In 2011, the Philadelphia Phillies entered the season boasting a pitching rotation that many expected to rival the 1971 Baltimore Orioles or mid 1990s Atlanta Braves as one of the top pitching staffs in MLB history.
The combination of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt was expected to bring a world championship back to Philadelphia for the second time in four seasons. Those four combined for 59 victories, 821.1 innings pitched, and a 2.71 earned run average. Halladay (2nd), Lee (3rd), and Hamels (5th) all earned Cy Young votes, and rookie pitcher Vance Worley (11-3, 3.01 ERA) finished second in Rookie of the Year voting.
At times, it seemed almost too easy for the Phillies’ pitching staff, Cliff Lee in particular. Lee hurled six shutouts on the season and posted earned run averages
The Phillies also overcame injuries to many key players, including Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, Hamels, Oswalt, Joe Blanton, Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, Jose Contreras, and JC Romero.
They coasted through the regular season, winning 102 games, the most in the major leagues by a full five games, and capturing the National league East division title for the fifth consecutive season.
They also kept the hated Atlanta Braves out of the playoffs by sweeping them in a three-game series to end the season. But in doing so, they propelled the red hot St. Louis Cardinals into the month of October.
In fact, the Phillies faced the Cardinals in the NLDS. They won the first game, 11-6, behind a three-run homer by Ryan Howard in the sixth inning. But they lost the second game, 5-4, after Lee blew a 4-0 lead.
The third game was won on a dramatic pinch-hit three-run home run by Ben Francisco in the sixth inning, but the Cardinals won before the second largest crowd in Busch Stadium history in Game 4 to force a winner-take-all deciding game.
No Phillies fan will ever get over what happened in that fifth game. The game featured a pair of former Cy Young winners dueling against each other, and it was Carpenter who bested Halladay, surrendering just three hits over nine shutout innings. Halladay gave up just one run and six hits in eight innings but took the loss.
The series ended in what is perhaps the most defining moment in Philadelphia sports history. Slugger Ryan Howard grounded out to second base and tore his Achilles tendon the moment he tried to run to first base. The 32-year old slugger is now expected to miss the beginning of the 2012 baseball season.
So that’s 102 wins for the Phillies in the regular season. And 2 in the postseason.
Was the season a success?
I’d have to say no.
The Phillies are one of the absolute top teams in baseball, and making the postseason has become almost a formality. It’s become expected.
After all, we’ve watched our team win five straight division titles, and they’ve been doing it pretty easily over the past few years.
But this was the second straight Phillies squad to underachieve in the postseason.
The 2010 Phillies suffered a heartbreaking NLCS loss to the San Francisco Giants, who then went on to win the World Series. And last year’s team lost to the underdog Cardinals in the NLDS.
And that’s why the 2011 season will always be viewed as a colossal disappointment in the eyes of Philadelphia fans. It may be, in fact, the most disappointing season in the history of the Philadelphia Phillies, when factoring in the expectations from spring training, as well as the result of the regular season.
History doesn’t remember the team that won the most games in the regular season. History remembers the World Series champions.
Heading into the 2012 season, I really don’t care whether the Phillies make the playoffs by winning 91 games and securing the last wild-card berth, or winning 104 games and their sixth consecutive NL East division title.
I just care about how this team does in the postseason. That’s how this season will truly be evaluated.