Phillies have crashed after 5 straight NL East titles

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PHILADELPHIA — The kind of magic that fans in Washington hope will fill Nationals Park this fall is something those in Philadelphia are used to at Citizens Bank Park. From a magical run in 2007 through a 102-win campaign in 2011, the Phillies set the standard.

“They were one of the best teams in baseball for the last five or six years,” MLB Network analyst and ex-Phillies reliever Dan Plesac said. “They have been a juggernaut in the NL East.”

Not anymore.

Now the Phillies are wallowing in last place, the result of just about everything going wrong. After winning the World Series in 2008 and piling up five straight National League East titles, 2012 is about missing Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, losing Roy Halladay to a shoulder injury and the rest of a $180 million roster being wholly unable to pick up the slack.

“The bottom line is, this was the perfect storm of things that could possibly go wrong for the Phillies in 2012,” Plesac said. “With the exception of Carlos Ruiz, you could go up and down and look at the rest of the lineup and say ‘They haven’t been as good as they were expected to be when the season started.’”

It’s a stark contrast from preseason expectations, the lofty ones built on the capital of being a consistent factor in the pennant race for years. The Phillies are 16½ games back of the Nationals in the division and went into Monday 12½ games back of the second wild card as they prepare to open a three-game series at Nationals Park on Tuesday.

As a result, there are more questions than answers amid what could be the ruins of a once-feared dynasty.

Glory days

When the Phillies beat the Tampa Bay Rays for the 2008 World Series, it would’ve been hard to envision that parade down Broad Street would be the last for this core. World Series MVP Cole Hamels was entering his prime, and Utley, Howard and Jimmy Rollins already were at or near the top of their games.

Along the way came trades for Halladay and Cliff Lee to strengthen the starting rotation and the acquisition of outfielder Hunter Pence to beef up an already potent lineup. Lee led the Phillies to the 2009 World Series, and even after he was dealt to Seattle that winter, Halladay helped them reach the National League Championship Series in 2010.

But the price for that success was steep, not just in money paid to those stars but also in prospects. Gone from the system are catcher Travis D’Arnaud, first baseman Jonathan Singleton, outfielder Anthony Gose and pitcher Jarred Cosart, all of whom are top-50 prospects as ranked by Baseball America.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who succeeded three-time World Series-winning Pat Gillick, had a win-at-all-costs mentality that hurt the future but is hard to second-guess even now.

“At the time, they’re going for a pennant. There’s no guarantees when you give away prospects that they’re going be in the big leagues,” MLB Network analyst and ex-Phillies shortstop and manager Larry Bowa said. “No one can sit here and tell me, ‘Oh, this guy’s going to be in the big leagues; he’s going to be a top-of-the-rotation type player.’ If anybody’s got that kind of hindsight, they’re the greatest baseball person I’ve ever seen. You don’t know.”

Just as no one knew for sure that the Nationals would be this good right away, no one knew how the Phillies would progress as they aged.

“You had all these young players coming together at the same time, and you knew they were going to get better. And they did,” Plesac said. “But what’s happening is it happens with every team in baseball. It’s the fine line you walk between having the right amount of veteran players and the right amount of up-and-coming young guys that can take the place of the guys that have carried the load for so long.”

With the exception of some young arms in the bullpen such as Alexandria native Michael Schwimer and slick-fielding infielder Freddy Galvis (suspended 50 games in June for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug), those reinforcements haven’t been there.

And this group didn’t need a slow build to capturing a championship. Long sustained regular-season success and playoff appearances since seemed to eliminate any signs of complacency. But Bowa, who was on the Phillies' 1980 World Series-winning team, knows what can change, even subconsciously.

“I think you take things for granted. You think it’s going to happen automatically,” he said. “When you get there and the expectations are high, sometimes your intensity level isn’t what it should be early in the year. Before you look up, you’re chasing, you’re chasing, you’re chasing. It’s an uphill climb. You take two steps forward and one back.”

‘Who saw this coming?’

It’s difficult to figure out one moment when things went awry in Philadelphia. The beginning of the end for 2012 may have come the night of Oct. 7, 2011, when Howard tore his left Achilles tendon running out a grounder on the final out of an NL Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Howard suffered a setback that caused him to miss all of April, May and June. Combine that with Utley’s bad knees, Halladay’s sore shoulder and Lee’s strained oblique, and the Phillies spent the first half of the season a shell of a team that won 102 games last season.

“To see it go wrong to this extent, who wasn’t surprised? Who saw this coming?” ESPN analyst, author and Philadelphia native Jayson Stark said. “There have only been two teams in the history of baseball that won 102 games one year and then had a losing record the next year. It doesn’t happen, what they’re going through.”

Even with a stronger bench than years past, the Phillies couldn’t compensate.

“Every team has those one or two guys that if they go down, you can’t replace them, and unfortunate for the Phillies, it was Utley, it was Howard and it was Roy Halladay,” Plesac said. “You can’t buy the kind of insurance you need to make up for those kind of players because they’re special players.”

The supporting cast of Rollins, Pence, Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco withered in the absence of Utley and Howard, and pitching from the starting rotation through the bullpen simply wasn’t good enough. Hamels showed he’s still an ace and Ruiz has enjoyed a career season, but Lee needed until July 4 to pick up his first victory and the kind of walk-off magic the Phillies used to inflict on opponents haunted them.

“I think you look at it sometimes, and I don’t think anybody in this clubhouse expected to be where we’re at,” closer Jonathan Papelbon said. “It’s pretty frustrating. But this game will test every ounce of you and every bit of this team.”

By the time Utley made his season debut June 27, the Phillies had disappointed but were just five games under .500 and nine games back of first place in the division. That night, the Phillies opted to make it a bullpen game, with Raul Valdes starting. Even though Utley went 3-for-5, with a home run in his first at-bat, the Phillies lost 11-7 to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“You have this moment that they’ve waited for all season long: the return of Chase Utley, and it even features a Chase Utley homer and then that still becomes the linchpin for this cliff dive where they lose 11 out of 12,” Stark said. “That summed up all their issues, I think, is that even the return of Utley couldn’t save them because all of a sudden their greatest strength, pitching, they just didn’t have enough pitching depth to cover that.”

The three aces, Halladay, Lee and Hamels, have combined to go 16-17 with a 3.79 earned-run average. The bullpen has an ERA of 4.53, which was fourth-worst in the majors going into Monday night’s games. Bowa said the bullpen is the one area of the roster Amaro should want a re-do on this season.

But as Papelbon pointed out, this is a season that has tested the Phillies in every aspect of the game. Bowa doesn’t like the injury excuse, and manager Charlie Manuel brushed off trade talk over recent weeks as a contributing factor to his team’s slide.

“Feeling sorry for yourself or something like that? No, you can’t do that,” Manuel said. “This is Major League Baseball, and we’re a high-market team. We’re supposed to win games, and we’re supposed to go get it. We’re supposed to be men; we’re supposed to be fighters.”

No such thing as rebuilding

Tuesday afternoon’s trade deadline and this offseason are crossroads in the track of the franchise and the short- and long-term fortunes of this core group. Was 2012 just a blip, or the end of the line?

Stark knows the Phillies are aging, but he refuses to believe this team is done or “over the hill.” A transformation of some sort, however, is coming.

“I don’t think that this is hopeless in the near-term, but they have to start getting younger,” Stark said. “That’s their ticket to surviving over any extended period of time. It’s just going to be a real challenge for Ruben or whoever’s making these decisions to try to make that happen. He knows what he needs to do; it’s just going to be very difficult to actually make it happen.”

The Phillies will have the luxury tax (set at $178 million for 2012) to contend with next season unless they perform a major fire sale. Victorino and Joe Blanton almost certainly will not be back, and there could be holes to fill in the outfield and at third base, not to mention re-crafting the bullpen.

But with a sellout streak of 254 games and counting at Citizens Bank Park and Halladay, Utley, Howard and Co. owed big-time money for 2013, it’s impossible for Amaro to tear it down and start over with younger players.

“It’s easy to think long-term when you’re in a small market and you’ve never won,” Bowa said. “When you’re in a market like Philadelphia, Boston, New York, there’s no such thing as rebuilding. You better be competitive or [fans will] let you know about it. When they lose, they take it personally.”

The boo birds are out now, among those who still go. Many more fans are buying tickets and staying home to avoid watching a losing team Bowa described as “disinterested.”

Players, even as the painful losses piled up, have refused to call it a season. Certain emotional victories spark hope, such as when Rollins assured reporters July 22 that it wasn’t too late.

“Nah, nah. Colorado won 19 in September [actually 20, in 2007] and found themselves the wild card,” he said. “Those stories are still around baseball.”

Those aren’t too common, but neither are those of teams going from dominant pennant contender to irrelevant in less than a year.

“It’s always easier going up the top of the mountain, but coming down the mountain it’s a lot steeper fall,” Plesac said.

If this is the Phillies’ tumble all the way down the mountain, there’s the inevitable frustration that a team seemingly built for the long haul managed to only win one World Series. And while Plesac stressed that it’s hard to win a title, Bowa, a member of the Phillies’ only other championship team in 1980, knows how it feels.

“I’m sure this group of Phillies feel that they should’ve won more than one. It’s not that easy to win a World Series, but when you have the pieces in place, you think you’re going to get there,” he said. “You’ve got to have a lot of luck involved, you’ve got to have people stay healthy, you’ve got to get a couple breaks that go your way late in the season. It’s not as easy as people think. But you still, as a player, when you look at your ballclub, when I looked at the team I was on and look at the Phillies, the team that they’ve had, I say, ‘Wow, we should’ve had more than one ring.’”

Just getting that one ring and one parade is “nothing to be ashamed or to be embarrassed about,” Plesac said, but it will change how these Phillies are seen in the prism of history.

“I don’t think it’s a dynasty when you win one World Series because the teams we had in the late ‘70s, we did the exact same thing the Phillies did. We just couldn’t get there,” Bowa said. “I’m a little leery of using the word dynasty. It’s a good run.”

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