All this week Philthy Stuff will be looking back on some of the key moments in one of the best Phillies regular seasons ever.
For most playoff teams, there remain a few defining moments every season that ultimately did more to propel them to the post season than any of the other thousand moments that occurred in that same time span. It could be a walkoff homer, a pristine pitching performance on short rest when the team's back was against the wall, or it could be a mid-season trade to shore up a glaring weakness.
As far as the Philadelphia Phillies are concerned, the one defining moment that had the biggest impact on the fate of their 2011 season didn't even take place between April and September. It occurred outside the lines, outside of this calendar year, even, in December of 2010 – just a couple months after a season that most fans undeniably determined to be a failure, following the team's unceremonious departure from the playoffs to the eventual World Series Champion San Francisco Giants.
With the pressure mounting for the Phillies to do something to ensure that the 2011 season wouldn't meet the same fate, General Manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. went out and corrected a mistake that many fans hoped he didn't make in the first place: Bring back Cliff Lee.
Looking back, the 12 or so hours that proceeded the announcement that, yes, Cliff Lee was coming back to Philadelphia was something like a lucid dream. With both the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers bidding for the services of the left-handed Ace who was ushered out of Philly after the 2009 season to make way for Roy Halladay, the odds that the Phillies would have a shot at landing him were, to say the least, bleak.
But when they did manage to sign Cliff Lee in the early hours of December 15th, it was almost as if their postseason ticket was punched in that very moment. That's not to say that the Phillies would not have had a better than average chance to make the playoffs without Lee, but his arrival turned a great pitching staff into a historic pitching staff and was nothing short of an announcement to the rest of the National League that the path to the World Series runs through Philadelphia.
Naturally, Cliff Lee didn't disappoint. Despite the occasional rough start in the early part of the season, Lee has been electric, and has, at times, made the other Aces on the staff seem like mere mortals. His performance in both June (5-0, 0.21 ERA over 42 IP) and August (5-0, 0.45 ERA in 39.2 IP), were nothing short of historic, and his work with the bat (2 home runs) was the icing on the cake for the season in which the prodigal son returned to the City of Brotherly Love.
Alongside Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, Lee has helped to form one of the most feared and dominating rotations this side of the mid-90s Atlanta Braves. And as the Phillies gear up for another run at the Commissioner's Trophy, you can't help but look back on that wild night in December and wonder whether or not the ticket got punched when Cliff Lee signed on the dotted line.