Phillies All the Way: The Four Aces and Joe take the stage

Roy Halladay, Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels addressed the media at the beginning of spring training in 2011. (Eric Gay/AP)

The Phillies entered the 2011 season with one of the most fearsome rotations in baseball history. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt were deemed “The Four Aces.” The four pitchers combined for 13 All-Star appearances, three Cy Young Awards, two NLCS MVP awards and one World Series MVP.

The media requests were out of control so the Phillies had a solution: put them all on the podium at once. The love affair officially began on Valentine’s Day 2011. 

Yes, that also included Joe Blanton. Halladay was on board with the news conference, but only if Blanton was there. The team’s fifth starter was rumored to be on the trading block all winter long. Instead, he was thrust into the spotlight. It made for a funny moment between Blanton and a reporter who forgot that he was part of the 2008 World Series Championship team. 

The $65 million rotation, which would probably cost at least twice as much 10 years later, were asked a flurry of questions on the expectations they have for themselves. The convenient part of scheduling a news conference on the first day of workouts is that nobody has done anything yet and that reflected in some of the answers. 

“I think we haven’t thrown a single pitch as a group yet,” Lee said. 

The off-season began with Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt, but the re-acquisition of Lee for a team that fell just short of a third consecutive World Series appearance fueled the hype around the team’s starting staff. For weeks, it seemed as though Lee’s return to the Phillies was surreal — a type of miracle unfamiliar to Philadelphians. 

The Phillies’ self-imposed restraints on free-agents pitchers were well documented. A team that was unwilling to commit more than three years wasn’t getting their hands on a pitcher of Lee’s caliber, especially considering they blindsided the left-hander by shipping him off to Seattle on the same day the team traded for Halladay. 

In a twist nobody saw coming, the Phillies emerged as a mystery team for Lee’s services. The pitcher turned down a higher offer from the Yankees (seven-years,$148 million) to return to Philadelphia. Plenty of New York-based reporters were among the 70 or so media members in attendance. The question of why Lee spurned the Yankees was asked. 

“I felt like this was the best chance to win world championships. That’s what it’s all about,” Lee said. “Obviously, I played here in the past and enjoyed myself here, and thought we had a really good team at that time. Since then, they’ve made a couple of additions that I think have made the team that much better. I felt like if I ever got an opportunity to come back and be a part of what’s going on here, I would take advantage of it, and that’s why.” When a New York Daily News reporter further questioned his decision, Lee retorted, “Phillies all the way.”  

Roy Halladay echoed Lee’s sentiments. “A lot of us are to the point in our career where you feel like the biggest thing left for you to do is win a championship, whether you’ve already done it or you haven’t. That was my only goal going into last year was to try and win a World Series. So, coming close and coming up short is definitely hard. It’s disappointing. That’s why I still want to play this game. I want to be part of a world championship team.”

To say Phillies fans were excited would be an understatement. 2011 was meant to be the peak of the golden era of Phillies baseball. The aging lineup and an average bullpen were a cause for concern, but the Phillies were expected to dominate the NL East on their way to a fifth-consecutive division title. And they did just that, winning a franchise-best 102 games, but of course, fell to the Cardinals in Game 5 of the NLDS. 

The 2011 Phillies rotation had a combined 3.02 ERA, the lowest mark for a starting staff in MLB since 1989. They led the league in wins (76), strikeouts (935), walks (221) and quality starts (108). Halladay, Lee and Hamels all finished in the top-10 in ERA and fWAR. “The Four Aces” did all they could to propel the franchise to its third World Series title, unfortunately, the baseball gods had other plans for the Phillies that season.


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