We know disappointment around here. It’s an old acquaintance we’d prefer never to see again, but we understand another visit is never far away. We especially recognize baseball disappointment, and we are witnessing it once again as the Phillies’ 2019 season nears its conclusion.
The mother of all disappointments for Philadelphia fans was, of course, the 1964 Phillies team that lost 10 games in a row down the stretch to allow a 6½-game lead with 12 to play slip away. The St. Louis Cardinals passed them down the stretch and went on to beat the New York Yankees in the World Series.
Those old enough to remember that collapse still have the scars and will take them to the grave.
This year’s disappointment is not on the scale of that one. We are not likely to remember the 2019 Phillies 55 years from now because this year’s frustration has been a slow drip rather than a monstrous free fall.
If you’re looking for a comparison, it feels a lot like 2003 around here right now. The Phillies landed the biggest free-agent star on the open market the December before they shut down Veterans Stadium and it looked as if they finally had the talent to return to the postseason for the first time in a decade.
Jim Thome, the free-agent addition, lived up to the hype by leading the majors with 47 home runs. The team, however, fell short. Like this season, the 2003 team got off to a good start by winning two out of three against the Marlins in Miami while Thome went 7-for-11
By the time the Phillies returned to Miami in late September, however, they trailed the surprising Marlins by two games in the wild-card race. The Marlins pushed their lead to five over the Phillies with a three-game sweep and that was that for the 2003 team, which finished with 86 wins.
The Marlins, of course, went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series after getting by the Chicago Cubs with the help of Bartman in the National League Championship Series.
Is this year’s Phillies’ team more disappointing than that one?
It’s a close call.
The Phillies, of course, landed the biggest star on the free-agent market again and Bryce Harper’s arrival raised expectations just the way Thome’s arrival did in 2003. Like Thome, Harper has had some difficult periods during his first season in Philadelphia, but also like Thome it appears as if we are going to look at the full body of work from the season and be impressed.
Harper, still only 26, is going to establish a career high in doubles and RBIs and probably hit the second most home runs he has ever had in a season. He has also played an exceptional right field.
Another similarity between 2003 and 2019 is that despite the success of their free-agent superstars, the Phillies have underachieved offensively. The 2003 team tied for 12th in the majors in runs scored and this year’s team is tied for 15th.
For different reasons, both teams also lacked the pitching needed to earn a postseason berth. This year’s team did not have enough arms after Aaron Nola in the rotation and could not stay healthy enough in the bullpen. The most disappointing thing about the pitching staff was that general manager Matt Klentak did not do enough to make it better either before the season or at the trade deadline.
“What I try to do is go back and look at our thought process in the moment when we are making decisions,” Klentak said. “And last offseason, we were certainly aggressive in other areas. It wasn’t apathy to improve the club. We improved the club in a lot of ways.
"Our thought process was our rotation last year was roughly a top 10 rotation. It stumbled late. We know that. We all watched it. But the body of work last year was roughly a top 10 rotation.”
That’s a real reach. The Phillies finished 18th in baseball and 11th in the National League with a 4.14 ERA last season. The rotation ranked 16th in baseball and 11th in the NL with a 4.12 ERA and the bullpen was 18th in baseball and 11th in the NL with a 4.19 ERA.
Maybe there was some analytic equation that put the Phillies among the top 10, but it certainly was not a good forecast for going with the same rotation at the start of 2019 that finished 2018. The Phillies’ 4.60 team ERA is 17th in baseball and 11th in the NL. Furthermore, if Klentak liked what he saw last season, he should have been more eager to keep Rick Kranitz around as the pitching coach.
Anyway, we should all be able to agree that 2019 has entered the conversation as being among the most disappointing Phillies seasons of the 21st century. Like the 2003 team, this year’s ballclub has a lot of young talent. Klentak was right last week when he said the core of the 2019 Phillies is good enough to win for years to come, starting in 2020.
As disappointing as the 2003 Phillies season was, the frustration of the fans grew even greater in 2004, 2005, and 2006 as the team proved to be pretty good but never good enough to reach the postseason. That string of failures cost manager Larry Bowa his job in 2004 and general manager Ed Wade his job in 2005.