When you look back now at the Phillies eight-game losing skid late in the season, it all makes sense. It was just the Baseball Gods adding more of a Philadelphia flavor to the final night of regular season baseball for 2011. Without that skid, Charlie Manuel becoming the winningest manager in Phillies history would have happened days ago as would the Phillies' milestone 102nd win of the season. The Phillies would have still played a role in what was perhaps the greatest single night in baseball history, but it wouldn't have held quite as much intrigue for Phillies fans.
A huge comeback in Tampa, a bottom of the ninth collapse by Boston after a lengthy rain delay, a route for the Cardinals and then the Phillies come-from-behind win in Atlanta all led to a night that was nearly unbelievable and it played out in four different cities. On a smaller note was the fact that the Brewers and D'backs were fighting for the second-best record in the league, but that drama ended early when Milwaukee won their ballgame to capture home field for their series with Arizona. For Phillies fans, there was intrigue in that their club was going for a franchise record 102 wins and their manager needed one win to become the winningest manager in the team's history, surpassing Gene Mauch.
Oh, and for those that want to add an extra wild card team to each league, consider that last night would have held little interest other than the intrigue of the Phillies and who would have the second-best record in the National League. In fact, the last few days would have held little interest. Yes, fans - and owners who stood to make more money - in Boston and Atlanta would have woke up happier this morning, but baseball fans in general wouldn't have been glued to TVs on Wednesday night.
For Philadelphia, it was a night to give just one more reason to consider this club the best in franchise history, since they have now won more games than any other Phillies team. For a while, the over/under on wins sat around 106 for the Phillies and their eight-game skid erased any hopes of that lofty level, but in the end, they finished at 102 and notched their place in the club's record books. You have to go back to 1977 and 1976 to find a Phillies team that won over 100 games and bring back names like Schmidt, Carlton and Garber to relive the memories. When you look back at those teams, you'll also see that both lost in the NLCS and never made it to the World Series, putting together an NLCS record of 1-6 in those two seasons. While this team was just one game better in the standings, the theory is that they're simply better teams than those or any other teams in history and there's no reason to believe that they won't get past what those teams did in the post-season.
"That [the franchise record for wins] was fitting for this team," Manuel said. "I think it was very fitting. We've had a big season, but at the same time, we still have a lot of work to do. Our ultimate goal is to go to the World Series and win, and I think we're sitting in a pretty good position, and it's up to us to go get it."
That brings up this question; If the Phillies don't win the World Series, is this season a failure?
At this point, yes. Failure might be a harsh word, but let's face it, this club was favored all season long and they're favored going into the playoffs. With the Four Aces and the acquisition of Hunter Pence to balance out their lineup, there has never been a reason to believe that another World Championship is the only reasonable conclusion for the 2011 Phillies.
While the players wanted win number 102 for themselves, they also wanted it for Charlie Manuel, because it would be the one to put him in first place among Phillies managers. It's simple, really. These players love their manager and would have been let down had he had to wait all off-season to break Gene Mauch's mark for wins as a manager. Charlie would have brushed it off and pointed out the bigger milestones for the team to reach, but he also looked like a proud man after his club set a milestone for themselves and their leader.
Following the game, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Madson presented Manuel with a bottle of champagne from the team. The label had a picture of Manuel and words of congratulations on his new position in the hierarchy of Phillies managers. "It's awesome," Ryan Howard said. "Charlie is so deserving of it. He's been a great manager. He's just been a great person ever since I've ever been able to encounter him way back in the minor leagues. It's a happy moment for all of us, for him, and we got to have a little fun in helping him celebrate it."
Those days of callers to sports talk radio referring to Manuel as a "buffoon" and "country bumpkin" are long gone. Now, Manuel is a genius who has taken a great collection of players and made them even greater. He is one of the most popular people to ever coach or manage in the City of Brotherly Love and his popularity figures to only climb. He's already won one World Series in Philadelphia and another would make his image even larger with Phillies fans.
Ironically, the Phillies ousting of the Atlanta Braves sets up an NLDS meeting with the St. Louis Cardinals, who some figure to be a tougher match-up than either Milwaukee or Arizona would have been. For this club though, there is no other club that would figure to be able to set up too tough of a series for the Phillies and their World Series or Bust approach to the post-season. The Cardinals come into Philadelphia with a lot of momentum and it wasn't that long ago that they took three out of four in Philadelphia, which perhaps adds to some of the angst among fans. "They're a good team, they can hit," Manuel said of the Cardinals. "We've played them nine times this year (losing six times), and they're a challenge for us."
The fact remains though that ever team in the post-season is good, but no other club won as many games as the Phillies and no other club has had the high expectations that this club has had from the start of spring training. It all starts Saturday in Philadelphia for a record-setting Phillies club that will get to enjoy home field advantage throughout the entire post-season.