Thursday, October 6, 2011

Red October

For the Philadelphia Phillies and their fans, the postseason has been a way of life since 2007.

During that time, the Phillies have tallied five consecutive National League East Division titles, two World Series appearances and a championship season in 2008. It has been an incredible run of consistency, turning them into a model Major League Baseball franchise.

The Phillies have been synonymous with the postseason since 2007

With such a sustained run of success, there is always the risk of fan apathy. There is no longer the novelty that comes with a postseason appearance. After awhile, just getting there isn't enough -- and only championships are considered acceptable.

In Philadelphia, that doesn't appear to be the case. Entering the 2011 postseason, the Phillies have racked up 217 consecutive sellouts at Citizens Bank Park -- regular season and playoffs combined. There is no shortage of ticket fact, every season ticket package that is offered by the club is sold out.

Phillies' fans are not taking the playoffs for granted

Beyond the statistical evidence, it is apparent that the city's passion is still there as well.
Philadelphia has traditionally been a football town, and fall is usually represented by the number of Eagles' jerseys you can spot. But red has also become a preferred color among area residents in October, as the Phillies continue their quest for more championships.

The 2011 postseason journey started on Saturday, October 1st, as the Phillies hosted the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

October baseball is here

For the Phillies, the time is now in the eyes of experts and fans. After posting a franchise-record 102 regular season wins behind a star-studded pitching rotation, Philadelphia has been favored to win their 2nd World Series in the last four years.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, needed an incredible September comeback to even reach the playoffs. St. Louis finished the season with a 21-8 stretch run, passing the fading Atlanta Braves on the final day of the regular season to win the NL Wild Card.

The Cardinals used a September surge to reach the postseason

The excitement for this series was evident from the moment I arrived in South Philadelphia. Although the game's scheduled first pitch was roughly three hours away, red-clad Phillies fans had already started flocking to the Postseason Block Party that was happening just outside the ballpark.

The Postseason Block Party was a popular attraction for fans

It was a carnival-like atmosphere. As a band dressed in Phillies' jerseys played on a stage, fans mingled around the area. Some purchased playoff merchandise from a tent that was constructed outside the Third Base Gate, while others bought food and drinks from nearby concession stands on the warm October day.

The merchandise tent was stocked with playoff gear

How ready was Philadelphia for Game 1 of the NLDS? Some arrived in full uniform for the contest -- trying to feel as connected as they possibly could to their baseball team.

Put me in, Coach!

Outside the Left Field Gate, a folk band played various tunes as fans entered the ballpark. Almost all of the band members were dressed in vintage Phillies' jerseys from the 1950s...a reminder of baseball's timeless place in American society.

Some entertainment outside the entrance gate

Upon entering the ballpark, every fan was handed a rally towel to cheer on their "Fightin' Phils." Some proudly displayed the towels as they posed for pictures, while others immediately began to twirl them over their heads.

Over 45,000 rally towels were handed out prior to Game 1

Inside, there were more indications of October baseball. Red, white and blue bunting adorned the Citizens Bank Park seating area, while the scoreboards and message boards welcomed fans to the National League Division Series.

Signs of the postseason

On the field, the St. Louis Cardinals were taking batting practice, getting ready for a game that was still over an hour away. As star 1st baseman Albert Pujols stepped into the cage, almost all eyes fixated on him. Displaying a classic swing that has led to a .328 career batting average, the right-handed hitter sent a series of line drives and fly balls to the outfield...a few of which cleared the fence with ease. In the outfield seats, fans scrambled for the souvenirs that Pujols provided.

Albert Pujols launches a ball toward the seats during batting practice

As the 5:07 pm first pitch approached, I settled into my seat in Section 422. There, I watched as both teams lined up along their respective baselines for player and coach introductions. It's one of my favorite subtle aspects of the postseason. Just like Opening Day, everyone is introduced -- trainers, coaches, managers, reserve players, and finally the starting lineups.

The Cardinals and Phillies line up for pre-game introductions

With all of the pomp and circumstance out of the way, it was time for Game 1 of the NLDS.
On the mound for the Phillies was Roy Halladay, the 2010 NL Cy Young Award winner who had another sparkling season in 2011. With a record of 19-6 and a 2.35 ERA, Halladay reaffirmed his reputation as one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Roy Halladay, nicknamed "Doc" by many, has a legion of fans in Philly

The Cardinals, however, appeared unintimidated. The game's first batter, Rafael Furcal, stroked a single to right field. After an Allen Craig strikeout, Pujols walked. That brought outfielder Lance Berkman to the plate, and he crushed the first pitch he saw off the facing of the 2nd deck in right field for a 3-run homer.

As Berkman rounded the bases, Citizens Bank Park was in shock. The game was not even five minutes old, and the Phillies -- with their ace on the mound -- trailed 3-0. The fans couldn't even muster a loud "Booooo!" for Berkman...they were still struggling to awaken from the early nightmare that presented itself.

Lance Berkman is greeted by teammates after his 1st inning home run

Meanwhile, Kyle Lohse was mowing through the Phillies' vaunted lineup in the early innings. In his 4th season with St. Louis, Lohse posted a 14-8 record with a 3.39 ERA. In Game 1, however, Lohse was doing his best Halladay impression -- retiring the first ten batters he faced.

Kyle Lohse had no trouble with the Phillies in the early innings

Entering the bottom of the 4th inning, the Cardinals had maintained their 3-0 lead. The Citizens Bank Park crowd was quiet, with only a few scattered rally towels waving throughout the stadium.

Citizens Bank Park was packed, but silent as the Phillies trailed

With one out, 2nd baseman Chase Utley put the first dent in Lohse's armor, ripping a double off of the right field fence. Following a Hunter Pence strikeout, 1st baseman Ryan Howard walked. That brought veteran Shane Victorino up to the plate, as the fans' energy slowly started to escalate throughout the ballpark.

After quickly obtaining a 1-2 count, Victorino and the Phillies had a major break go their way. The center fielder lofted a fly ball into foul territory near the left field line. Third baseman David Freese gave chase, and with his back facing home plate, reached out and attempted to catch it over his shoulder. But instead of making the difficult play, the bounced off of his glove and fell to the ground in foul territory!

David Freese couldn't corral a foul pop-up by Shane Victorino, giving the Phillies a break

Bolstered by new life, Victorino then lined a single into left field that brought home Utley for the Phillies 1st run. Finally, the near-record crowd of 46,480 had something to cheer about, as many wondered if this was a sign of things to come.

Victorino shoots a single to left for the Phillies' 1st run

With St. Louis holding the 3-1 lead into the bottom of the 6th inning, the Phillies made their big move. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins started the rally with a single to right field. After an Utley strikeout, Pence ripped a single up the middle. That brought slugger Ryan Howard and his 33 regular season homers to the plate.

Howard was trying to exorcise demons from the 2010 postseason, in which he failed to hit a home run -- or even drive in any baserunners -- in nine games. On top of that, the St. Louis native made the final out of last year's NLCS against the San Francisco Giants -- frozen by a curveball for a called 3rd strike. For Howard, this was a chance at redemption.

Ryan Howard was batting in a big spot in the 6th inning

As fans continually chanted "Kyyyyyyy-llllllleeeee, Kyyyyyy-lllllleeeee" in an attempt to rattle the Cardinals' pitcher, Lohse and Howard embarked on a classic confrontation. It was an 8-pitch at-bat, with Howard spoiling some well-placed Lohse change-ups by meekly fouling them away. The count ran full, and every passing second seemingly raised the tension level inside the ballpark.

Lohse then made a mistake -- leaving a change-up in the middle of the plate. Howard jumped on it, launching a 3-run homer into the 2nd deck in right field.

Howard connects for a long 3-run homer to right

As soon as he made contact, the already-standing Phillies' fans screamed with delight. When the ball reached its landing point -- 423 feet away from home plate -- they went into a frenzy...clapping, hugging and twirling their rally towels as Howard completed his home run trot. Philadelphia now held a 4-3 lead, and the fans got to celebrate an epic October moment.

Citizens Bank Park goes crazy as the Phillies take the lead

Smelling blood in the water, the Phillies' hitters weren't done yet. With Lohse still in the game, Victorino followed Howard's big blast with a single to center field. Left fielder Raul Ibanez then blasted a 2-run homer into the seats in right field. Just like that, the Phillies led the Cardinals, 6-3...and the Citizens Bank Park crowd was delirious with joy.

Fireworks go off and the Liberty Bell "rings" after Raul Ibanez's home run

Meanwhile, Roy Halladay had shaken off the 1st inning hiccup and turned into a machine, retiring Cardinals' hitters left and right. Between the 2nd and 8th innings, the two-time Cy Young Award winner set down 21 consecutive batters. After each inning, Halladay stalked off the mound, head down, as the fans gave hearty applause.

Halladay became nearly unhittable after the 1st inning

The Phillies' hitters continued their offensive assault, scoring 3 runs in the bottom of the 7th and 2 more in the 8th against the St. Louis bullpen. With every run that crossed the plate, a Philadelphia fan's smile grew that much larger. A lead was not enough...they wanted to crush the Cardinals.

Ibanez adds to the Phillies' lead with a 7th inning single

Entering the 9th inning with an 11-3 lead, there was little doubt in the outcome for Phillies' fans. While a few headed for the exits early, the rest of the gigantic crowd stuck around, ready to celebrate the final out.

Philadelphia was having a Saturday night party

The Cardinals would prolong the suspense for a few minutes, scoring 3 runs against reliever Michael Stutes and forcing manager Charlie Manuel to bring in his closer, Ryan Madson. Fans impatiently groaned at the late rally.

When Madson struck out pinch-hitter Matt Holliday to end the game, fireworks exploded above Citizens Bank Park. Fans stood, clapped and high-fived to mark an 11-6 victory in Game 1 of the NLDS. On the scoreboard, video of the late Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Harry Kalas played as he sang "High Hopes." The Phillies were now 10 wins away from their ultimate goal -- a World Series title.

The Phillies still include Harry Kalas with every win

During the last few years, there has been a shift in the Philadelphia sports landscape. While October used to be dominated by Eagles' coverage and apparel, football now shares the stage with the Phillies and their postseason adventures.

Obviously, success will dictate how long this trend will last. One thing seems certain, however -- Phillies' fans will not get bored with winning. When your franchise has lost more games (10, be exact) than any professional sports team in history, the good times seem that much sweeter.

As long as the Phillies remain relevant, the "City of Brotherly Love" will be seeing red in October for years to come.

South Philly's "Field of Dreams" continues to shine in October

1 comment:

  1. tho i'm still (and always will be) a Mets fan, i went to more Phillies games this year I think than I have ever before haha.