10/29/11 1:09 AM ET
Phillies to blame for kicking off Cardinals' run
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
The Phils opened the chicken-coop door for these foxy Cardinals -- the ones now with chicken bones between their lips and champagne drops on their faces.
How different would this October have been if Philadelphia had made one fewer clutch pitch, taken one fewer productive swing, been brilliant on one fewer defensive play during those three nights in Georgia?
Want to honor persistence and performance? Credit the Cardinals. Need to fault someone? Blame the Phillies.
In retrospect, this was the autumn when baseball's integrity did not take a beating -- only St. Louis' postseason opponents did.
Now that the Cards have completed their magnificent, dogged run to a World Series title, it is time to recall who gave them a push: the Philadelphia Phillies, who held the power of determining their own National League Division Series foes and refused to abuse that power.
Remember? The NL season turned the final corner with the Cardinals, playing their last series in Houston, one game down in the Wild Card race to the Braves, hosting the Phillies.
In baseball shorthand, Atlanta had a magic number of three: the combination of its wins and St. Louis' losses needed to clinch the playoff spot. It never moved past two, as the Braves were swept while the Cards embarked on the first lap of their miracle by taking two of three from the Astros.
Had the Phils -- having clinched their fifth consecutive NL East title 10 days earlier -- won only once in Turner Field, they would have met the D-backs, an overachieving lunch-pail team with which they had split six regular-season games, in the NLDS.
Had the Phillies won only twice in Turner Field, they would have forced an NL Wild Card tiebreaker game between St. Louis and Atlanta, which the Cardinals could still have passed but at the expense of having their pitching plans seriously skewered.
But, no, the Phils won all three, giving the Cards their hall pass. The Redbirds had already beaten the Phillies six times in nine regular-season meetings, giving them the worst time of any opponent.
St. Louis' NLDS ouster of Philadelphia wasn't a shocking surprise. It was habit.
By the time they reached the NL Championship Series against the Brewers, the Cardinals had some serious mojo going. Advancing to the World Series against the Rangers, they were fearless and heartened.
The Cards weren't supposed to do any of this. But they couldn't read the writing on the wall because their backs were pressed against it for two months: 10 1/2 games behind Atlanta on Aug. 25, down 2-1 to Philadelphia in the NLDS, blown out in the NLCS opener by Milwaukee, down 3-2 to Texas in the World Series.
It started with the Phillies letting them off that first wall.
The ramifications were fully grasped on the eve of those season-ending series. Pundits wondered whether the Phils would jake enough to arrange an NLDS date with Arizona, which would have been their first-round foe if Atlanta secured the Wild Card.
The options were acknowledged by Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel, who wanted no part of any shenanigans.
"You can't be scared, and you can't look to dodge nobody," Manuel had said. "Bring 'em on. Let's get 'em. Line 'em up. Whatever. I look at it like [Hall of Fame manager] Walter Alston used to say: 'Champions can beat anybody.'"
Those now take their place among other famous last words.
The Phillies thus went into Atlanta locked and loaded, for two reasons:
One, having snapped an eight-game losing streak only the day before, they felt an urgency to build some serious momentum into the postseason.
"I think we just kind of let our guard down a little bit, and we had a lot of guys missing from our lineup," recalled relief pitcher Brad Lidge. "We can turn it on, but I think we turned it off in some games. We knew we had to get everybody back in there; we knew we had to start bearing down and start getting ready for the postseason. Our guys were able to get it going again. We got our full lineup back in there. It was the time to start playing, and we did."
Two, they indeed were smug, not exactly without cause. With their celebrated starting rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, they felt unbeatable, by anyone.
With Lee and Oswalt taking regular turns and backed by the regular lineup, the Phillies took the first two games from the Braves while the Cardinals were splitting in Houston.
That created a flat-footed tie between St. Louis and Atlanta into the last day -- when the Phils indeed began to pull their punches, without the Braves being able to take advantage.
Joe Blanton, out most of the season with a bum right elbow, started that final game, but only for two innings before Manuel turned the game into a pitchers' workout. He used nine of them. The win went to Justin De Fratus, the 353rd pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. David Herndon got the save. It was a career first for both.
Against that parade, the Braves collected a total of 10 hits in 13 innings. With Tim Hudson doing his ace thing, they did, however, take a 3-2 lead into the ninth -- which record rookie closer Craig Kimbrel could not hold.
A couple of days later, the Cardinals and their enablers met up in Philadelphia to launch the postseason. St. Louis' drive into the playoffs created instant buzz, but the pitcher preparing to face them in Game 1 declined to join the prop chorus.
"I heard a quote a long time ago," Halladay said. "'I came here to bury Caesar, not to praise him.'"
Seems like Halladay and the Phillies needed to bury Caesar before it got to that point.