October 24, 2010

The better team won.

The better team won the 2010 National League Championship Series.

The San Francisco Giants are not that good. Play a hundred 162-game seasons and the Philadelphia Phillies will have more wins in 99 of them. Play a hundred seven-game showdowns and the Phillies will win more than half. In my opinion, the Giants are destined to come up short in a listless World Series match-up with Cliff Lee and the Texas Rangers.

But over the last week, in six games against the once-vaunted Phillies offense and the "just imperfect enough to lose" starting trio of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, the Giants were unquestionably superior.

They can barely put four runs on the board, but they always make them count. Their bullpen is stocked with lefties, a picture-perfect solution for dealing with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez. They have a stud catcher in Buster Posey and their own top-shelf trio of starting pitchers in Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez.

They recognize their limitations and maximize their strengths. They're able to survive with a decomposing corpse like Edgar Renteria at shortstop because it moves the halfway-decent Juan Uribe to third base and the suddenly abysmal Pablo Sandoval to the bench. Their cobbled-together outfield of Pat Burrell, Andres Torres and Cody Ross offers just enough power, speed and elfishness to get by.

They have passionate fans and a ballpark expertly designed for the low-scoring, scrappy team that they are. This October, they were kryptonite for the Phillies.

The only analysis I can provide is this: Don't blame Ryan Howard. Maybe he ended up with a zero in the power column, but the Big Man hit .318 with four doubles. Is it his fault that Shane Victorino and Utley weren't on second or third when he was dropping singles into the outfield? Is it his fault that he faced an array of talented lefties that exploited his inalterable weaknesses? He's certainly not above reproach, but he's also only fourth or fifth on my list of "people to blame." He was one of the few hitters who made adjustments and, simplest of simple tasks, reached base once in a while.

The scary thing is, things might get worse for the Phils before they get better. Jayson Werth is likely to leave as a free agent, and Jose Contreras, J.C. Romero and Chad Durbin may depart as well. That will deprive the team of its only right-handed power bat, along with every bit of bullpen depth.

And remember when Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins, Utley and Ibanez all looked aged and feeble at the plate? Well, they'll all be a year older! Raul will catch up to even fewer fastballs, Jimmy's legs just might act up again, Polanco will combat more nagging injuries and Utley will continue to suffer through whatever mysterious ailment has been plaguing him these last two weeks. His hip? His thumb? We may never know, but less-than-stellar Chase may rear his ugly head yet again.

Help isn't on the way. The Phillies have already committed $145 million to 16 players next year. Domonic Brown might be a stud but he's just one bat, and a lefty at that. Unless Ruben Amaro Jr. pulls a rabbit out of his hat, this is your team in 2011.

That's not necessarily a bad thing; the Phillies won 102 total games this year. But the Reds will be better, the Giants' core will remain, the Cardinals and the Rockies have enough bats to be worrisome. The Phillies may find that they're no longer the class of the National League...that is, if they haven't already.

A lot of good baseball players are being paid a vast amount to ply their trade in Philadelphia for one reason: to a win a championship. Anything less is a failure. And after seeing the Phillies at their absolute worst this past week, I'm nervous that failure is the only thing in their immediate future.

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