If I had to make a list of my least favorite moments from 2012, a fair amount of them probably would’ve come from the four game series in Houston from September 13-16. The Astros halted a 7 game win streak by the Phillies that, combined with a respectable stretch of .586 ball in August, had briefly re-ignited hopes that they could snag the second wildcard that as many as 5 other teams were vying for. The Phillies pitching staff hemorrhaged runs, to the tune of 6 per game, against an Astros offense that was worst in the NL. The worst (the worst) part of it was the absolute inevitability. History mandated that the Phillies inexplicably underperform against the Astros in a crucial series, and they fulfilled that prophecy, playing out a miserable, predictable script.
The Phillies rolled into New York on September 17th for a 3 game set against the Mets, dragging the remains of their abortive comeback attempt behind them. They weren’t mathematically eliminated, but there was no longer a realistic route to the postseason. But with the nerve-wracked hand-wringing over, we could stand down, appreciate what the Phillies had accomplished from August on, and indulge in simple, small-picture enjoyment of each individual game — the kind of context-free, care-free spectating we could experience prior to 2007.
The Phils took the first game of the series, thanks to one of the most enjoyable spectacles available to baseball fans: an elite Cliff Lee pitching outing. Lee threw 111 pitches over 8 innings, striking out 10 and allowing just 1 run, and the Phillies won 3-1. Cole Hamels started the next night, September 19th, and was immediately given the lead with a lead off home run from Jimmy Rollins. Cole pitched admirably, matching Lee’s strikeout total from the night before. But with a Daniel Murphy RBI single in the third, and a David Wright solo shot in the 6th, the Mets were leading 2-1 late in the game. Antonio Bastardo, Philippe Aumont, and Jeremy Horst prevented any further damage, but entering the top of the 9th the Phillies had 3 outs left and at needed at least 1 run to stay alive.
The top of the order was due up. In previous seasons, this would’ve meant something like Rollins/Victorino/Utley, with Ryan Howard lurking in the dugout, and fans could not only hope for a comeback, but expect one. In 2012, it meant Rollins, Juan Pierre (who in this instance would be benched for no less than Ty Wigginton), and an aged and ailing Utley. Rollins and Wigginton went down flailing, and the Phillies were down to their last out. Chase Utley, though his effectiveness and longevity were oft-questioned in 2012, had put up an excellent shortened season, with a 113 OPS+ and his usual premium defense. Against Josh Edgin, an unremarkable organizational arm for the Mets, he worked a 3-2 count over 8 pitches and drew a walk.
By this point in the season, even with playoff hopes extinguished, it was impossible not to look at what the resilient Phillies were doing and dream on other ways things could have unfolded — if the Phillies had gotten more breaks during an amazingly frustrating run of poor luck in the first half, or if they had entered the season with their roster at full strength. On such a hypothetical contending team, one model for a Phillies comeback in the late innings would be an excellent Chase Utley at bat followed by the brutal raw power of Ryan Howard finishing the job. So even though Ryan Howard entered the day hitting a dismal .225/.304/.405, with a comical 33% strikeout rate, hobbling around the base paths and looking like anything but his old self, and even though he faced a left-handed reliever, you couldn’t help but harbor a nostalgic desire for a “get me to the plate” event. And, in what was my favorite moment of a difficult 2012 season, Howard delivered.
If you’re reading this, I don’t need to explain why a go-ahead late inning home run by Ryan Howard against the New York Mets was the perfect salve for Phillies fans pining for better times. Reminiscing on 2011, and dreaming on 2013, this was exactly what we needed.
(Oh, and by the way, he annihilated that pitch)