The New York Time
October 14, 2009
The Phillies Are Ready for Prime Time
By BEN SHPIGEL
The Phillies’ first two playoff games began in the middle of a workday. Their third ended after last call in Philadelphia. Their thrilling division series against Colorado may have gone unwatched in many precincts, but it did not go unnoticed. The Phillies are just as formidable as ever, flashing the same swagger and resilience in edging the Rockies as they did in winning a World Series title last fall.
Their 5-4 victory in Game 4 on Monday, which clinched a spot in the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, unfolded in classic Phillies fashion: trailing, 4-2, and down to their last strike, they torched Rockies closer Huston Street for three runs, the pivotal hits coming from Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth. Dramatic wins are routine for the Phillies, whose 43 come-from-behind victories this season led the N.L. The best road team in their league, the Phillies swept both games at frigid Coors Field.
“We’ll stay right there and when we get down, like when we get our feet knocked out from under us, we’ll get up,” Manager Charlie Manuel told reporters in Denver. “We’ll come back.”
There was a twist to this one, but even that rang familiar. Brad Lidge, their maligned closer, preserved a one-run lead in the ninth inning for the second time in 19 hours. He struck out Troy Tulowitzki, who flailed at a vicious slider, the pitch that closed out the Phillies’ World Series title last year. The high-profile closers Street, Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan have faltered this postseason, but Lidge is not among them. His earned run average, 7.21 during the regular season, is 0.00 in the postseason. If Lidge has regained his confidence and form, the Phillies will be especially tough to handle.
The Phillies’ bullpen problems, highlighted by Lidge, threatened to derail their title defense before it even began. Among the N.L.’s four playoff representatives, the Rockies had better balance, the Cardinals better starting pitching and the best player in baseball, and the Dodgers better depth and an impervious bullpen. But the Phillies’ struggles also distracted from another truth: that they were still an exceptional team that never gives in.
“Everybody has a reputation,” Phillies infielder Greg Dobbs said in a recent interview. “It all comes from how you run down to first: Do you hustle? Do you grind out hard at-bats? Are you locked in on defense? I think we have a pretty good reputation for doing all those things.”
So maybe the Phillies did not receive any prime-time respect from TBS in the first round of the postseason. The fact remains that they still have Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, the switch-hitting speedsters who ignite their offense at the top of the lineup. They still have Chase Utley and Howard, the left-handed sluggers. They still have Werth, who has become increasingly dangerous, and now they also have Raul Ibanez, who was one of four Phillies to hit at least 30 home runs. Over all, the Phillies led the N.L. in runs, in homers, in slugging percentage, and perhaps in intimidation, too.
Their rotation, a question mark heading into last October, is what Manuel calls his best in five seasons in charge. The July trade for Cliff Lee added another left-handed ace and relieved pressure on Cole Hamels, who endured an uneven season but is still the reigning most valuable player of the World Series.
J. A. Happ, a product of their farm system, went 12-4 with a 2.93 E.R.A. and may be selected the N.L. rookie of the year. Joe Blanton, perhaps their most reliable pitcher, did not even start against Colorado, and he may not against the Dodgers, either. Pedro Martinez relishes pitching in the postseason, and the Phillies may give him that chance, in Game 2 or 4.
The Phillies said they did not go into the division series looking to avenge the three-game, first-round sweep by the Rockies in 2007 — “hasn’t even entered my mind,” reliever Ryan Madson said in a recent interview — but that experience has definitely stayed with them.
Since then, they are 14-4 in the postseason, winning all four series they have played. Now they face the Dodgers in an N.L.C.S. rematch.
The Phillies overpowered them in the N.L.C.S. last year, but several Dodgers, after clinching their division series against St. Louis on Saturday night, insisted their team is stronger than it was a year ago. Their general manager, Ned Colletti, echoed that assessment, citing a more diverse lineup and an influx of experienced players like Jim Thome, Mark Loretta and Brad Ausmus. Manny Ramirez is still there, and so is their superb manager, Joe Torre.
Repeating as World Series champions is, as the last nine winners can attest, exceedingly difficult. The last defending champion to even reach the World Series was the 2001 Yankees. The last N.L. team to win consecutive World Series was the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds, known as the Big Red Machine. So the odds are stacked against the Phillies, not that they mind. As their late beloved broadcaster, Harry Kalas, used to croon, they have high hopes. High apple-pie-in-the-sky hopes.
“Maybe they’ll call us the Little Red Machine,” Rollins said. “We’re going to give it our all. I can tell you that much.”