It is odd to look at the NL East standings and see the Phillies 12 games ahead on September 12th. The idea of a double-digit division lead is completely foreign to me. Indeed, those of us who became fans in 1993 have known only double-digit September deficits. Who could ever forget the 2000 team that on September 12th sat 25 games back in the division at 59-85? Curt Schilling was traded away to Arizona and, despite spectacular seasons from Bobby Abreu and Scott Rolen, the team had grown boring by May. There were better, more exciting things for a 13-year-old boy to be doing with his time than watching a horrible team play out the string. Like burning ants with a magnifying glass. And popping bubble wrap. And doing wheelies on his BMX bike.
There was a blip in 2001 when the Phillies finished two games behind the Braves in the division, but things began to change in earnest in the mid-aughts. The signing of Jim Thome, the move to Citizens Bank Park, and the emergence of talent from the minors at key positions saw the Phillies claw their way back to respectability. If not necessarily competitive in the division race, the team found itself in the thick of the Wild Card race several years in a row. All of this is to say that while the team may have been disappointing in the end, they were not boring anymore.
For the first four years of the team's soon-to-be five year run of division championships, things were still relatively close in September. In 2007, after their game on September 12th the Phillies found themselves seven games back in the NL East and, of course, it wasn't until the last game of the season that they clinched the division. On September 12, 2008, they were three games behind the Mets; they won the division by three games. On September 12, 2009, their lead was five games and they won the division by six. And before play on September 12, 2010, they were in a dead heat for the division with the Braves before rattling off an 11-game winning streak to open up a seven-game lead by the 24th.
It's different this year. The Phillies have run roughshod over their National League competition and are sitting pretty with a double-digit lead not only in the division, but for home field advantage throughout the playoffs as well.
And they're boring again.
It's not the same kind of burning-ants-with-a-magnifying-glass boredom, to be sure. And I don't mean to say that I'm not positively thrilled that the Phillies are on pace to break their franchise record for wins in a single season. Considering that the playoffs are a thunderdome of randomness, it makes sense to revel in their regular season dominance for its own sake. This is reason enough to tune in for the vast majority of games.
But on the other hand, with such a huge lead this late in the season, the games lose that must-watch quality typical of close division races. For instance, although the Phillies were a strong bet to make the playoffs at the time, when the Braves came to Citizens Bank Park late last September for a three game set down three in the division, the series carried meaningful implications for the division race. For the Braves, a series win would have cut the Phillies' division lead to two at most with a series in Atlanta to close out the season remaining. For the Phillies, it was a chance to effectively lock up the division. As such, the games were fraught with drama and excitement--it was a "playoff atmosphere" at the ballpark.
This year, the Phillies will not play another series with any implications for their playoff chances and they will likely not play another series with any implications for their chances of taking home a fifth-straight NL East pennant. The all-day-long butterflies and borderline nausea in anticipation of the night's big game are no more.
For once I can feel comfortable going to see a movie on game night without checking my phone obsessively for score updates. Things are so great, in fact, that it's hard to find anything to blog about aside from new and innovative ways to express how awesome this team is or the occasional rant following one of Charlie Manuel's managing foibles.
Even the hardened pessimist can take a break from running over worst case scenarios in his or her mind and just enjoy the ride. This is a kind of Phillies-related boredom that is completely foreign to me, but it is something that I would have no problem getting used to.
At the same time, though, I look forward to being un-bored again come October.