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How Did They Do That?

Not quite 24 hours after the Phillies saw their season come to an end one day and two wins before we hoped it would, my disappointment at the conclusion is starting to give way to something like amazement that they got as close as they did. Of arguably the six most important Phillies pitchers from the 2008 championship run--starters Cole HamelsBrett Myers, and Jamie Moyer, and relievers Brad LidgeRyan Madson, and J.C. Romero--a stunning five saw their contributions plummet in the season that just ended. 

By contrast, consider the last NL team to win back-to-back pennants: the Atlanta Braves of the mid-1990s. The world champion 1995 Braves boasted a rotation led by future Hall of Famers Greg MadduxTom Glavine and John Smoltz, who combined for 47 wins and 601 innings that season. Their bullpen was anchored by closer Mark Wohlers (204 ERA+) and setup men Greg McMichael (153) and Brad Clontz (117). The '96 Braves, who also lost their repeat bid to the Yankees in six games, had a pitching staff led by... Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Wohlers, McMichael and Clontz. The three starters combined for 54 wins and an amazing 724 innings; Wohlers (ERA+ 145) and McMichael (136) were strong again, though Clontz (77) was much less effective. To sum up, the top five pitchers powered the Atlanta pennant-winners in both years. 

Which brings us to the 2008-2009 Phillies. 

In '08, Hamels, Myers and Moyer combined for 40 wins and 613.2 innings in the regular season (plus 6 wins and 65.2 innings through the three rounds of the playoffs). Lidge pitched to a superlative ERA+ of 225; Madson (144) and Romero (160) were great as well, and came up even bigger in the playoffs. A year later, Hamels went from "Darth Vader in spikes," as the Braves broadcasters (in perhaps the sole contribution to humankind) once dubbed him, to a young pitcher struggling with command and composure. Myers looked like he might challenge Bert Blyleven's single season home run record through a middling month and a half, then got hurt. Moyer pitched his way out of the rotation, remade himself as a surprisingly effective long reliever, then suffered a season-ending injury in September. They combined for 26 wins and 426.1 innings during the season, and Hamels added another victory in October. Lidge... well, you know about Lidge: his 2009 campaign was arguably the worst any closer has ever suffered through. His ERA+ was *59*. That's not a misprint. Romero missed the first fifty games of the season with a suspension for taking illegal supplements, briefly returned and was middling, then got hurt and missed the last month plus the playoffs. Only Madson stood tall again, with an ERA+ of 131.  They were the anti-Braves. 

That the Phils came within two wins of raising another championship banner anyway has to be credited mostly to GM Ruben Amaro Jr., whose late July trade for Cliff Lee and bargain-price signing of Pedro Martinez saved the rotation and who gave the bullpen a crucial boost in the person of Chan Ho Park. Manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee, who got great work from J.A. Happ and small but important contributions from the likes of Antonio BastardoRodrigo LopezTyler Walker and Kyle Kendrick over the course of the year, deserve kudos as well. 

It's unclear what, if anything, this means for the future. Certainly there's every reason to hope Hamels will return to form, and Lidge and Romero seem decent bets to rebound from their miserable 2009 campaigns even if neither recaptures the heights of '08. Myers is a free agent who might or might not be back; Moyer will turn 47 this month and will be attempting to rebound from a fairly severe injury. But if you'd tried to sell the story eight months ago that the 2009 Phils would see five of their top six pitchers from the championship run essentially melt down, yet still win the pennant and take the World Series to six games,  you likely would have had few believers.