Those of you who just became Phillies fans on December 13, 2010 might find yourselves confused on occasion by other commenters' invocation of the term "Slumpmas". "What is it?" you might have wondered to yourselves. Is it a real holiday? Will I get the day off from work? Will there be a gift exchange? Or an airing of grievances? Slumpmas will be explained below, but the answers to the other questions are Sort of, No, No, and Yes.
So it all started back in 2008. The Phils were coming off a postseason appearance for the first time in many moons. And for the first time in what seemed like forever, they didn't get off to a really awful start out of the gate. Instead, they hovered around .500 through April, improved a bit in early May, and finally went on a red-hot 14-4 stretch from roughly Memorial Day to Flag Day in which they twice scored 20 runs in a game and averaged 7.1 runs per. At the end of that stretch, they had a four-game lead on the division.
And then interleague play began. After winning one game against an obviously shot Bartolo Colon of the Red Sox, the Phils were shut out the next day by Jon Lester. Then they lost the third game of the series. Then they were swept by the Angels. Then they lost four of six on a road trip to Oakland and Texas. And they scored only 31 runs in the process, which, at the time, was shocking - it was the first extended period of mortality that that juggernaut offense had displayed in a long time.
But then it was over. And although it felt much worse at that time, they were still in first place when it was over. The team would endure other ups and downs throughout the season and, because of a hot streak by the Mets, would actually spend an entire month, from mid-August to mid-September, in second place. But they blew by the Mets in the last few weeks of the season and the rest is history.
2009 was eerily similar to 2008. The Phils again got off to a so-so start, going 16-16 in their first 32. Then they again kicked it into high gear, going 19-7 over their next 26, which again gave them a four-game lead on June 11.
And then they again played the Red Sox in interleague play. The opening game of the series was an extra-inning marathon, which the Phillies almost won on what appeared from some camera angles to be a walkoff homer by Greg Dobbs that flew right over the top of the rightfield foul pole. But it was called foul by first base umpire Jim Joyce and the game continued. Kyle Kendrick, who was on the Lehigh Valley shuttle that year and had just been recalled to fill in for the injured Scott Eyre and/or Brad Lidge, eventually lost the game in the 13th.
The next game was started by rookie Antonio Bastardo. He had pitched well in his first few outings after being called up to replace the injured Brett Myers, but on this day he was smacked around and the Phillies lost 11-6.
Overall, the Phillies would go 4-11 in interleague play and they followed it up by getting swept 0-3 in Atlanta. They fell into a tie for first place, with a record of only 39-37. The run-scoring really wasn't all that bad throughout the stretch - 76 runs in the 18 games - but it was schizophrenic, with 31 of the 76 runs coming in only 3 of the 18 games.
And then the slump ended. On July 3, Rodrigo Lopez, of all people, was called up from Lehigh because of mounting injuries in the rotation and he stopped the losing streak with a really nice pitching performance against the Mets. The Phils went on to sweep that series, then took three of four against the Reds (including a game in which they posted 22 runs against Johnny Cueto and a bunch of relievers), then swept the Pirates (at home, of course, in a series that included the epic ninth-inning comeback against Matt Capps), and then swept the Marlins on the road. By July 27 they had built a seven-game first-place lead, and they cruised the rest of the way. The offense was fifth in the league in runs per game after the ASB.
Finally there was 2010. Although in 2010, the Phillies didn't precisely follow the script from in 2008 and 2009. They dispensed with the traditional mediocre start and instead went directly into their red-hot stage, rocketing out of the gate with 8 wins in their first 10 and 25 wins in their first 40.
Then, just as the team's red-hot phase had moved from May to April, the slump moved from June to May. They won the first game of an early interleague series against the Red Sox from May 21-23, but Daisuke Matsuzaka nearly no-hit them in the second game and they were befuddled by Tim Wakefield's knuckleball in the third game (while Roy Halladay gave up 7 runs in 5.2 innings). Then came three consecutive shutout losses in Flushing. Then after taking two of three against the Marlins, they were swept in Atlanta. They scored 14 runs in those 11 games and were shut out five times.
The offense improved slightly after that, but unlike in 2008 and 2009, the team didn't right the ship then and there. Instead, they followed up their familiar brief period of intense suckiness with a much more prolonged period of moderate suckiness. After the sweep in Atlanta, they went 15-16 in their next 31. They then swept the Reds immediately before the ASB, but followed it up with a 1-6 kickoff to a Midwestern road trip immediately after the ASB. Their record fell to 48-46, Chase Utley tore ligaments in his thumb, and there was open talk about selling off Jayson Werth to a contending team like the Padres.
And then, suddenly, everything got better. The Phils won the last game of the Midwestern road trip, then went 7-0 on a homestand against the Rockies and Diamondbacks. They traded for Roy Oswalt and ended the season on a 49-19 tear, blowing the doors off the rest of the division. While they were led by their pitching in those final 68 games, their offense wasn't too shabby either, finishing second in the league in runs per game after the break.
As the Phillies get ready to kick off the main part of the interleague schedule in 2011, can we expect to see a repeat of the pattern? Well, arguably, we already have. As we all know, the Phillies have gone through multiple extended stretches of crappy offense this year. The difference is that this year, the team remained competitive even when its offense was at its worst. (Meanwhile, when the offense has been hot, even by its diminished standards, the team has been virtually unstoppable.)
Still, while it's irrational, I think we can be forgiven a vague sense of foreboding, as long as we don't try to draw any serious conclusions from it. The trigger for Slumpmas each year hasn't been interleague play as such, nor has it been a particular time of the year. The common thread through all three seasons has been the Red Sox. They come to town on June 28-30. Keep your fingers crossed.