The Philadelphia Phillies had gotten 24 outs easily going into the bottom of the 9th inning against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday night; a sweep seemed all but a certainty with the team up 7-3. They looked like they would close to within seven games of the Wild Card and sweep the Braves in Atlanta, giving them a boost going north to play the Reds.
With three outs to go, Charlie Manuel kept southpaw Jeremy Horst in to start the 9th. After getting Jason Heyward to fly out to center, Horst gave up a single and then a walk to put men on first and second. Fearing a meltdown, Charlie decided to call on trusty closer Jonathan Papelbon to come in and record his 32nd save.
Two things, unfortunately, were very clear right away: Papelbon was not mentally ready to come in nor was he able to locate any of his pitches. After striking out pinch-hitter Lyle Overbay for the second out, Papelbon walked speedy outfielder Michael Bourn to load the bases. He then coerced Martin Prado into hitting a ground ball that should’ve ended the game, but third baseman Kevin Frandsen tried to play it from the side and it went off his glove and into the outfield. Two runs scored on the play; Phillies 7, Braves 5 with two runners in scoring position.
As I was watching Prado’s at-bat, I realized with Papelbon’s location the last person I wanted to see was on-deck was standing right there, Chipper Jones. As Jones came to the plate, it was as if an enormous black cloud of unmet expectations, losing, and frustration hung over the Phillies; it was labeled “2012”. It was a gut check for this team. Would they find a way to lose like they’d been doing all year, orr would they show that this team was different than the one before the trade deadline.
Three pitches later, Jones hit a Matt Stairs-like bomb to deep right center and it was over. Just like that, the Braves had put up a five-spot and overtaken the Phillies 8-7.
The blame could be put on a number of people, ranging from Charlie to Fransden to Papelbon. They all had played their part, but maybe it is deeper than that. Does a championship-caliber team lose that game? No. Sure, all teams make mistakes but good teams find a way. Someone makes a play, someone makes a pitch. Everyone on that team knows they are going to win somehow.
Good teams take a breath when something bad happens; they recollect themselves and take it to another gear to finish things out. Bad teams have something bad happen to them and it all unravels. Why? Because baseball is a mental game as much as a physical one. Sure, the blame could be spread around tonight, but the Phillies have done this all season. It was their destined fate, and they lost as a team.
For whatever reason beyond talent, experience, and the will to win, the Phillies just can’t hold the levees when their metaphorical floods threaten to ruin everything. They hope to win, but don’t see it as a formality like past seasons. Injuries are seen as barriers, not hurdles to their success. Errors are not a chance to wake up, but instances which will haunt them. Most importantly, like tonight, for the first time since 2006, the teams that play the Phillies see them as beatable. It’s almost parallel to when Rocky is fighting Drago and Drago gets cut. Everyone realizes he is human, and he can be beat.
Teams playing the Phillies duing their run saw them as possibly the toughest team in baseball, because they didn’t lose these kind of games. It’s just that kind of season for the Phillies. One swing off the bat of one of our most hated rivals encapsulates an entire season.