With a 35-21 record since the All-Star break, the Phillies have finally gotten over the .500 mark at 72-71. With 19 games left to play, they are a mere three games behind the Cardinals for the elusive second wild-card berth in the National League.
With Jimmy Rollins playing like a superhero, Kyle Kendrick pitching like a fourth ace, and the lineup and bullpen rounding into form, the Phillies are at their strongest at the most important time of the year. And with a fairly easy upcoming schedule pitting them against the Astros and Mets, the Phils could realistically enter the stretch-run on very solid footing.
Yet… there is something unsettling about this weekend’s four-game set with the Astros.
I don’t usually lend much credence to stats against a specific team, because “team” is an evolving term. The Astros of 2005 are not the Astros of 2009. David Bell‘s numbers against Brandon Backe have no bearing on how Chase Utley and the rest of this current Phillies squad will fare against Bud Norris.
Having said that, allow me to briefly throw numbers out of the window and admit that I am completely and utterly terrified of the Astros heading into this crucial series, whether or not they’re 12-45 since the All-Star break.
Late-season meetings with the Astros conjure up horrific memories of yesteryear, when the playoff-hopeful Phillies hurt their cause by losing, often in dramatic fashion, to Houston teams. On paper, the Phillies should throttle Houston. But the Astros shouldn’t be slept on, and the Phils have played so poorly against the Astros late in recent years that splitting the series or losing it probably won’t come as a surprise to most fans.
Devoted Phillies fans dating back to at least the mid-2000s likely don’t need any more information to understand my fear of the Astros. However, for the uninitiated, let’s recap the late-season meetings of these two teams over the past several seasons.
• Last year didn’t matter so much, as the Phillies had a playoff berth wrapped up early. However, it became clear that the Phils were looking to establish a franchise record for wins in a single season, and losing two of three to the Astros from September 12-14 was a setback. Losing to Houston made that goal tougher to achieve.
• In 2010, the Astros swept the Phillies in a four-game series from August 23-26.
• The year before that, the Phillies and Astros played eight times in September. The Astros swept the Phillies in four games from September 4-7, and split another four-game set from September 28-October 1. The Phillies made the playoffs thanks to the mid-season acquisition of Cliff Lee, but going 2-6 against the Astros in September certainly wasn’t part of the plan.
From 2009-11, the Phillies were 3-12 against the Astros from August-onward.
Travel back in time a few more years and we stumble upon arguably the most demoralizing moment of the Jimmy Rollins era (defined as 2001-now, as his emergence that season was a clear era-defining point in Phillies history). September 7, 2005, a day that will live on in Phillies infamy as the Wagner-Biggio game.
I was sitting in the Pollock Computer Lab at Penn State’s main campus, as I didn’t have Comcast in my apartment, and for some reason MLB.com wouldn’t allow me to stream games while in my bedroom. I don’t know if it had something to do with recognizing my IP address as Philadelphia or what, but I was stuck spending the night in a public computer lab to watch this extremely important game.
The Phillies entered at 73-66, and the Astros were 74-64. A measly 1.5 games separated the teams. Two days earlier, the Phillies were 73-64, a half-game ahead of the 72-64 Astros in the wild-card standings. The Phillies had dropped the first two games of the series, 4-3 and 2-1, and were trailing the Astros with limited time left. The best way to distance yourself from a team on your heels is to beat them directly, and the Phillies had failed to increase their lead over the Astros. At the very least, salvaging one game in the series could keep things close and leave more of their destiny in their own hands.
The matchup featured the aforementioned Backe against Vicente Padilla. It was a back-and-forth contest, and a very fun game to watch up until the top of the ninth inning. After trailing, 5-3, the Phillies scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth to take a 6-5 lead. Bobby Abreu hit a two-run homer scoring Jason Michaels, and Shane Victorino later singled in Ryan Howard. Bell was thrown out at the plate on the same play to end the inning. That was a run the Phillies would desperately need.
Billy Wagner entered the game looking to put away his former team, and from the get-go it sure seemed like something different was going to happen in this particular outing. Even after Wagner quickly dispatched of the light-hitting law firm of Ausmus & Everett, P.C., something didn’t quite feel right. Maybe that’s hindsight driving the narrative, but screw it, I’m telling the story. Jose Vizcaino then hit a grounder to third base that Bell bobbled. It wasn’t a difficult play, and it should have ended the game.
Willy Taveras came up, and this was back when that actually mattered to the opposing pitcher. He proceeded to hit a little dribbler that Rollins stayed back on just long enough for Taveras to reach. Of course he reached.
At this point, a few other Phillies fans had migrated over to my computer and we all looked at each other nervously, as if we knew what was about to happen. On the 1-1 offering, Craig Biggio crushed a three-run homer to left field. You couldn’t hear pin drops because, come on, the stadium was packed and even if everyone was quiet it would be tough to hear a pin drop, but the stadium had its life sucked out.
Nobody knew how to react until a chorus of boos exploded from the Citizens Bank Park phaithful. Then the realization set in… holy shit, the Astros are now up 8-6. WHAT!? WHAT JUST HAPPENED!? The Phillies had this game locked up! They had it locked up! How could Wagner blow two games in a row against this team!? Come on!
Click here for audio from the Astros feed that night if you want to relive this awful Phillies moment. Harry Kalas’s call was even better, and the man himself once admitted to Angelo Cataldi that it was his most somber call. It went something like “2 hits, 1 error, 3 runs – all of them unearned, but who cares?”
An error and a dinky infield single extended what should have been an easy 1-2-3 inning, which allowed Biggio to hit the homer that effectively sunk the Phillies’ playoff hopes. The Phillies were then 2.5 games behind the Astros, and though it came down to the season’s final day, getting swept and losing that specific September 7 game was the dagger.
Now, that game obviously means nothing compared to the September 13-16 series in Houston this year, but these two teams have late-season histories. While stats against specific teams are typically useless splits, and I’ll be the first to tell anyone that, my inner fan doesn’t care. The Phillies have fought and clawed their way back above .500 and now have a realistic, albeit still-not-that-likely, shot at the postseason.
It may sound strange to suggest that the friggin’ 45-97 Astros represent their biggest test of the season, but the Phils have to consider it a failure if they win fewer than three games in this series. While recent history really shouldn’t matter all that much to the outcome of this series, it certainly suggests that these four games will be anything but easy, regardless of the talent disparity between the teams.
Here’s to hoping that the Phillies can exorcise their September 7, 2005 demons this weekend and use this Astros squad as a springboard to a playoff berth once thought unattainable.