The Phillies showed up to spring training in Clearwater, Florida with the weight of enormous expectations resting squarely on their shoulders. Was the starting rotation the greatest ever assembled? Which of the four aces would win the Cy Young award? Just how many games could this team win — 100? 110?
Teams with so much expected of them rarely live up to it, just ask the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won 116 games and lost in the ALCS to the New York Yankees. Baseball is both adored and scorned for its unpredictability, making for the harshest of heartbreaks and loudest of celebrations.
The Phillies failed to reach their goal of winning another World Series. The upstart St. Louis Cardinals blazed through September, winning 18 of 26 games in the final month, ultimately reaching the post-season when the Atlanta Braves collapsed. The Cardinals entered the NLDS as huge underdogs against the Phillies, but behind solid all-around baseball, the Red Birds took advantage of an under-performing Phillies starting rotation and an anxious lineup that could not score runs in any consistent fashion. For the second straight post-season, the Phillies’ hopes were dashed with Ryan Howard making the final out. To add injury to insult, Howard came up lame running out of the batter’s box, injuring the foot that had been bothering him for much of the second-half of the season.
There are no two ways around it: 2011 is a failure for the Phillies. A team with their payroll, their caliber of pitching — their caliber of players overall, in fact — in a relatively weak league should be expected to win it all. However, in the sadness, let’s not lose sight of the great things that were accomplished this season. The team set a franchise record with 102 regular season wins. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels all pitched incredibly well, and Vance Worley should not be lost in that conversation. Shane Victorino had a career year, as did Hunter Pence (who was even better with the Phillies than the Astros). John Mayberry, Jr. showed he can be a productive Major League player. Ryan Madson continued to pitch as one of the best and most underrated relievers in the game. Antonio Bastardo came out of nowhere to play a crucial role in an otherwise uninspiring bullpen.
Now that the season is over, Phillies fans may have seen a few players for the last time. Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Madson, and Raul Ibanez are free agents while Roy Oswalt and Brad Lidge have contract options that can be declined. All five are players that we have come to know and love over the years, through all of the trials and tribulations. Losing (potentially all of) them would be losing a part of the 2007-11 era that made baseball so fun. Of course, the Phillies will have the means to bring in new faces and we will start the whole process over again. That’s why baseball is so great — there’s always next season, and there are always new players with whom we can get attached. For the Phillies, it’s back to the drawing board, then on to attack 2012 with a vengeance.
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As a bit of a personal aside, thank you, readers, for making this season so fun. This blog has continued to grow and achieve new levels of success, and I can’t thank you enough for making Crashburn Alley a regular stop in your Internet routine. The content will continue to flow in the off-season, so remember to keep stopping by for analysis on the Phillies’ approach to the 2012 season. Additionally, I have had a blast live-Tweeting games — those of you who follow and interact with me on Twitter have made watching Phillies baseball even more fun, something I didn’t think was possible.
Congratulations to any Cardinals fans who may be stopping by to read. In particular, I’m happy for Matthew Philip of ESPN Sweet Spot’s Fungoes blog as he was kind enough to spare some time to come over to the dark side and speak with us before the series began. Let’s hope for a competitive and entertaining League Championship and World Series.