Defending champs have not yet nearly had their Phil of success

Celebrations such as these have become routine in Philly

I sold the Phillies short this year mainly because I think it’s so hard to repeat in baseball. It hasn’t happened since the Torre Yankees about 10 years ago, and then before that the Blue Jays of the early ‘90s. Three separate teams repeated in the ‘70s, but that’s back in the early stages of free agency when it was far easier to hold onto a good team once you’ve built one.

But I underestimated the Phillies – anticipating their demise at the hands of the red-hot Rockies in the divisional round – and I really shouldn’t have.

Philly has essentially the same personnel as last year, except with dangerous Raul Ibanez replacing tank-on-empty Pat Burrell, and with Cliff Lee taking a spot at the front of the rotation in a wonderful trade.

I think a big reason I didn’t like the Phillies is that two pitchers who were major contributors last season, Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge, entered the postseason looking very shaky. Hamels was 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five playoff starts last year, while Lidge pitched in nine games, gave up one run and earned seven saves. While Hamels has continued to struggle in two 2009 postseason starts, Lidge is 3-for-3 and is unscored upon. The difference-maker

I figured that since Hamels was such a huge part of what they did last year, that if he struggled they’d have issues. And I do believe there’s something physically wrong with him that may turn up later. But what I didn’t account for was Lee simply taking over his role. The talented lefty is 2-0 with a 0.74 ERA in three postseason starts, the first three of his career. And since Lidge has channeled last year in October after blowing 11 saves during the regular season, there really aren’t a whole lot of weaknesses on this squad.

The best part about them is that they’re battle-tested. There’s a certain confidence that goes with just having been there before. I don’t think the Phillies feel any deficit can’t be overcome. They’re a lot like the Yankees in that regard, though New York’s confidence does not come from playoff experience, but more from an overwhelming amount of talent. It’d be compelling if the two of them met in the World Series for the sole reason that it’s very difficult to close either one out. Even in Game 3 of the ALCS, which the Angels won, Jorge Posada’s homer off previously dominant Kevin Jepsen erased a late lead and put the heat on.

With Lee available for another start if need be, it looks as if the Phils are on the verge of making their second consecutive World Series, and it definitely appears that they are a strong contender to finish the job and earn a rare repeat. And you’d have to say they were underrated. I don’t feel the Phillies were regarded as highly as other defending champions.

But their fans knew. On a trip to Citizens Bank earlier this summer, I was impressed by the ardor of their supporters, who sold out the beautiful ballpark virtually every night. They were there because the team won last year, but I think they knew they had the chance to do something special once again.

What the Phillies have is a collection of very talented players who also bring a great deal of mental toughness to the table. An exception: I don’t trust Ryan Howard in a big spot, but he’s as likely as anyone to go deep in the first inning. But Rollins, Victorino, Utley, Ibanez, Werth – it seems like all those guys are good for a rally-starting or –finishing hit.

So although I was quick to dismiss their chances to repeat – too quick – the Phillies are showing that under no circumstances can you ever rule them out.

8/8/09 vs. the Marlins

Esoteric

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