PHILADELPHIA (AP) — No team enters this postseason under more pressure than the Philadelphia Phillies.
Expectations are so high in the City of Brotherly Love that anything less than a World Series title will be considered a failure by fans, players and management.
Yes, it’s boom or bust for these Phillies, who are a long way removed from being known for losing more games than any franchise in professional sports.
“Our main goal is to get to the World Series and win it,” pitcher Roy Oswalt said.
Their road begins Saturday against the wild-card St. Louis Cardinals at Citizens Bank Park.
Led by their Four Aces, the Phillies cruised to their fifth straight NL East title and led the majors in wins — 102 — for the second straight season.
They set a franchise record for wins in a season, and achieved several accomplishments along the way. None of that matters.
All they care about is having a victory parade down Broad Street for the second time in four years.
“Our ultimate goal is to win the World Series,” starter Cliff Lee said. “We still have a lot of business to take care of.”
Lee’s arrival in Philadelphia raised expectations to all-or-nothing proportions. The All-Star lefty stunned the baseball world last winter when he spurned the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers and took less money to return to the Phillies, who traded him away in December 2009.
Lee joined reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Oswalt to form one of the best starting rotations in recent history.
They didn’t disappoint.
Lee was 17-8 with a 2.40 ERA and a major-league leading six shutouts, twice falling one out shy of another shutout. Halladay went 19-6 with a 2.35 ERA and a majors-best eight complete games.
Hamels was 14-9 with a 2.79 ERA. Oswalt started and finished strong, but struggled in between mainly because of back problems. He had his first losing season, 9-10, and his 3.69 ERA was his second-worst. But he was impressive down the stretch, and has always pitched well in the playoffs.
It is said that strong pitching wins championships, which is why the Phillies are strong favorites to go all the way.
But try telling that to the Atlanta Braves and their tomahawk-chopping fans.
For years, the Braves had the best rotation in the majors. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz anchored a staff that usually went four or five deep.
Steve Avery, Denny Neagle, Charlie Leibrandt, Kevin Millwood, Russ Ortiz and Jaret Wright each had at least one 15-win season during Atlanta’s unprecedented run of 14 consecutive division titles.
The Braves had six 100-win seasons and captured five NL pennants from 1991-2005.
But for all that success, they won just one World Series in 1995.
“Everybody pinned the best team moniker on us because of those three,” Atlanta’s Chipper Jones said, referring to Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. “The same thing is going to happen to them. I think their three guys are the only guys I’ve run across as a unit that can compare to our guys. I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t cruise, to be honest with you.”
Smoltz was one of the best postseason pitchers of all-time. He was 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA in 41 appearances. But Maddux and Glavine, who combined for 660 career regular-season wins, had some trouble in the playoffs.
Maddux was 11-14 with a 3.27 ERA. Glavine was 14-16 with a 3.30 ERA. Both pitched well in the World Series, but struggled in the NLCS. Maddux had a 2.09 ERA in five World Series starts, but was 4-8 with a 3.67 ERA in the league championship series. Glavine was 4-3 with a 2.16 ERA in eight World Series starts, but was 6-10 with a 3.22 ERA in the NLCS.
“They have more strikeout pitchers,” Jones said. “We had more pitch-to-contact pitchers. That’s why Smoltzie was so good in the postseason, because he was a strikeout pitcher. All their guys are strikeout pitchers.
“And when you have that swing-and-miss ability in the postseason, it takes you farther.”
Smoltz is an analyst on TBS, which will broadcast the first-round games in both leagues and the NL championship series. He gives the Phillies’ staff the edge over his Braves.
“They remind me of us, but they are a little bit better than us at our best.” Smoltz said. “I consider Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Oswalt power pitchers. They’ve proven that by their strikeout numbers and their innings. Glavine and Maddux with their change-ups, they weren’t considered power pitchers.
“If you limit how many times a guy hits the ball, your chances go way up. If you have a staff that only gets two or three strikeouts per game, that’s a lot of pressure on your defense and pitching.”
That said, the main reason for Atlanta’s postseason failures wasn’t starting pitching. It was mainly lack of offense and bullpen troubles.
“The fact is we were built in the starting rotation without much reliance (on the bullpen),” Smoltz said. “We didn’t have one dominant closer. We had a couple of guys. The biggest thing that hurt us was that we didn’t execute very well offensively. We never felt like we were outpitched.”
The Phillies have a star-studded lineup that features seven regulars who’ve been to a total of 18 All-Star games and two former NL MVPs — Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins.
Howard, Rollins and Chase Utley aren’t quite as productive as they were back in 2008, when they helped the Phillies slug their way to the franchise’s second World Series. Still, all three are dangerous hitters. Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, Raul Ibanez and Placido Polanco make this lineup more balanced than the ’08 crew. And, Carlos Ruiz is one of the top No. 8 hitters in baseball.
Clearly, the Phillies are built on pitching. After losing to the San Francisco Giants in last year’s NLCS and falling two wins short of a third straight pennant, general manager Ruben Amaro had to make a huge decision.
He chose to let outfielder Jayson Werth walk away in free agency and used that money to sign Lee instead of another hitter. Then, Amaro acquired Pence in July to bolster an offense that missed Werth’s presence in the first half.
The Phillies romped through the postseason in ’08, going 11-2 and beating the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series with a staff led by Hamels. Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton followed him in the rotation. They hardly compare to the current starters.
But those guys have a championship ring. Halladay and Lee are still looking for one.
“That’s the beauty of being here,” Halladay said. “We expect to win.”
If not, they’ll be crying in their cheesesteaks in Philly.
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