charlie manuel

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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Charlie Manuel shares a fun moment with Maikel Franco during Phillies BP

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In a scene you probably won’t see on the field at Citizens Bank Park next season, Charlie Manuel and Maikel Franco had a fun little moment during BP.

Franco is well-liked in the Phillies’ clubhouse. He’s been through a lot here but has never had a negative or surly attitude.

He again did big damage against the Mets over the weekend, going 4 for 9 with a double and a homer. He’s homered seven times against the Mets this season and hit .345.

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Phillies are 4-0 since changing hitting coaches and 'of course, Charlie's had an impact'

Phillies are 4-0 since changing hitting coaches and 'of course, Charlie's had an impact'

Baseball is a game most accurately measured over the long haul, not in short snippets. So we probably won’t know for a couple of weeks or more exactly what impact Charlie Manuel is having on the Phillies’ offense.

But with nothing but a short snippet to work with thus far, we can definitely say this:

So far, so great.

Take it from sizzling J.T. Realmuto.

“Of course, Charlie's had an impact,” Realmuto said after the Phillies slugged their way past the San Diego Padres, 8-4, at Citizens Bank Park on Friday night.

“Just having him in the dugout, being able to walk by him and have him say something as simple as, ‘Hey, stay short.’ He's a guy that everybody in this clubhouse looks up to so we're definitely glad to have him.”

The Phillies have matched a season-high with four straight wins, all on this homestand, and all coinciding with the dismissal of hitting coach John Mallee and the insertion of Manuel into that role.

Officially, Manuel has been in the dugout for three games. In those three games, the Phils have pounded out 35 hits, including seven homers and eight doubles, and scored 26 runs.

Not bad for a club that went 2-5 on its most recent road trip, scored one or zero runs in three of the five losses and was the victim of a one-hitter and a three-hitter.

“There’s a lot of confidence and looseness in our at-bats,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “We’re not forcing it right now. There’s not a whole lot of pressing going on. I think guys are just in an easy state of mind.”

How much of that has to do with Manuel’s arrival?

“I think Charlie has done a great job of keeping it loose,” Kapler said. “He’s great to talk to. He’s got an incredible demeanor. It’s always nice to look over and see him in the dugout with us. He’s a real calming presence and I think he’s only had a positive impact.”

The Phils had 12 hits, including homers by Realmuto, Bryce Harper and Roman Quinn, in Friday’s night win. The victory put the Phils in a tie with the Chicago Cubs for the second NL wild card spot. Both teams are 64-58. The Phillies took three from the Cubs earlier this week, capped by Thursday night’s wild 7-5 win in which Harper clubbed a game-winning grand slam in the bottom of the ninth.

Harper hit a three-run homer to put the game out of reach Friday night. He has seven homers and 17 RBIs over his last nine games. Harper is up to 90 RBIs, putting him in the top 10 in the NL.

“It's a lot of fun to watch from this side,” Realmuto said. “I've seen it a lot from the other side (when he was with the Marlins) in recent years. When Bryce gets hot, he's one of the most exciting players to watch, as you guys are seeing right now.

“These last four nights have been a ton of fun, really. Kind of putting our tough stretch behind us and going out there, we have a lot more confidence than we've had in the past couple weeks so it makes for more fun baseball and that's when you win. You go out there and you have fun, let loose a little bit, you enjoy the crowd. Obviously, they're into it. They've been a blast for us the last four games so we're just riding that emotion, just got to keep going.”

Realmuto is as hot as Harper. He had a homer, a double and a single and is hitting .313 (51 for 163) with 16 doubles, 8 homers and 29 RBIs over his last 44 games.

“We’ve talked about our offense and how when guys clicked together it could be the catalyst to win a lot of baseball games,” Kapler said. “And I think we're seeing that Bryce and J.T. can carry us, but we’re also getting contributions up and down the lineup.”

If Rhys Hoskins can get going when he returns to the lineup — he did not start because of a sore hand Friday night, but will be ready to start Saturday — the Phillies could have three hot hitters. And they could use even more than that because if they’re going to make a run over the final 40 games, they will need to out-hit other clubs. The pitching is just too suspect to carry this team.

Nonetheless, the Phillies got a good start from Vince Velasquez on Friday night. He pitched shutout ball through the first five innings before being bitten by the dreaded third-time-through-the-lineup bug.

Velasquez needs to continue to deliver good starts to keep the Phillies in this thing. Ditto for the rest of the rotation. Zach Eflin returns to the rotation on Saturday. He has stretches where he pitched well for a month. The Phillies could certainly use one right now.

“What we need is quality starts,” Kapler said. “We’re not looking for eight innings and zeroes every night. What we’re looking for is to be in games. If we’re in games, we have the kind of offense that can win those games, so we just want very competitive starts from our starters. We feel confident that Zach can help us compete (Saturday night).”

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