Early on in the year, it was clear that this would finally be the Phillies season that I had been waiting for: The Season of no Angst.
While the Phillies – especially in recent years – have had great teams before, they have never had a team that caused almost no worry for its fanbase. Even in great seasons like 1993 and 2008, the team had long stretches where they went into maddening slumps and made me think that the team was destined to fall out of contention.
But throughout most of the 2011 season, long losing streaks had been non-existent. Their longest losing streak had been four games long, which happened twice. But those were just two small blights among a season filled with victories. For the most part, this team has marched steadily along, winning games at a team record pace.
Obviously, the main reason for this has been their exceptional starting pitching. When you can send an ace to the mound just about every night, losing streaks become rare.
On other teams, if the ace pitcher has a bad night, it could lead to a few losses in a row. But if Cliff Lee has one of his few bad starts, it isn’t a huge concern, because the team has a great chance at winning behind Cole Hamels the following night.
As a result, there has been no point at which the Phillies looked to be in any danger of missing the postseason. Instead, we’ve enjoyed a pleasant, steady drive towards another division title. On Saturday night, they made it official when they clinched the National League East.
And that is where the season took a somewhat unexpected turn into Angstville.
Once they sealed up a playoff spot, there was really nothing much more for them to play for. They still needed to clinch best overall record in the National League, but they earned that by default two days later thanks to some losses by the Milwaukee Brewers.
With nothing left to play for, the remainder of the season became a scenario where only bad things could happen to the team. And sure enough, bad things have been happening.
The team that looked like an unstoppable powerhouse just a couple of weeks ago now seems to be loaded with problems. Ryan Howard and Hunter Pence are hurt. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are slumping. Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes have been ineffective out of the bullpen.
Considering that these players will all be counted on heavily during the playoffs, this has become quite alarming for Phillies fans. It might not matter if they win any more regular season games (and the way they’ve been playing, they might not) but once the playoffs start, they’ll need these guys to be healthy and playing well.
And now, the team has lost five straight games. First, they lost three out of four games to the Cardinals, a team that might end up being the Phillies first round opponent.
They followed that by losing three straight to the Washington Nationals. Yes, the same Nationals who have spent most of their existence as the Phillies’ personal punching bags.
Clinched playoff spot or not, Phillies fans are starting to get a bit concerned. While we may have expected the team’s performance to drop off a bit after clinching, I don’t think anyone expected a complete collapse. And if the Phillies can’t even beat the Nationals, then they’re surely in trouble, right?
No, not really.
While the Phillies can talk all they want about wanting to still play hard and caring about the games, it’s apparent that it isn’t actually the case.
They may not be running a team of all backups out there, but in every game, they’ve been missing at least one or two regulars. And while the regulars are still trying to win, it’s only natural for their intensity and concentration levels to be lowered.
Meanwhile, they played against a good Cardinals team that is on a hot streak and fighting for its playoff life. And while the Nationals might not still be in contention, they are fighting to have a winning record for the season, as well as salvaging some pride by knocking off the best team in baseball. The wins have meant much more to them than it would have to the Phillies.
Some people are worried that the Phillies will have a tough time “turning it back on” once the playoffs begin. They’re worried that if matched against a hot team like the Cardinals, the momentum might be a factor at the beginning of the series. And in a five game series, you can’t afford to fall too far behind.
I’m not as concerned about this. History has shown that momentum entering the playoffs has little effect on the outcome. For every red hot team that marched their way through the postseason, there has been another that crashed and burned once the playoffs began.
Besides, momentum in baseball usually goes about as far as the next game’s starting pitcher. The Cardinals could come in red hot, but all it takes is Roy Halladay at the top of his game to cool them off.
I am also not too concerned that the Phillies won’t be able to re-up their intensity levels once the playoffs begin. The team is filled with playoff veterans who have played in – and won – quite a few postseason games. I have full confidence that they’ll be ready to go once the games start meaning something again.
So while the recent poor play and losing streak might seem a little unsettling, there’s still no reason for angst. We should all just sit back and relax, and enjoy this downtime until the postseason begins.