October 10, 2011

There's gonna be no dancing.

Honestly, it's been three days and I'm still not sure what to say. So I'll just ramble, which is pretty much what I do anyway.

I imagine this is how some of the more levelheaded Boston Red Sox fans felt after their team crapped the bed in the last game of this year's regular season: A grim realization that, even if they'd made it to the dance, they weren't staying out too late.

Because at the end of the day, even if Raul Ibanez's shot in the fourth inning gets over the outfield fence and Roy Halladay helps to steal a win, the Philadelphia Phillies weren't getting by Zack Greinke, Shawn Marcum, Yovani Gallardo and the Milwaukee Brewers in the NLCS. Blame it on injuries, bad approaches at the plate or just a general, team-wide awfulness; this pitiful, beaten-down Phillies offense was out of gas.

Six runs in the final 34 innings of the series, three of those on an out-of-nowhere Ben Francisco pinch-hit home-run. That's not gonna beat the hapless San Diego Padres in spacious Petco Park, let alone the Cardinals, a team that led the National League in runs scored.

And, to a lesser but still valid extent, let's not ignore Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt coming up very small in Games 2 and 4, respectively. This team won plenty of 1-0 or 2-1 suckfests in the regular season, but only Halladay and Cole Hamels threw like the aces we expected -- and desperately needed -- in the playoffs. This, unfortunately, will be Roy Oswalt's legacy in Philadelphia: "Not quite good enough anymore."

As always, the Phillies will remain competitive next year. Halladay, Lee and Hamels remain the most talented starting pitcher trio in baseball, and the always-aggressive Ruben Amaro Jr. saw, just like the rest of us, that sometimes "veteran hitter" is just code for "old guy with slow bat." He has to know that trotting this same offense back out there in 2012 isn't going to work.

But how much magic can he really perform? The team's already got an extremely high payroll; how flexible will ownership be when it comes to upgrading this increasingly elderly group of bats?

Since 2007, the year of their first National League East title, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz have been the cornerstones of the Phillies offense. All of them are now at least 30 years old, and considering that Victorino just wrapped up a career year that he'll probably never match, all of them have seen better days.

Does the offense need an injection of youth? A better approach at the plate? Or just more talented hitters in general?

Is Howard, the renowned slugger whom Tony La Russa and his pitchers challenged without fear after Game 1 of the series, as replaceable as certain sabermetricians would have you believe? (I say no, but for the sake of argument...) Considering that he'll probably be out until at least the summer with a torn Achilles tendon, I guess we'll find out once and for all.

Is Placido Polanco finished as an every-day player? His defense at third base remains sterling, but his bat has worn down almost to a nub by the end of the last two seasons. If Amaro chooses being realistic over counting dollars and cents, Polly should probably act as the most expensive ($6 million in 2012) utility man in baseball next year.

Bring back Rollins? Resign Ryan Madson? I'm onboard with both, if the years are right and if Amaro has no better use for the money. Bring in a stud third baseman somehow and I'm suddenly OK with the two guys walking.

Start Dom Brown every day in left field? Start Dom Brown every day in left field. Or trade him for Logan Morrison. Either way, lower the age of this starting lineup and start trusting in some young players.

It's a lot of questions for a 102-win team to answer. But all I know is that I spent all of Friday night screaming at the never-ending stream of ground balls weakly hit to the right side -- I'll have nightmares about those softly rolling baseballs for years to come -- so just imagine how nuts they must've driven Amaro and Charlie Manuel. It's one thing to lose; it's another thing to come up unspeakably feeble against a team you could've easily beaten. To paraphrase Harry Doyle, "one goddamn run." That's all they needed.

I believed in this team; I told everyone not to worry a boatload of times. But it turned out that a Halladay gem couldn't save them after all; it turns out everyone else was right. Maybe for the wrong reasons, but in the playoffs, a win's a win and a loss is a loss. I never expected to say this, but the Phillies really and truly choked on Friday night; only the goodwill left over from 2008 kept us all from going mad in the process. Let's hope we don't suffer the same fate in 2012.

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