Everyone knows that in order to win a World Series you have to be very good.
And you also have to be very lucky.
That luck can come in many forms. Resistance to injury, star players playing at their peak, unsung heroes providing moments of production atypical of their history, and the unknowable game of inches inching their way towards a certain team’s favor, are all components of what it means to get “lucky” in baseball.
(At least, in terms of “getting lucky” on the baseball diamond. My expertise ends there.)
In 2008, the Phils, while they played extremely well, also got really lucky.
In 2009, they were still kinda lucky, until they ran into a Yankees team that was better and a bit luckier.
In 2010 and 2011, they were sliced and diced by the baseball angels. And when lady luck did rear her treasonous head, the Phils looked at her and dry heaved all over themselves.
The reason this all comes to mind is there are reports out in Tuesday’s Rumblings & Grumblings from ESPN’s Jayson Stark that former Tampa Bay Rays ace Scott Kazmir is throwing 84-85 mph in front of scouts this winter. As Stark noted, this is a guy who at one time averaged about 94 on his fastball.
This nugget led me to thinking… the Phillies got away with murder in 2008. The Rays pitched Kazmir in Games 1 and 5 of the World Series. The two most important games of that series were pitched by a guy who is now out of baseball just four years later, barely able to get his heater into the upper 80s. David Price was just a rookie, and never pitched any meaningful innings in the Series. Andy Sonnanstine, of all people, got a start in a pivotal Game 4.
The Phillies won Game 3 of the World Series when Eric Bruntlett was hit by a pitch, advanced to second on a passed ball, then to third on a wild throw into center field on the same play, and then scored on a Carlos Ruiz dribbler that didn’t make it halfway up the third base line.
Joe Blanton hit a home run in Game 4.
In the NLDS, C.C. Sabatthia WALKED Brett Myers. Think about that. Brett Myers not only out-pitched Sabatthia in a playoff game, but he also worked a walk out of the guy. And Jeff Suppan, who was no better than human batting practice, pitched Game 4 in Milwaukee.
In the NLCS, Matt Stairs, who had done absolutely nothing since joining the Phils, hit the most important home run of the season in such a shocking fashion that we all still remember where we were when it happened.
The 2008 postseason featured so many lucky moments, so many moments of fortune, that it’s easy to forget how many there were. It seemed so normal and wonderful at the time.
In 2009, the Phillies were a team at the top of their slugging prowress in the NL playoffs. They outslugged the Rockies and Dodgers, but fell to a Yankees team with pitching far superior than the Rays’ the year before. The Yanks benefitted from some breaks in the World Series, like Johnny Damon’s two stolen bases and Alex Rodriguez’ sudden emergence as a clutch postseason hitter. But in the end, the Yanks were simply the better team. Luck didn’t have much a role.
In 2010, you could see the pixie dust all over the San Francisco Giants. In Game 6, the Phillies knocked Jonathan Sanchez out in just the second inning. If it had been 2008, the Phils would have stomped all over San Francisco in that situation, but the Phils went scoreless against the Giants’ bullpen for 7+ innings.
They had Rollins on 1st base in the 5th inning with two outs when Howard his a gapper to left-center that ordinarily would have scored Jimmy any day of the week and twice on Sunday. MOST of the time. However this time, Jimmy was still dealing with an injury to his leg and was only running at 80% or so. And to add more bad luck to the situation, Howard’s screaming line drive hit the left-center field wall so hard, the Giants were able to collar the carom and return it to the infield before Rollins could score the go-ahead run.
The Phils would get nothing out of the inning.
In the 8th, the Phils had runners on 1st and 2nd with one out when Carlos Ruiz hit a screaming line drive that appeared headed for the right-field corner. But instead, it was hit right at 1B Audrey Huff, who caught the ball and stepped on first for a double play.
In 2009 and 2010, the Phils were dealt some bad luck. Fortune smiled on the Yankees and Giants. There’s not much a team can do about that, other than try to fight through it. These losses weren’t solely about luck, but the level of breaks the Phils got in 2008 as compared to ’09 and ’10 was striking. And frustrating.
However, what is more frustrating is when luck is on your side and you don’t take advantage of it. When it’s on your doorstep, but you don’t answer the door.
Last year, the Phillies were presented with the some of the same lucky breaks as in ’08, but they failed to capitalize. In Game 2 of the NLDS, Tony LaRussa rolled the dice and started Chris Carpenter on three days’ rest, something Carpenter had never, ever done in his career. The move didn’t work, and Carpenter lasted only three innings and gave up four runs, all while putting his team in a 4-0 hole.
In 2008, the Phillies would have made that lead stand up and taken a two games to none lead over the Redbirds. They then would have closed the series out in St. Louis the next night on a clutch Ben Francisco home run and superior pitching behind Hamels and a high-wire act by the bullpen.
But the $20 million man couldn’t get it done with a 4-0 lead. The Phillies collapsed.
Still, they led the series 2-1 heading into Game 4 against Edwin Jackson. The Phils had Roy Oswalt. Clearly, this was a pitching match-up more advantageous than the Sonnanstine-Blanton match-up was back in the 2008 World Series. If it had been 2008, the Phillies would have taken that 2-0 first inning lead, maybe tacked on a run or two, and watched their staff take them through that game until Lidge came in to close the door.
But in 2012, it was Jackson who defied the odds and shut the Phils down. And it was Oswalt, the guy with the pedigree and the bad back, who couldn’t get the job done, setting up a coin-flip Game 5 the Phils would lose.
So as the Phillies head toward a 2012 with a few unlucky breaks to overcome before the season even starts (Ryan Howard’s Achilles injury the biggest of course), it’s important to remember just how valuable luck was during the Phillies’ 2008 World Series run in October. It’s also important to remember that the great teams take advantage of the luck they are given.
Can the Phillies get lucky again? And if they can, will they take advantage of it this time? Or was 2008 just a serendipitous pleasure cruise we might not see again for a generation or two?
What… you expected an answer?