It couldn't happen again. Could it? In a word, I sure hope not.
In 1964, the Philadelphia Phillies held a 6.5 game lead on the Cincinnatti Reds with only 12 games remaining in the regular season. The city was pumped. There was no NLDS or NLCS in those days, so with the Phils a shoo-in for the Fall Classic, World Series tickets were printed.
On September 21st, with the Phils and Reds locked in a scoreless game, Reds infielder Chico Ruiz unbelievably stole home with Frank Robinson at the plate, giving the Reds a 1-0 win and precipitating an epic 10-game losing streak for the Phils, turning that 6.5 game lead into a 2.5 game deficit from which they never recovered. Phils manager Gene Mauch (rightly) drew the brunt of the criticism for the collapse, deciding to ride his two best pitchers, Jim Bunning and Chris Short, down the stretch. I'm all for riding your best horses, but Mauch started Bunning and Short seven times in the last 10 games, with all but one of those starts coming on only TWO days of rest. Unwilling to sacrifice one game to give his team a boon the next day, the ineffective Bunning and Short gamely took the ball, but were unable to stem the tide and get the Phillies righted. After leading the NL by 6.5 games on September 20th, the Phils actually finished the season in third place.
It's hard to describe the impact of that collapse on the psyche of a city if you haven't lived here. To this day grown men- big, strong, tough men- still get visibly affected at the mention of Chico Ruiz or the 'Phold of '64.' Even last year's phenomenal run to the World Series title has not erased the memory of '64 for men of a certain age in the Delaware Valley.
Because of the anguish caused by the collapse, anytime a Phillies team sputters a little bit down the stretch the ghost of 1964 is invoked. It happened in 1993 when Macho Row showed some signs of wear. And it's happening again right now. Like, RIGHT NOW, as I'm typing this post.
The 2009 Phillies are not the 1964 Phillies. Not even close. Perhaps not in its present state, but this current era of the Phils is the best in club history. Period. Stop talking about 1980, and 1977 and whenever else. The late 00s Phillies are the best in team history.
And the best era in team history does not pull off a gag reminiscient of 1964.
The September 29th, 2009 edition of the Phillies has issues, no doubt. A leaky bullpen is chief among them. But all four infielders and all three outfielders look worn out. How else do you explain a two-hit performance by the NL's best offense against a pitcher with a season ERA over 8.00? Look at the at-bat totals. All seven regulars will have over 550 plate appearances after tonight. The bench has produced little all year, necessitating that the regulars keep playing.
But this team has more heart than any in baseball, and worn out or not, leaky bullpen or not, this team will not allow itself to go down in a heap like it's 1964.
So the lead over Atlanta has shrunk from eight to four since September 20th. The Braves are hot and are playing the 'packed it in' Marlins and the historically bad Nationals the rest of the way, while the Phils play an Astro team they can't seem to beat and those same Marlins. The populace may be getting antsy, maybe nervous in some corners, but there are no flukes over a 162-game season, and the Phillies will prevail as NL East champs for the third consecutive year. Because, for the third consecutive year, the Phillies are the best team in the NL East.
And I will make a prediction about when, too. I predict the Phillies will clinch the division Wednesday night with a win over the Astros. The game would mark the two year anniversary of coming all the way back from seven down with 17 to play and overtaking the Mets on the last day of the regular season. It would also mark the second time in three years the Phillies clinched a division on my birthday.
Call it a hunch, blind faith, or whatever you will. But this Phillies team will not let history repeat itself.