The 2008 Philadelphia Phillies were a special team.
Five years ago, the team that featured Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Jayson Werth, Pat Burrell, Shane Victorino, Cole Hamels, Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson won it all. They were all in their primes. And with a nucleus like that, it's not surprising they won the World Series.
But as we've seen every year since then, teams more talented than them have failed to win another one. In fact, teams more talented than them fell WAY short of anything the '08 squad accomplished.
What really made the 2008 Phillies different from any of the other five teams that made the playoffs from 2007 to 2011 was one thing.
Everyone knows the playoffs are a crapshoot. So many things can happen in a five or seven-game series that, more often than not, luck has as much to do with a team advancing than anything else.
This was true for the '08 Phils. Consider all the good fortune they encountered during that stretch run.
- Yes, the Phillies played themselves into the playoffs by going 14-9 in their last 15 games. And that was great. They played extremely well and all pistons fired. But keep in mind, the Mets had to go 6-9 in their last 15 games in order for the Phils to overtake them and even win the NL East.
- The Phillies won three playoff series despite hitting just .201 with runners in scoring position (27 for 134) in the playoffs. They somehow took a 2-games-to-1 lead in the World Series despite going just 2 for 33 with RISP in those first three games.
- In the NLDS, the Phils faced a CC Sabathia who, with Milwaukee, had gone 11-2 with a 1.56 ERA in 17 starts for them. However, by the time he faced the Phillies in Game 2, he was pitching on three days' rest for the fourth straight start. Milwaukee's struggles down the stretch forced them to burn their best pitcher just to get into the playoffs. That likely led to his uncharacteristic walk to Brett Myers, which led to Jimmy Rollins' walk, which led to Shane Victorino's grand slam.
- In the NLCS, the Phillies got the Dodgers before Clayton Kershaw became a man. That year, Kershaw was just a 20-year-old #4 starter with great stuff who, in 21 starts went 5-5 with a 4.26 ERA. He did not start any games against the Phillies that year. Instead, he threw just two innings and gave up one run.
- In Game 2 of the NLCS, Brett Myers went 3 for 3 with 3 RBIs.
- Game 4 saw a slew of good fortune. With the bases loaded, two runs in, and one out in the 6th, the Dodgers appeared ready to blow the game open. But Utley snared a line drive double play to end that threat, then watched as Shane Victorino hit a surprising game-tying homer and Matt Stairs hit a stupefying go-ahead moon-shot off L.A.'s unhittable closer, Jonathan Broxton.
- The Phillies did not have to play the defending world champion Red Sox. Instead, they got the upstart Rays.
- In the World Series, the Phillies got away with a lot. David Price was a rookie and was pitching out of the bullpen, allowing the Phils to avoid a future Cy Young winner in the process.
- They got to face Scott Kazmir twice, in both the opening game and the clinching game.
- They got to face Andy Sonnanstine. Period.
- The Rays gave away Game 3 to the Phils in the bottom of the 9th. Eric Bruntlett of all people got hit by a pitch. Then, as Victorino was trying to give himself up with a sacrifice, Grant Balfour uncorks a wild pitch. Bruntlett not only makes it to second, but Dioner Navarro's throw sailed into center field, allowing Bruntlett to reach third with no one out. After walking the bases loaded, Carlos Ruiz then dribbles a ball that barely makes it 45 feet up the third baseline that somehow scored the game-winning run, giving the Phils a 5-4 win and a 2-1 series lead.
- In Game 4, the Phillies benefited from a big call in the bottom of the first when, with the bases loaded and one out, Ryan Howard grounded a ball back to the pitcher that should have been an inning-ending double play. Instead, Andy Sonnanstine, for reasons passing understanding, tried to cut down Jimmy Rollins between third and home. A run-down ensued in which Rollins was tagged out by Evan Longoria, only the third-base umpire missed the call and ruled him safe. Then, with the bases loaded, Burrell walked to force in a run, giving the Phils a gift 1-0 lead.
- Joe Blanton homered in that game. JOE. BLANTON.
- After getting decidedly unlucky at losing Cole Hamels after just six innings in the rain-split Game 5, the Phils managed to score single runs in the bottom of the sixth and seventh innings off of pitchers not named David Price. Why Joe Maddon chose that exact moment to have the biggest brain cramp of his life is a total mystery. There's no way Price should have only gotten into that game once his team was trailing.
- In the series-clinching top of the ninth, with a runner on second and one out, Ben Zobrist hit a rocket that looked like a sure single. However, the ball was hit right at Werth for the second out. Lidge then went on to strike out Eric Hinske, sending us all into quite a state of delirium.
Clearly, every team that wins a world championship has a tale like this.
But consider the 2008 Phillies rotation: Hamels, Myers, Moyer, and Blanton...
And then consider the 2011 Phils rotation: Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Oswalt...
And then realize the '08 Phils went 11-3 in the playoffs while the '11 Phils went 2-3. Remember Game 6 of the 2010 NLCS, when Phillies hit rockets that were caught by Giants defenders everywhere. Remember Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS when Raul Ibanez missed a three-run homer by a foot and a sure Chase Utley lead-off double in the bottom of the ninth found a St. Louis glove.
It's true the 2008 Phils had a tremendous bullpen, an offense that pounded homers and covered up a lot of their RISP issues, and a starting pitcher that was simply unhittable. But just as those things are true, it's also true that their opponents that year were substandard, compared, say, to the Yankees of 2009.
It's also clear the Phils were terribly unlucky in 2010 and '11, as both the Giants and Cardinals appeared to be sprinkled with pixie dust at every turn.
In 2008, it seemed every Phillies ball found a hole, while every opponents' rocket found a Phils' glove. It was so glorious.
I remember that, when the Rays beat the Red Sox to advance the World Series, I felt an overwhelming sense of confidence. I was more sure of the Phillies winning the World Series that year then I had ever felt any other Philadelphia sports team in any other sports playoff final.
The Phils had experienced so much good fortune, and, instead of playing Boston, were going to play a weaker Tampa Bay team. Things just felt lined up. It felt like fate.
The fact that luck played such a big role in the 2008 world f'n championship does not take away from the accomplishments of that team or that season. That 2008 flag flies as high as any other.
There's no shame in embracing that the team got a bit lucky that year, especially when you consider how unlucky they were in the three postseasons that would follow.
The axiom is true.
Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than to be good.