Just six months ago, the Phils finished with 102 wins and the best regular season in their 129-year history. With their fifth straight NL East crown, maybe the Phils would rule for years. Didn’t the Braves win a division title 14 straight times?
Now, the conversation has changed. The Phils’ biggest challenge may not be October baseball. That’s when the power of Halladay, Cliff Lee and Hamels gives them maximum leverage. Philadelphia’s problem, more each year, will be getting to October at all. The exhausting regular season exposes the deterioration in their aging lineup and leaves them vulnerable to just one injury to their Big Three.
The Phillies’ run scoring has dropped from 892 in ’07 to a mere 713 last season; adjusted for their small home park, that’s below the major league average. Partly, that is a trend toward less offense in baseball, but mostly it is Philadelphia’s erosion, symbolized by its season-ending 1-0 loss at home to the Cardinals in Game 5 of the division series.
Because ’11 ended with such disappointment, it’s easy to forget how amazing the Phils pitching was last season — an outlier season; the Phillies had the lowest team ERA in the NL since the ’89 Dodgers. Everybody Manager Charlie Manuel handed a ball to was amazing, led by Halladay (2.35 ERA), Lee (2.40) and Hamels (2.79).
However, as a group, it’s unlikely they’ll match that standard. Several stat services predict performance for ’12 based on every geek factor under the sun: The Big Three project to about a 3.15 ERA. That’s excellent but would be 50 more runs allowed. If the Phils offense slips another notch, they are likely to be in a division dogfight this season.
Every year, baseball tempts us into false certainties. The day the Phils signed Lee for $120 million, they looked like they’d locked up multiple pennants. Not yet. Now, the Braves, Nats and Fish all look like they’re on the rise — and quickly. One of those hot teams will probably bomb out. The problem for the Phils is that all three of them are unlikely to flop.
Here’s what’s certain: Every day, the old core Philadelphia players get more ancient. Every day the young core players in Atlanta, Washington and Miami — probably in that order — get more polished. That trend may not dethrone the Phillies this year, but it will continue season after season.
The noise Philadelphia hears behind it this summer will not be footsteps. It’s more like a stampede. The Phillies should use that ruckus as motivation to reach another World Series if they still can. Because in the NL East it’s not going to get any quieter at the top.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/