On July 21, the Philadelphia Phillies were 48-46, not even in second place in the National League East. They were third, a half-game behind the Mets and seven games behind the Braves. Then Philly won 49 of its final 68 regular-season games and surged from seven games behind to six games ahead. And then it swept the Reds in the Division Series, allowing no hits in Game 1 and no runs in Game 3.
And right about there, I’m guessing one or two of you were thinking just what I was thinking: “There’s no beating this team.”
The World Series begins tomorrow night. Philadelphia will not be playing. The best-looking National League team of the past 16 years was beaten by San Francisco in six games in the NLCS, three of the losses coming by one run. I mention this because there was, 17 years ago, a team of similar eminence that stormed down the stretch, overrode an even deeper deficit and seemed a mortal lock to become the first team since the Cardinals during World War II to win three consecutive NL pennants.
And it lost in the NLCS, also in six games, three of which were lost by one run. That team was the 1993 Atlanta Braves, and it was undone by the Philadelphia Phillies.
The ‘93 Braves trailed the Giants by 10 games in the NL West on July 22, 1993. Those Braves won 49 of their final 65 games and took the division title on the regular season’s final day when Tom Glavine beat Colorado and Salomon Torres lost to the Dodgers.
Of all the great Braves’ teams of the ’90s, that was the greatest. It had the best rotation — Greg Maddux had joined Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery that season — and the best batting order. (You’ll recall that Fred McGriff arrived in July.) It was as close to being invincible as any baseball team ever gets, and yet it lost in October.
Like those Braves, the 2010 Phillies were trying to win a third NL pennant in a row. Like those Braves, these Phillies had an armor-plated top of the rotation — Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels — and a batting order devoid of holes. And these Phillies lost, too. Consensus in Philadelphia was that this was by far the best of the teams that had won the NL East four years running, better even than the 2008 World Champions. On the day the NLCS began, Bill Lyon used the word “dynasty” in the Philadelphia Inquirer to describe these Phillies.
Who then lost in six games.
See, it happens. And not just to the Braves.
Baseball is strange. These Giants didn’t appear all that much better than the Braves — each game of the NLDS was a one-run job — and we’d all seen the Phillies crush the Braves in the late going. And yet the Giants beat the Phillies by outpitching them and outhitting them, too. How many everyday Giants would start for the Phillies? (Maybe Buster Posey at catcher, and I stress that that’s a “maybe.”) And yet where will Game 1 of the Fall Classic be staged?
In AT&T Park, hard by San Francisco Bay. You wouldn’t have guessed it, but there it is. And that’s, as Eddie Haas used to say, baseball.