Phillies

Looking back at the Phillies' decade of unfulfillment, what-ifs and huge change

Looking back at the Phillies' decade of unfulfillment, what-ifs and huge change

Roy Halladay sat with his head buried in his hands and stared for what seemed like an eternity at the floor in front of his locker.

Ryan Howard hobbled gingerly toward the door on a pair of crutches.

And Shane Victorino reached into his locker, grabbed a strip of tickets reserved for the World Series, tore it up and dropped it into the trash.

Though it came just 645 days into a decade that will have lasted 3,652 days by the time it ends next week, no day symbolized the last 10 years of Phillies baseball more than October 7, 2011.

And no moment captured the mood more than the clubhouse scene that painful night.

The Phillies had won a franchise-record 102 games that season and were National League East champions for a fifth straight year.

It was the best of times.

With a core of Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, three of the greatest players in franchise history, and an all-aces starting pitching rotation led by Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, the Phillies seemed destined to win the World Series that year.

But on that early October night at Citizens Bank Park, the dream died with Halladay pitching his heart out, allowing just a first-inning run, and Howard rupturing his Achilles tendon on the last swing of the game, the season, an era. The Phillies lost that Game 5 of the NLCS, 1-0, to the St. Louis Cardinals and what has followed has occasionally felt like the worst of times.

Since that painful exit from the 2011 postseason, the Phillies have racked up eight straight non-winning seasons — their most since 1954 to 1961 — and not been back to the postseason since.

Expectations spiked in the final year of the decade as the Phillies traded for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto and signed former MVP Bryce Harper to a staggering 13-year, $330 million contract. Harper’s signing caused a frenzy at the ticket window — the team sold 180,000 tickets in the first 48 hours after the deal was consummated — but once again the Phillies finished out of the race. And while 2019 was a disappointment, it did not match 2011 for the overwhelming feeling of unfulfillment that engulfed the organization and the fanbase.

That probably best sums up this Phillies decade.

It was one of unfulfillment and Jonathan Papelbon could have been speaking for the masses when he said, “I didn’t come here for this.”

• • •

Think about how the decade started.

Halladay, a warrior and the best pitcher in baseball at the time, arrived in 2010 and joined a star-studded nucleus. He announced his presence with a perfect game in May and a playoff no-hitter in October.

That Phillies team lost to the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series.

Expectations soared before the 2011 season when the Phillies brought back Lee. Sports Illustrated embedded itself with the Phils in spring training that year because, of course, they were going to win the World Series, and everything looked great until, of course, it wasn’t. The Cardinals, not the Phillies, took on the look of a team of destiny when they bounced the Phillies from the first round of the playoffs. St. Louis, 10 games back on August 25, rallied to win the wild card and eliminate the Phillies on its way to winning the World Series in manager Tony La Russa’s last year.

The Phillies had the resumes and track records to erase the disappointment of 2011 and get to the postseason quickly, but the end hit hard: Howard, Utley, Halladay and Lee all got hurt and were never as good as they were in 2011. The Phils tried to patch the rotation with the signing of A.J. Burnett on the eve of spring training 2014 but a last-place finish that year convinced organization leaders that it was time for a full rebuild. Rollins, who had become the franchise’s all-time hits leader in the decade, was traded. Hamels pitched a no-hitter in his last start with the club, a Hollywood ending, before he was traded.

What-ifs dominated the Phillies decade of unfulfillment.

• What if the Phils hadn’t played red-hot St. Louis in the NLDS in 2011? The Phils knocked Atlanta out of the playoff picture on the last day of the season and that put St. Louis in.

• What if Lee hadn’t squandered a four-run lead in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Cardinals? The Phils would have gone up two games to none and been in good shape to sweep. After the Game 5 loss, Lee was accountable, saying he cost the Phils the series.

• What if the Phillies’ offense had not vanished after scoring 11 runs in Game 1?

• What if Raul Ibanez’ drive to the right-field wall against Chris Carpenter in the fourth inning of Game 5 had been greeted by a little gust of wind? It might have been a game-changing three-run homer.

• What if Utley had good knees? On good legs, his drive to the center-field wall in the ninth inning of Game 5 might have sailed into the shrubbery for a game-tying homer.

• And about Utley’s knees. What if he continued to play on good legs? What if he didn’t miss chunks of the 2011 and 2012 seasons? Would there even be a Hall of Fame debate?

• Ditto for Howard. He averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs in six seasons leading up to his crushing Achilles injury on the night the Phillies' little dynasty ended. More postseasons? A run at the Hall of Fame? Howard’s injury (and that little thing called the shift) was a game-changer for both player and team during the decade of unfulfillment.

• What if Halladay and Lee had stayed healthy? Would the Phils have kept Victorino and Hunter Pence around in 2012?

• And what if the Phillies had actually been the team of destiny that everyone thought they’d be in 2011? What if they had won that World Series? Would general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., with a championship on his resume, have earned the right to stick around and oversee the rebuild?

There are more what-ifs, many more, but we’ll leave the rest up to you and your tolerance for frustration.

• • •

Wow, this organization did a lot of changing in the decade.

From 102 wins in 2011 to 99 losses and the worst record in the majors in 2015.

Four different men sat in the manager’s office, from Charlie Manuel, whose no-pretense, old-school baseball smarts allowed him to win the trust of superstars and become the most successful manager in the club history, to Ryne Sandberg, Pete Mackanin and Gabe Kapler.

John Middleton, a member of the ownership group since 1994, rose to full power and became managing partner in the middle of the decade.

He brought in veteran executive Andy MacPhail as club president. Amaro was let go in September 2015. Matt Klentak was hired as GM in October 2015.

And more than just names changed. The old-school Phillies, an organization steeped in scouting — the 2008 World Series title team was a testament to good scouting — jumped on the information highway and from scratch built an analytics department that is now considered robust by industry standards.

Along the way, old friends who had accomplished great things, organization icons like Dallas Green and David Montgomery, left us, never to be forgotten because of the men they were and the awards and facilities that have been named after them.

And then there was that unbelievable day in November 2017. Roy Halladay died in a plane crash. It still doesn’t seem real.

Halladay was just 40.

He had so much more to give.

Unfulfillment at its most painful.

• • •

Now, we move on to a new decade.

Ownership has spent over $700 million on free agents these last three winters and that number could rise sharply in the coming months as the team pursues a contract extension with Realmuto. He is one of several top players, along with Harper and Aaron Nola, very much in their prime years. A gifted pitching prospect named Spencer Howard is on the way and, lest we forget, there’s a new leader with an impressive resume in the manager’s office.

How will Joe Girardi’s time as skipper be viewed when it comes time to look back at this new decade?

How will we view the Decade of Harper? Because that’s what it’s going to be.

What names that we’ve never heard before will impact the decade?

And will it be a decade of fulfillment or another one that comes up short?

Here’s the windup and the pitch …

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Bryce Harper's Top 5 home runs as a Phillie

Bryce Harper's Top 5 home runs as a Phillie

Today is the one-year anniversary of Bryce Harper's first regular-season home run as a Phillie, a 465-foot solo shot off of former Phils first-round pick Jesse Biddle.

The Phillies swept the Braves in that opening series and Harper went deep in the second and third games. He hit seven of his 35 home runs against the Braves, three more than he had against any other team in 2019.

Let's look back at Harper's top five home runs as a Phillie in Year 1.

1. Walk-off grand slam vs. Cubs (Aug. 15)

You knew this was going to be No. 1. It was probably the top moment of the Phillies' 2019 season.

The Phillies were down 5-3 with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the ninth when Harper sent a 2-2 pitch from lefty Derek Holland into the second deck in right field.

Everything about the moment was great — from the height and majesty of Harper's walk-off grand slam to John Kruk's "Oh my god!" to Tom McCarthy's call.

This win made the Phillies 63-58 and was part of a season-long four-game winning streak. They won four in a row on five different instances but lost the fifth game each time.

Harper has six career walk-off home runs. This was his first since May of 2017.

2. Harper drops the mic in return to D.C. (April 2)

This one didn't affect the outcome of the game like the walk-off grand slam but it was definitely a memorable moment on a night when Harper was booed nonstop.

It was the Phillies' fourth game of the season and they had just swept the Braves. The Nats started Max Scherzer in one of many long, rainy games in D.C. between the Phils and Nats.

Late in the night, with the Phillies already up 6-2, Harper absolutely crushed a Jeremy Hellickson pitch to the second deck in right-center. There were a ton of Phillies fans in attendance and they made up most of the remaining crowd. 

Check out how that section in right field stirs after the crack of the bat.

3. Harper splashes into McCovey Cove for the win (Aug. 9)

Another late-game home run against a left-handed reliever. The Phillies were down 6-5 in the seventh inning in San Francisco when Harper hit a 3-run shot into McCovey Cove against Tony Watson.

It went 456 feet. The Phillies badly needed it because it was their only win in the final six of a seven-game West Coast trip.

This was when Harper was at his hottest. In 20 games from Aug. 5 through Aug. 31, he hit .304 with 10 homers and 24 RBI.

4. Blasting off onto Ashburn Alley (May 18)

This was Harper's longest home run of the year, a 466-footer on a Saturday afternoon to straightaway center field that cleared almost everything and landed on Ashburn Alley.

The Phillies swept the Rockies in this early-season series and emerged 27-19. Remember those days? The Phils' high watermark came 10 days later at 33-22.

5. Bryce beats the Dodgers early and late (July 16)

Probably Harper's best game of the season.

The Phillies jumped on Dodgers ace Walker Buehler for six runs in one of Buehler's worst starts. Harper punctuated the Phillies' second-inning rally with a 458-foot, three-run shot off Buehler on a fastball just over 98 mph. He did even more damage later.

This was one of the Phillies' wildest games of the year. They led 6-1 after three innings but the Dodgers came all the way back and went ahead 8-6 in the top of the ninth. 

With one out in the bottom of the ninth against Kenley Jansen, Andrew Knapp doubled, Cesar Hernandez singled, Scott Kingery drove in a run with an RBI single and Harper hit a walk-off two-run double.

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Delay in MLB season gives Phillies star J.T. Realmuto something to think about

Delay in MLB season gives Phillies star J.T. Realmuto something to think about

At least the Phillies got one full season of J.T. Realmuto.

The Los Angeles Dodgers could end up getting nothing from Mookie Betts.

While there is hope of a Major League Baseball season in 2020, no one knows for sure if one will happen. One-hundred games, 120, 88, zero. No one knows. Our world is at the mercy of this beast called coronavirus and baseball is just a small part of our world.

But baseball is what we do here, so we have to consider these possibilities and one of them is that the popular and talented Realmuto has played his last game with the Phillies.

Last week, Major League Baseball and the Players Association agreed that players would continue to accrue service time during the game's health-related shutdown. This means that established players who are just one season shy of free agency will still arrive at that precious and lucrative destination next offseason, regardless of whether or not there is a 2020 season.

Now, all sides are hopeful that there will be baseball in 2020, and the guess here is that there will indeed be some type of a season. But if this pandemic does not subside and the sport is shuttered for the season, Betts, picked up by the Dodgers in a February trade with the Red Sox, will enter the free-agent market next winter without ever wearing Dodger blue in an official game.

If the sport is shuttered for the year, Realmuto will become a free agent after just one All-Star season with the Phillies. Pitchers Trevor Bauer, James Paxton and Marcus Stroman will all become free agents without throwing a competitive pitch in 2020.

The Phillies have made it clear that they would like to keep Realmuto off the free-agent market. They have long called him the best catcher in baseball and with that praise seems to come an acknowledgment that they’d be willing to give him a multi-year deal with an average annual value of more than $23 million, which would exceed Joe Mauer’s record AAV for a catcher. The Phils had been engaged in talks with Realmuto’s representation about a potential contract extension before spring training camps were shut down earlier this month.

When camps were shut down, health and safety of players, staff and fans became the top priority, and contract negotiations, as a practical matter, were back-burnered. Now, they are officially off the stove as MLB has issued an indefinite freeze on transactions and negotiations.

If and when MLB comes up with a clearer idea of when the season will start, the Phillies will surely engage Realmuto’s side in contract talks again.

But now, a new variable has entered the picture.

The Phillies' best bit of leverage in talks with Realmuto was the season itself, the 162-game grind of the schedule and the risk of injury that all players assume. Suffering an injury in a walk year could seriously impact any player’s earning power in free agency so, in that regard, opening day and the length of the season was seen as an ally for the Phillies.

But what happens if the season is shortened dramatically? A shorter season would not eliminate the risk of injury because injury has no calendar and it does not discriminate Game 25 from Game 152. But, could fewer games be enough of a mitigating factor in Realmuto’s mind that he takes the risk of playing whatever the 2020 season looks like without the security of an extension so he can take his chances on greater free-agent riches in just a few months?

It’s something to think about.

But so is this:

Regardless of whether the 2020 season is simply altered, shortened or canceled altogether, revenues throughout the game are going to shrink, maybe drastically. The shutdown affects everything from ticket sales, to parking, to merchandise and concessional sales. It affects the huge revenues that teams generate through national and local media deals (TV and radio) and sponsorships. Fewer dollars coming in will affect the overall pool and that could impact next winter’s free-agent market in the amount of money that teams have to spend.

So, Realmuto has a few things to think about. Some of it might excite him. Some of it might not.

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