[Due to its absurd length, this article will be divided into three parts. Please hold any comments about the final three games of this series until later.]
The favorite season of every Phillies fan under 40 is obviously 2008, as well it should be: the destination is the most important part of any journey. And yet there is some value in the journey itself too, and for me, my favorite journey is and probably always will be 2007.
One of the main reasons why that journey was so fun was that it was the last time we didn't begin a season with high hopes. From our current vantage point -- even with 2012's struggles -- it's hard to put yourself in the mindset of a Phillies fan circa March 2007, when the fan base's mood was characterized by a toxic mixture of apathy and bitterness. Attendance was decent, but enthusiasm was low. If you were a truly ardent Phillies fan, you very well may have been alone among your co-workers and friends. The Phillies weren't discussed on the radio, the ballpark rarely sold out, and when you went there you never saw young folks dressed to party, you only saw the same folks who had populated the Vet: dads and sons, oldheads, and drunks. On any given night, you were liable to hear sarcastic "E-A-G-L-E-S" chants at the slightest hint of adversity.
We now know that the 2007 squad was young and about to hit its stride -- but few felt that way then. Instead, most people had the vague impression that the team's best days were already behind it. After being terrible in the late '90s, the Phillies surprised everyone with a winning season in 2001 under new manager Larry Bowa. They took a step back in an injury-plagued 2002 in which Scott Rolen forced his way out of town. But then they signed 1B Jim Thome, and they pilfered all-star RHP Kevin Millwood from the Braves following an arbitration snafu. Stud prospect Marlon Byrd was set to take over in CF. That was the team that was supposed to reach the promised land. But it didn't happen. The 2003-2006 Phillies weren't bad -- they posted winning records and were in the playoff hunt in September each year. They just couldn't quite get there. By late 2006, they were generally seen as old and tired, with a roster that needed to be blown up and rebuilt from scratch.
A great deal of lore has arisen around Jimmy Rollins' "team to beat" comment in the spring of '07, but at the time, it landed with something of a thud. Nobody in town agreed with Jimmy, who even then wasn't Mr. Popular among the talk radio set. Then the season began and the Phils were immediately swept at home by the Braves in the opening series. The first two games were lost in extra innings with both losses assigned to a mediocre reliever named Ryan Madson, and in game three, newly signed starter Adam Eaton was torched for 8 runs (7 earned) in 4.2 innings. The team's record went to 3-10. It looked like a disaster in the making.
Gradually, the situation stabilized. The team ran off a nice stretch at the end of April to get them back near .500, where they would remain for many weeks. But still, nobody thought they were going anywhere. They just had too many weaknesses. They had an outstanding lineup, especially with CF Aaron Rowand having a surprising career year. But their pitching was just awful. Awful! They began the year with six starters (Freddy Garcia, Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Jon Lieber, Jamie Moyer, and Eaton) and Tom Gordon as their closer. By mid-June all of the following things had happened: Gordon got hurt, Myers was moved to closer, Myers got hurt, Garcia got hurt, and Lieber got hurt. At that point, the closer was the twelve-fingered Antonio Alfonseca, and the rotation was Hamels, Moyer, Eaton, and two giant question marks. They were so out of answers that they had to fill those two rotation holes with onetime Twins prospect J.D. Durbin (whom they'd claimed off waivers in April) and unknown 22-year-old AA pitcher Kyle Kendrick (who wasn't even on the 40-man roster or the organization's Top 10 prospects list).
Worst of all, they were unlucky enough to be in the same division as the NL's best team, the New York Mets. A little context on that: The six-division format began in 1994, and following the strike, the Braves won the New NL East's next eleven division titles. But Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz got old, and the Braves finally began to fade. And everybody knew that their heir apparents were the Mets, who had finally wrested the division from the Braves in 2006 while posting the league's best record, only to fall just short of the pennant with a seventh-game loss in the NLCS to the eventual world champion Cardinals. In 2007, the Mets had all their key players back, and while their roster was on the old side, two of their three best players, David Wright and Jose Reyes, were only 24. Their GM, Omar Minaya, had shrewdly stolen two solid young pitchers, John Maine and Oliver Perez, from their former teams for next to nothing. In short, Mets fans were as hopeful in 2007 as Phillies fans were hopeless.
And that script played out for the vast majority of the year. The Mets got off to a quick start, winning 33 of their first 50. On May 16, they grabbed the division lead and put an apparent stranglehold on it. To the extent they were ever challenged, it was by the seemingly resurgent Braves, who also got off to a hot start and were only 1.5 games back as late as July 16. (The Braves seemed so resurgent that they were inspired to get Mark Teixeira from the Rangers at the trade deadline for four prospects named Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.)
The Phillies, in contrast, were always at arm's length. There was a three-game series in early June at Shea Stadium where the Phillies swept the Mets using a dramatic late-inning homer in each game: one by Chase Utley, one by Jimmy Rollins, and one by Pat Burrell. But nobody saw that as a harbinger: just a few weeks later, the Mets took three of four from the Phils at Citizens Bank Park. And for the rest of the summer, the Phillies remained around five games back of first place, even after shoring up their pitching staff by trading for Kyle Lohse, claiming J.C. Romero from the scrap heap, and welcoming Myers and Gordon back from the DL. The teams wouldn't meet again until August 27, 2007 at Citizens Bank Park -- five years ago today.
By the time that day rolled around, the Phillies were six full games back, and with the Braves fading, the Mets were cruising. They had the league's best record, and Rollins' preseason quote had become something of a running joke with Mets fans -- so much so that New York Post columnist Kevin Kernan thought it a wise move to write the following article:
(Courtesy 700level.com. I hope they don't mind me hot-linking this image.)
The teams would begin a four-game set that day, and would follow it up with a three-game series at Shea a few weeks later. It seemed clear that the only way the Phillies could ever hope to catch the Mets would be to go a perfect seven for seven. And they would have to do it without Cole Hamels, who was placed on the DL on August 22, 2007 with a mild elbow strain and wouldn't return until after the Shea series. Well...
And here's where I note that there's another reason why 2007 is so special to me: because the Phillies' unexpected triumph came at the expense of the team I hated throughout my childhood. To this day, it amazes me how the way it actually went down so closely tracks the sort of imaginary storyline I might have fantasized about as a kid in my worst moments of vindictive angst. The overlooked, disrespected Phillies snatched the title away from the Mets in the cruelest, most painful manner possible, on the very eve of the Mets' coronation? So awesome. I no longer hate the Mets, and sometimes I even feel a tinge of empathy at the suffering they've since endured, like Edmond Dantes after the destruction of de Villefort's family. But it doesn't change the way I feel about 2007.
But that's enough context. Let's get to the game recaps.
J.D. Durbin was once a top prospect of the Twins, earning him a spot on Baseball America's Top 100 prospects list after both the 2003 and 2004 seasons. But then his career stalled. After a so-so 2005 in AAA, he pitched well there in 2006 until he was sidelined by nerve damage in his right bicep. Out of options, he was waived in March 2007, picked up by the Diamondbacks, and waived again in April after one regular season game, at which point the Phillies claimed him and sent him to AAA Ottawa. His reputation was that he was cocky (he'd once nicknamed himself "The Real Deal") and that he could throw pretty hard but didn't have much else.
The Ottawa roster was a complete mess that year, and the one decent pitching prospect there (J.A. Happ) got hurt, so even though Durbin was mediocre at best there, he got the call when injuries hit the big league rotation. He lost his first start in June to the Mets in unimpressive fashion, and he was pretty bad for the rest of the year too. But he did have a couple of nice moments. One was a complete game shutout of the Padres (who were pretty good in 2007) at Petco on July 22. The other was this game.
The Mets opposed Durbin with 31-year-old retread Brian Lawrence, who had once won 15 games with the Padres but hadn't pitched in the big leagues since 2005 before being called up from AAA in early August to take over the Mets' fifth starter spot after Mike Pelfrey and Jorge Sosa failed auditions in that role. Durbin won the matchup going away, allowing only two runs in six innings, striking out six and walking none. Lawrence allowed an RBI double to Jayson Werth in the 2nd, a two-run homer to Burrell in the third, a solo homer to Utley in the 5th, and an RBI single to Greg Dobbs later in the 5th, which chased Lawrence from the game. The Phillies tacked on four more against the Mets' bullpen, while J.C. Romero, Tom Gordon, and Clay Condrey combined for 2.2 scoreless innings of relief.
In Durbin's very next start, he allowed seven runs (all earned) to the Marlins in 0.0 innings of work, and then he only lasted 4.1 and 1.0 innings in his next two starts, which got him dropped from the rotation. He was terrible in AAA in 2008 and was released. By 2010, he was out of MiLB and instead posted a 6.75 ERA in the Japanese League in only three games. In 2011, he had a 13.86 ERA in four games in the Mexican League. This year, he's been in the starting rotation for the Lancaster Barnstomers. His win against the Mets on August 27, 2007 was literally his last hurrah as an MLB pitcher. Thanks, J.D.
[Part two will cover games two and three of the series, and will be posted tomorrow. Part three will cover the series finale, and will be posted on Wednesday or Thursday.]