One of the most miserable baseball fan experiences is when your team turns out to be something other—something less—than you thought it was. For four months and more, you see them as ahead of schedule, mentally tough, on the rise… and then suddenly they’re hapless, star-crossed, and coming up small in big moments.
The stretch of increasingly, ridiculously brutal losses over the last few weeks suggests this could be happening to the 2018 Phillies. Almost exactly 19 years earlier, it absolutely happened to the 1999 Phillies.
On Friday, Aug. 6 of that year, the Phillies beat Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks, 4-2, in 11 innings, on a walk-off home run by recently acquired infielder Domingo Cedeno. They’d trailed 2-0 most of the game, and tied it in the 8th on a two-run homer by Ron Gant off the Big Unit before Cedeno won it in extras. It was arguably their best win of the season, and it lifted them to 61-48, a 90-win pace.
The Cedeno walk-off put an exclamation mark on what had been two years of almost uninterrupted progress for the Phillies’ rebuild. Through 102 games in 1997, the first year after the organization stopped chasing the ghosts of the 1993 pennant-winner, the Phillies were 30-72. But a young team led by rookie manager Terry Francona, eventual Rookie of the Year Scott Rolen, and ace Curt Schilling went 38-22 down the stretch, stayed in the race through the bulk of the ’98 campaign before a late fade, and suddenly looked poised for long-term success.
In addition to Rolen, age 24, the ‘99 lineup featured homegrown all-star catcher Mike Lieberthal (27) and two standout outfielders acquired in trades for vets: Doug Glanville and Bobby Abreu. Schilling anchored the rotation, alongside veteran addition Paul Byrd; both joined Lieberthal on the ‘99 all-star team. Rookie lefty Randy Wolf, age 22, won his first five big-league decisions after his June call-up. Robert Person gave the Phils a fourth solid starter. Another wave of talent, led by slugger Pat Burrell and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, was maturing in the high minors.
The Aug. 6 win gave the Phils a four-game streak, and 15 of their last 22. They had remained above .500 for more than three months, since May 5, and had put up winning records in each of May, June and July. They weren’t in a playoff spot, but sat in striking distance in both the NL East and wild card.
And then the bottom fell out.
The night after the Cedeno walk-off, Schilling gave up three in the top of the first inning, and they lost 8-2; he was injured in the game, and made just two more starts on the season. In the series finale, the Phils jumped out to a 2-0 lead but fifth starter Chad Ogea couldn’t hold it, and they lost 7-4. The Phils then dropped two of three at home to the Cardinals, a .500 team that season, including one where Wolf was staked to a 1-0 lead he couldn’t protect. Opening a three-game set in Cincinnati on Friday, Aug. 13, the Phils squandered leads of 2-0 and 4-3 to lose in walk-off fashion before splitting the remaining two games.
At this point, since the Cedeno walk-off win, they had lost 8 of 11, including four come-from-ahead defeats. Their next series, against the Dodgers, started with the worst loss yet: ahead 4-1 in the 9th, Person came one strike from a complete game win when he hit Devon White with a pitch, then surrendered a two-run homer to Raul Mondesi to tie the game at 4. In the bottom of the ninth, Glanville walked with one out, stole second, and made it to third on a throwing error, but Gant and Rolen couldn’t get him home. Then Wayne Gomes, Amaury Telemaco and Scott Aldred allowed four runs in the top of the 10th, and the Phillies fell 8-5.
The next night, it was the Phillies who came back—winning 6-5 in 11 after trailing 5-2 in the 8th. The next two games were close losses… and then, because it’s baseball, the Phils won two straight over the Padres by a combined score of 33-3 (18-2, then 15-1).
At this point, after games of Aug. 25, they were 67-59, and pretty much out of playoff contention: trailing the division-leading Braves by 11.5, and the suddenly on-fire Mets by 10 for the wild card. But with 36 games left to play, it still looked like a successful season.
But then the Phillies lost 18 of their next 19 games. A 10-2 win over the Reds in Schilling’s return on Sept. 3 was the sole victory between an 0-7 road trip in Colorado and San Francisco, and 11 straight losses to close out a homestand against Cincinnati and Houston, another three game road sweep in Arizona, then two more in Houston by a combined score of 25-4. They went 9-8 the rest of the way to finish 77-85.
In my hazy memory of the 1999 Phillies, the reason for the collapse was that Schilling missed almost all the last third of the season and Scott Rolen, whose knees wore down playing on turf for much of the year, saw his season end after Aug. 25 (the 15-1 win over the Padres right before the 1-18 stretch). But if you’re a believer in narrative, you can make a case that the 3-7 stretch between Aug. 8 and Aug. 20, when the Phillies led in five of those games, really did them in.
When the season ended, GM Ed Wade assessed his roster and decided it was ready to jump into contention. Wade swung a deal for a third all-star starter, Andy Ashby, signed free-agent closer Jeff Brantley, and brought back 1993 stalwart Mickey Morandini as a veteran presence in the infield. The trio combined for -2.2 bWAR. Schilling missed the first month, complained about his contract, and ultimately talked his way out of Philadelphia through a July trade. Byrd went 2-9 with a 6.51 ERA. Rolen, Abreu and Lieberthal were all good-to-great, and Burrell performed well in his rookie campaign. But the Phillies lost 97 games, and Francona lost his job.
Even if the 2018 Phillies follow their ’99 predecessors with a late collapse, this subsequent part of the story seems unlikely to repeat. Whatever grounds Wade made his decisions on, Matt Klentak probably will take a different approach—and he’ll have considerably more resources at his disposal than Wade did.
None of which represents particular comfort at the ass end of August 2018, as the team has just absorbed its fourth brutal loss in eight games.