I have no idea if his dad ever hit any. For all I know he’s a dentist or a tool and die guy or something.

Can’t wait until the Jays call up Dante Bichette’s kid, Bo Bichette, and every recap of their games is about dads. Dads rule.

Mets 4, Tigers 3: The homer explosion in baseball over the past few years has drastically increased the percentage of runs scored via the longball. Which, as a guy who does recaps and tends to focus on the runs that are scored, I must admit it makes things somewhat . . . boring at times. Or at lease repetitive. But it is what it is, and if you write about what happens in games you gotta write about what, you know, happened.

Unless you’re the AP beat writer who covered this game, in which case you spend the first 178 words of a 500-word story talking about Todd Frazier dropping down a bunt against the shift. It was a pretty nifty bunt — it scored the Mets’ first run of the game — but given that two batters later Adeiny Hechavarría hit a three-run homer that brought the Mets back from behind and gave them what proved to be the game’s winning runs, it seems, I dunno, a bit unrepresentative. I get it. I really do. It’s more fun to talk about a bunt-against-the-shift in which the “long-time pro” “cleverly” pushed that punt into right field than it is the 10,000th home run of the past week, but I feel like you gotta give Hechavarría his props there before you go on about wily veterans doing wily veteran things. Anyway: New York takes two out of three from the Tigers and wins the sixth of seven overall.

Twins 7, White Sox 0: Jake Odorizzi tossed one-hit, shutout ball into the sixth, striking out nine, and the Twins’ powerful lineup continued to be powerful, with Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario each hitting three-run homers. Minnesota sweeps Chicago for the team’s seventh series sweep this year. They’ve won 11 of their past 12 games too and have built a big lead in their division because . . .

Rays 6, Indians 3: . . . Cleveland kinda stinks. Trevor Bauer‘s struggles continue. He coughed up four runs on five hits in six innings while the Rays’ bullpenning brigade shut Cleveland out until eighth, by which time Tampa Bay was up 5-0. Austin Meadows, meanwhile, led off the game with a home run and was 4 for 4 with three RBI and the Rays took three of four from the Tribe. Cleveland is now at .500, a full ten games — 10! — behind the Twins. I guess allowing the team to get worse in the offseason because they felt like the division was gonna be a cakewalk isn’t working out all that well for the Indians, huh?

Nationals 9, Marlins 6: On Friday I observed on Twitter that if the Marlins win streak were to continue against the Nats and Washington were to get swept out of this series that it’d be a mortal certainty that Dave Martinez would get fired. That hypothesis was not tested as the Nats have taken the first three games of this four-game set. Here Howie Kendrick homered, had three hits and drove in three. If you want to look for a the gray lining on this otherwise fluffy white cloud, note that while Washington built up a 9-0 lead, the bullpen coughed up six runs in the final two innings which is not what you want.

Dodgers 11, Pirates 7: Justin Turner had five hits and scored three times, Matt Beaty had four RBI, and Corey Seager homered and drove in two and Joc Pederson went deep as well. The Dodgers scored six runs in the sixth. Two of them came via back-to-back bases loaded plunkings. I guess what I’m saying is that the Buccos’ pitchers weren’t exactly sharp in this one. L.A. sweeps Pittsburgh in three.

Red Sox 4, Astros 1: Eduardo Rodríguez allowed a first inning run but that’s all he allowed in six innings of work as he outdueld Justin Verlander. The Sox didn’t exactly pummel JV — Rafael Devers homered but the other runs came on an error, a groundout and a sac fly — but they did enough. The win allowed Boston to avoid a sweep. The season series between these two is over, with Houston taking four of six. Wouldn’t be shocking to see them meet in the playoffs once again.

Brewers 9, Phillies 1: Brandon Woodruff allowed a solo homer in the sixth but was otherwise perfect — like, literally perfect; no hits, walks, runs or errors — in eight innings of work. If not for that dinger he’d almost certainly have come out for the ninth given that he was only at 97 pitches. No need for that here, of course, as the Brewers’ bats gave him nine runs of support. Ben Gamel had two homers, Hernan Pérez, Yasmani Grandal and Christian Yelich also went deep. Yelich’s was his major league-leading 21st home run on the year. Gamel now has four homers in his first year in Milwaukee. That puts him two homers behind Mat Gamel on the Brewers’ All-Time Gamel home run list.

Royals 8, Yankees 7: The Royals had a 7-1 lead after five and blew it, with a three-run ninth inning rally capped off by a two-run RBI single from Aaron Hicks forcing extras. Yankees reliever Jonathan Holder failed to live up to his name in the 10th, though, as he walked Billy Hamilton — and, really, who the hell walks Billy Hamilton? — who then did the obvious thing and stole second base. With two down in the inning Whit Merrifield came to the plate and scored Hamilton for the walkoff win.

Merrifield got an eat-the-third-baseman-alive bounce on this one, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good:

Reds 10, Cubs 2: Bad day for the Cubbies. Both because of the loss and because Kris Bryant — starting in right field — collided with center fielder Jason Heyward as the two converged to catch a fly ball. Neither caught it and a run scored but, more importantly, Bryant had to leave the game and now he’s on concussion watch. Nick Senzel had three hits and scored four times for the Reds. Eugenio Suárez finished with two hits and three RBI and Joey Votto banged out a couple of hits as well. Tanner Roark tossed five shutout innings and the Reds too two of three from the Cubs in Wrigley.

Rockies 8, Orioles 7: Colorado scored twice in the bottom of the ninth to come from behind and snag the walkoff win. The first run of the ninth came on a bases-loaded walk to Ian Desmond, which again, who walks Ian Desmond? The second run came on a sac fly from Tony Wolters which, hey, you load the bases and you don’t have much margin for error. Before all of that Nolan Arenado homered for the third straight game and Rockies starter German Márquez tripled and drove in three runs on the day. The triple was kind of a cheapie, if such a thing exists, as the O’s had pulled the outfield way in against him and he just lofted one to the wall and trotted in to third without a play. Colorado takes two of three from Baltimore.

Athletics 7, Mariners 1: Brett Anderson allowed one run while pitching into the seventh, leading the A’s to a three-game sweep of the M’s. Matt Chapman and Josh Phegley hit bombs. Oakland has won nine in a row. Though, actually, that winning streak could later be taken away because in the middle of it is a suspended game against the Tigers which they could end up losing when they finish it later this year. It’s the closest thing baseball has to time travel. 

Diamondbacks 6, Giants 2: Arizona came into this series on a five-game losing streak and swept the Giants in three. Here they sent San Francisco to its fifth straight loss. Ketel Marte homered and Eduardo Escobar had three hits. Rookie Mike Yastrzemski had three hits. I was at one of his minor league games a couple of years ago and a guy behind me said “ah, it’s Carl Yastrzemski’s son.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was his grandkid. Life comes at you fast and all of that, but jeez, Carl Yastrzemski is gonna turn 80 this summer.

Holy crap. I’ve seen a guy who is almost 80 play in person. He’s not the only one who’s old.

Angels 7, Rangers 6: Texas had a 5-1 lead heading into the seventh when the Angels put up a six-spot. Mike Trout homered early and then doubled in a run and scored on a wild pitch in the Halos’ big seventh. Two runs scored on wild pitches in that inning, in fact, both by Kyle Dowdy. L.A. took two of three from Texas.

Braves 4, Cardinals 3: This one has to hurt if you’re a Cards fan. St. Louis took a 3-0 lead into the ninth and Jordan Hicks came out to get the easiest of all saves. He couldn’t record a single out, though, and ended up being charged with three runs. The third run came when Ozzie Albies singled to conclude a ten-pitch at bat against Shelby Miller in which he fouled off pitch after pitch.  In the tenth Tyler Webb put two on — one via an unintentional walk — and then Mike Shildt called for an intentional walk of rookie Austin Riley to load the bases. Next batter up was Brian McCann who, yep, walked to force in the go-ahead run. Atlanta takes two of three from the Cards. They’ve won 12 of 16 overall. They’re a game and a half behind the Phillies.