You have to still like the Phillies’ chances to beat the Cardinals in their first-round series. They will hand the ball to Roy Halladay who, no offense to Chris Carpenter, gives them a significant starting pitching advantage. They will have a home ballpark filled with their raucous, towel-waving fans, nary a squirrel in sight.
But still, it’s one baseball game, and that has to scare the bejesus out of Phillies’ fans, who now face the same specter as nine of the last 11 teams to win more games than any other team – they got sent home without the trophy.
That their 102-win season comes down to one game – against a lineup that includes Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday – suggests more about the randomness of baseball’s postseason than about the characteristics of either team. The Phillies’ acquisition of Cliff Lee and formation of a Super Rotation gave them the best chance of any team in the major to reach the playoffs. Once there, they face virtually the same whims of fate as any other team in baseball’s eight-team dice roll.
Baseball’s marathon regular season leaves almost no doubt about the quality of each team. The Phillies, evidenced by their 102 wins, have the best team in baseball. That guarantees them nothing in October. As much fun and drama as the baseball playoffs provide, a five-game series in a sport so reliant on luck and variance reveals almost nothing about the quality of the teams involved. For a juggernaut like the Phillies, that’s bad news.
The Phillies have handed huge contracts to aging stars like Ryan Howard while shipping prospects to acquire major additions such as Hunter Pence and Roy Halladay. They have used the resources generated by the cash cow that is Citizens Bank Park to build the most imposing team in baseball in 2011. But they have done so while giving themselves a high degree of difficulty to sustain that success into the future.
If the Phillies lose Friday night, we will look for flaws and explanations – a lineup that is too left-handed; a lack of clutch hitting; a shaky bullpen; whatever. The Phillies’ real problem is the conflict between the nature of the regular season and the postseason. Having the best team is nice, but in a short series it guarantees nothing.
Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein once said that he saw his mission as building a consistent team capable of winning 95 games every season. He did not crave the best team in baseball. He wanted one able to reach the playoffs every year. The surest way to a World Series is giving yourself the most chances to win it, not necessarily building the best team in any given year – there’s no good way to win the lottery but buying the most tickets.
The Phillies have built a powerhouse while mortgaging resources for future seasons. If the breaks and bounces go the wrong way for them Friday, it will give them reason to shake their fists at fate and, maybe, to shake their heads for years to come.