This past Sunday, the Boston Red Sox and the Philadelphia Phillies wrapped up their three-game inter-league set in the City of Brotherly Love.
The setting was a little out of the ordinary to say the least. Not because it was an inter-league series, which will become far less out of the ordinary next season when inter-league games take place every day. But whereas last year the Red Sox (46-34, 2nd place) and the Phillies (51-31, 1st place) were both multiple games over .500 and atop their respective divisions at the end of the series, this year both teams are at or below .500 and in the basements of the AL and NL East.
It's funny how much can change in a year. Coming out of spring training last March, both the Sox and the Phils were the runaway favorites to represent each league in the 2011 World Series. This year, after falling way short of their expectations last September/October, both teams are struggling just to find an identity.
September’s events in Boston were well documented to say the least. On September 3, 2011 the Sox were 84-54, held a nine-game lead in the wild card standings, and had a 99.6 percent chance of making the playoffs. Twenty-seven games and a 7-20 record later, Boston found itself out of the playoffs and the owners of one of – if not the – worst collapses in baseball history.
The collapse cost manager Terry Francona his job and had him publicly slandered in the media for his usage of pain medication on the way out. General Manager Theo Epstein bounced. Closer Jonathan Papelbon left. Outfielder Carl Crawford was and still is hurt. And nothing has seemed to go right since.
Philadelphia’s story was the complete opposite. The Phils ran away with the division, as they posted the most wins in baseball (102) and set a new club record in the process. They also boasted one of the best starting rotations in history with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Despite all of that, they were beaten in five games in the NLDS by the red hot St. Louis Cardinals – who eventually went on to win the World Series – and were left with nothing to show for their historic season.
Now, just 13 months after being anointed the future AL and NL champs, Boston and Philadelphia are fighting to stay afloat.
“Sure, it can be very close,” said Phillies’ manager Charlie Manuel on peoples’ perceptions and the line between winning and losing. “There is definitely a fine line. That’s why you play the games.
“It gets down to who plays the best and how much you want it. I think Boston is going to be okay and I think we are too.”
With the win, Boston moves to 20-21 and has won eight of its last ten. However, the Sox are still 6.5 games back of first-place Baltimore. The two teams begin a big three series on Monday.
Meanwhile, the loss drops Philadelphia to 21-21 and five games back of Atlanta. Interestingly enough every team in the NL East has a winning record. Still, five games is far from insurmountable considering it is only the end of May.
A good sign for the Phillies is that their offense has seemed to wake up as of late. They are 7-3 in their last ten games and have scored at least four runs in six of those contests. Philly will host second-place Washington for three games starting on Monday.
“I think our offense is getting better,” said Manuel. “I think we are hitting some balls good. We only scored one run (Sunday) of course, but I think that in the last two weeks our offense is definitely getting better.”
The next month will prove to be a key stretch for the Phils. They will play ten teams over the next 30 days, eight of which currently have a .500 record or better (Washington, St. Louis, New York Mets, Miami, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Toronto and Tampa Bay). Manuel acknowledged that it is going to be a make-or-break month for his team, but that he thinks they are ready for it.
“I think it is going to be a test for us,” admitted Manuel. “I think we can handle it. We have to play good and I think we can. Of course we have to be more consistent. That’s what we talk about every day.”