They say that over the course of a baseball season every team is going to win 60 games and lose 60 games, and that the fate of the rest of the season is going to be decided in the other 42.
For the Phillies that’s pretty apt. They sit with a 101-60 record on the last day of the season, poised to go undefeated in those other decisive 42 games.
There is just one more hurdle in their way -- the Atlanta Braves -- their division rival and the only thing keeping them from finishing the season off with a bang and a franchise-record 102 wins. For most Phillies fans born in the 70s and 80s, seeing the words “franchise record” associated with this team was usually a bad thing, like “franchise-record 102 losses” (which wouldn't be a record) or "franchise-record worst batting average" or something.
But now, they are on the precipice of doing something completely extraordinary and not at all something that could have been predicted or expected six years ago, thanks to a core of young talent that has turned into cagey, battled-hardened veterans, a front office with the means to win and a general manager with the gall to go out and get as many aces as he possibly could.
It seems like it wasn’t too long ago that this team was celebrating the arrival of guys like Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton*; pitchers whose sole purpose turned out to be nothing more than making sure the dirt didn’t lift off from the pitcher’s mound and into the sky.
*I take that back. No one was ever excited about Eaton. Who I am sure is a very nice man, by the way.
Those days are long gone, because, for the current Phillies, the regular season is over. Sure, there is the formality of having to play game 162 (one that is not without significant playoff implications for both the Phils’ opponent -- the Atlanta Braves -- but also their wild-card chasing companion St. Louis Cardinals, who are neck and neck on the final day of the season), but, for all intents and purposes, the 2011 regular baseball season has long been over for the boys from Citizens Bank Park.
It’s only now, almost six months after the Phillies came back from the dead in the season opener against the Houston Astros, that their season actually begins, because when you have a pitching rotation that is as highly decorated as theirs, there is no prize for having the best record in the game. Another banner that hangs high above Citizens Bank Park is really quite meaningless unless it’s red and emblazoned with “2011 World Champions.”
The marathon that tests the will and fortitude of the 25-plus guys in the dugout and the scores of fans watching from the comfort of their homes and box seats is now transformed into a sprint and a series of do-or-die moments that reward only those who don’t stumble or crack under the pressure of the big stage. Whatever has been accomplished before now is moot, because the playoffs don’t care about home and road splits, or about winning streaks, or about what you did in April. It’s all about the now.
Not too long ago, this team, this city, and these fans would have been thrilled to even make it to the final game of the season with some meaningful games to be played. Not too long ago, a playoff loss was still like a win, because, hey, at least you made the playoffs.
But not too long ago, this team wasn’t the standard bearer of the National League, if not all of baseball. Not too long ago, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt didn’t stalk the mound on a nightly basis. Not too long ago, this team didn’t have a target on its back.
When you win, the standards get raised, almost to the point where they are unreachable. That is where the Phillies find themselves at this very moment. It used to be that a 90-win season was a win, now, that’s just a formality. With one more game to go before the actual season starts, the Phillies have nine more innings to take a breath and collect themselves, because in just a few days, the season begins.
And anything short of another parade is a failure.