A Sharp Blast and a Sickening Thud


Watching a Ryan Howard at bat is like getting a dog to love you.

When he’s in his season-opening thunder storm in April or the annual September power surge, he can be easily convinced.  “Come on Ryan,” you say, slapping your thigh quickly in succession, as he affectionately ka-slams a baseball 450 feet.  He runs the bases, that signature enormous smile on his face, happy to be here, happy to contribute, happy to bring exactly what his presence on the roster is supposed to bring.

When he’s slumping, he turns a deaf ear to your calls.  “Come on Ryan,” you plead desperately, but there he is, swinging at a pitch way low and even way-er outside.  The home crowd groans as he begins another dejected journey back to the dugout.

Watching a Ryan Howard at bat in the bottom of the 9th inning of the NLCS with two outs, a full count, and the winning runs on base, is like trying to get a stray dog to love you; when all that dog really intends to do is tear your guts out.

And Ryan Howard, who in 2008 knocked in eight post season runs, and only last year blasted 17, left us in 2010 with zero RBI and a massive  hole in our hearts.

This is not the blame game; somebody had to have the last at bat of the 2010 Philadelphia Phillies, and when it came down to it, Big Piece was the guy holding the stick.  And like pre-insanity Lenny Dykstra said, “If you don’t like being up there with the game on the line, you shouldn’t be playing the game, dude.”

Ryan’s final out to advance the barely-there Giants into the World Series was merely the endpoint of a season that seemed grotesquely unfair, weirdly survivalist, and at the end, a face-blazing hellride that tore through each of our opponents with the furious fervor of a thousand angry gods.

Without referencing any historical data, I can say that this season is filed into several distinct eras in my brain.

The first is Opening Day:  Roy Halladay, starting debut for the Phillies, a Washington Nationals lineup staring at him wide-eyed from the home dugout, as if a chainsaw maniac just started pounding on their cabin door.

Next, its May 17, and we’re playing the Pirates.  With the Bucs effectively maimed, Ryan Howard strolled to the plate in the top of the 9th with the Phils already winking at an 8-2 lead.  They were taming the NL East as well, five games proud.  Ryan explained this dominance to the Pirates via a completely unnecessary grand slam.  The Phillies won 12-2.

I remember thinking, “You know, the Phils tend to spin out of control for a few days after they brutalize a team in such a fashion.”

My worst fears were realized the following night, when the Pirates unleashed the full strength of their offense, defeating us 2-1.

“Damn.  Well, get ‘um tomorrow,” the Delaware Valley said, collectively turning off their TVs and passing out drunkenly on the couch.  Little did we know… the stingiest part of the season was fast approaching, and like starving to death, it was going to last a while, and require massive recovery.

From May 18 until probably about two months later, the Phillies were terrible.  They were just… bad.  The casual frustration slowly evolved into anger and fear, as people began to turn on each other in the streets.

“Get ‘um tomorrow” turned into “OMFG!!!” Bus drivers ran over pedestrians without reason or cause.  Billy Penn crawled off the top of City Hall and began wordlessly stalking and murdering groups of tourists with a bayonet.

And the strange part of that horrific montage was that part three of the Phillies season happened close to the beginning of it.

May 18 is not as far from May 29 as I thought.  I recall the timing being spread through further stagnant misery before an explosive shatter of light burst forth from the pitching mound of one of America’s worst baseball stadiums.

But according to history, it was only 11 days.

And I still remember thinking as Juan Castro spun around, fired a bullet to Ryan Howard at first and Tom McCarthy screaming “A PERFECT GAME!!” that this had to be the turnaround.  On the DVD yearbook, they would describe their late May struggles as the low point of the year, and so awful were they that the only thing that could set things right again was rewriting MLB history with a perfect game.

Roy Halladay was in his own galaxy, and literally needed only one run, just one, that was not even scored on purpose, to recycle the Phillies’ garbage into a win.  He was and is that legendary.

So maybe if we’d looked a little closer at that game, we’d have seen it couldn’t possibly have been the climax of the slump.  It wasn’t the Phillies who threw a perfect game.  It was only Doc–a perfect game just illustrates how hard he had to work to get the win in the face of the Phillies’ current drudgery.

But it did water down the bitter poison of the overall downward slide, so as we moved on, there was always that tidbit in our back pocket to whip out and gaze at on the darkest of days.

Plenty of dark days were coming, so that’s fine.

It wasn’t until late July that the Phillies mounted a comback of any kind.  They’d allowed the Braves, and the Mets for a bit, to be lulled into a false sense of security, and the timing was just right to try and shake things up after two months.  The comeback had taken so long, however, that the Mets had already gone ahead and suffered their annual epic collapse, cut off their own legs, and tripped and fallen into fourth place behind even the Marlins.

So it was only the Braves who were in charge, and the 13-2 record that was our entry into August was the exclamation point we needed to start things off.

The Phils teased Atlanta from that hot start onward, breaking their lead down to 3, 2.5, 2; then back to 3 again with the flirtatious allusions of a high school hussy.  It was not until the conclusion of August that we turned the National League into a smörgåsbord.

A sharp blast pulsed out of Philadelphia, and from that point forward, everything went our way.  Everything.  For a team whose season had been adrift in a sea of bone and muscle damage, the collective good luck we’d been saving up throughout the ghastly feats of summer seemed to be cashing in.  The last 35 games of the season, we went 27-8.

A final loss in game 162 meant we were allowing the Braves to make the playoffs, only to watch them “Brooks Conrad” their way to defeat in four games.

In the other divisional series, our steamroller kept right on rolling, starting with Doc punching a no-no hole in the Cincinnati Reds that was the fiery start of a 3-game sweep.  And then came the NLCS, where for two years straight, our dreams had come true.

The DS against the Reds was a bit misleading.  We’d relied on our pitching like any team with a monstrous rotation and a killer bullpen can.  But we aren’t that team.  The rotation’s where it’s at of course, but–and I realize this is going against my gushing love letter to Ryan Madson yesterday, I’m talking in retrospect here–the bullpen was never our strong point during the year.  The Reds could have beaten us in Game 2, but their defense fell apart; an outbreak that was contagious enough to infect it in Game 3 as well.

Whatever they had, we unknowingly contracted.  But by then, we were waiting patiently for the Giants to land in Philly as the virus crept into our veins.

The sickening thud that followed was that of a wilted offense, an inept defense, and a pitching staff struggling to hold them both up, but eventually falling to its knees in anguish before faceplanting and lying still as death.

As the 2010 NLCS cruised right on by Ryan Howard last night, breaking just low of the strike zone, home plate umpire Tom Hallion waited a ridiculous amount of time before deciding the ball was a strike and punching the sky.  Ryan stared on in disbelief, and all we could hope for was a Scott-Barry style moment in which Ryan Howard went completely batshit and clobbered Hallion’s head 300 feet skyward into the nosebleed section.  Maybe then the moment of unfulfilled rage that followed would have been slightly appeased.

No good, though.  Ryan bitched valiantly, but what was going to happen?  The first reversal of a called pitch in baseball history?  Who would have gone out there to break up the Giants victory-pile?  “Sorry guys, Ryan made some really good points back there, and I just think we should all resume playing so he can swing and miss the next pitch.”

We’re fighters, but we weren’t consistent fighters.  The magic moments that seemed to happen exactly when they were needed in 2008 and 2009 were more of a precious commodity than a routine.  I’ll miss being in the World Series, I’ll miss J-Dub and Durbin, and I’ll miss baseball and all the chemical highs and emotional lows with which it sweeps into my state of mind each season.

But most all… and I mean most of all… I hope Jonathan Sanchez crashes back down to earth in some untimely and humiliating way.  And I will watch the World Series for only that reason.