PHILADELPHIA — When they drew up their grand plan for 2011, a blueprint that included the greatest starting rotation the sport has seen in a generation, a $160 million roster full of superstars, and, inevitably, a string of champagne celebrations that would stretch deep into October, the Philadelphia Phillies never envisioned this.
They never expected to see their slugger rolling over another breaking ball for the third out of the bottom of the ninth inning of the final game of the season, or a crowd of 46,530 growing silent and surly, or the St. Louis Cardinals dancing and hugging on their infield. It wasn’t even the second week of October yet, and the Phillies were gone.
They were vanquished by a brilliant pitching performance by Cardinals right-hander Chris Carpenter, who threw a three-hit shutout in a 1-0 victory in Game 5 of this National League Division Series, outpitching his good friend and former Toronto teammate, Roy Halladay. Carpenter ended it by retiring Ryan Howard on a grounder to second, with Howard collapsing in the grass with an injury, as the Cardinals celebrated around him.
“We expected a lot more,” said left fielder Raul Ibanez, one of several Phillies hitters whose bats went cold. “It’s crushing.”
The Cardinals famously came from 10½ games back in late August to catch and pass the Atlanta Braves on the regular season’s final day. In this series, they won games in which they trailed by four runs to Cliff Lee and by two runs to Roy Oswalt. They are the Team That Doesn’t Die.
“The magnitude of this game [was] the same as it’s been for the last month and a half,” Carpenter said of the Cardinals’ improbable run to reach this point. “We’ve been dealing with that the whole time.”
It will be difficult for the Phillies to spin their first-round exit as anything but a colossal failure, given the towering expectations (and payroll) they engendered by amassing the most distinguished starting rotation in a generation. They won 102 games this season, by far the most in the majors, and the sight of that team dismantled in a week’s time by a hungrier, more dynamic opponent may require an entire winter for the Phillies and their fans to get over.
“We felt like we had the team to do it, and we came up short,” Halladay said. “It’s not necessarily that we’re lacking anything. It just didn’t work.”
The Phillies outscored the Cardinals, 15-6, over the first 11 innings of the series, but were outscored by a margin of 13-6 after that.
The only run of the game was scored in the first inning, when the Cardinals’ first two batters, Rafael Furcal and Skip Schumaker, went triple, double — putting the Phillies in a 1-0 hole four pitches into the game. Ultimately, Halladay needed 33 pitches to navigate it, with a third of those fouled away by the pesky Cardinals.
It was only the third time in the 55-year history of the Cy Young Award that two former winners met in a winner-take-all elimination game in the postseason, and the first since Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez dueled in the 2003 ALCS.
Halladay had survived a three-run first inning in Game 1 to earn the victory with eight solid innings. Carpenter had been roughed up for four runs in just three innings of work in Game 2, which he started on three days’ rest. Close friends from their days as fledgling, twenty-something teammates on the Toronto Blue Jays a decade ago, they faced each other Friday night for the first time, and they were brilliant.
No one keeps official count of broken bats in baseball, but there must have been a dozen of them, as Carpenter and Halladay threw sinkers like bowling balls, boring in on the hands of right-handed batters and snapping bats in two like pieces of kindling.
“We just kept pounding [the ball] into the ground,” Phillies right fielder Hunter Pence said of Carpenter’s sinker.
After the second inning, only one runner reached scoring position against either pitcher — when the Phillies put runners on the corners with two outs against Carpenter. Ibanez sent a towering fly to deep right, but it died at the wall.
By the late innings, the nervous energy in the ballpark began to grow darker and more sinister. When Chase Utley was gunned down trying to steal second by Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (on a 73-mph curveball, no less) in the sixth, the stadium filled with grumbles and groans. And when Howard, who batted .105 in the series, flied out to right leading off the bottom of the seventh – on a 3-0 pitch from Carpenter – it drew more than a few boos.
Among the many problems confronting the Phillies is the fact Howard, whose five-year, $125 million extension doesn’t even kick in until next season, appears to be in decline, and now faces the possibility of a torn Achilles’ tendon.
Of course, Howard was good enough to hit 33 homers this season, Halladay was good enough to lead the league in complete games, and the Phillies were good enough to win 102 games. But the regular season was only supposed to be the vehicle to get the Phillies where they belong. They were built to win the World Series, but they won’t even get there.