PHILADELPHIA -- There was something familiar about the called third strike to end the Phillies' season.
It didn't have the same cartoon break as its predecessor -- the Bugs Bunny curveball Cardinals pitcher
Wilson's cutter broke down but not quite out of the strike zone to catch Howard looking, securing a 3-2 win and the Giants' first trip to the World Series since 2002. It simultaneously ended the Phillies' chance to return to the Fall Classic for a third straight year.
As the pitch crossed the plate, home-plate umpire
"I thought the pitch was down," Howard said. "[The umpire] kind of paused before he made the call. That's a tough way to end the season and end the game. To me, if you're going to call it, call it."
Here's another call: The Phillies are no lock to return to a fifth straight playoffs next season, no matter how good their team already looks on paper. While there's no reason to think the Phillies will carom off the same cliff as the Mets -- after Wainwright struck out Beltran, they endured historic late-season collapses in 2007 and '08 and even more embarrassing performances in '09 and '10 -- Philadelphia may be entering more of a critical juncture than it's expecting.
The core of stars will need to stay healthy to keep the Phillies' run going -- and a few more pieces will need to be added.
In Citizens Bank Park's home clubhouse after the game, the players took turns giving credit to the Giants for winning the series and explaining how difficult the season was at times, given how many injuries the team endured.
"The biggest thing is that we have the same team, pretty much, going into next year," said starter
It of course was no fluke that the Phillies finished the season 27-8 in their final 35 games. When they are at their best, they are the class of the National League. This year they even had the best record in the majors. But there are some warning signs that their window of opportunity is closing.
The star offensive players may not be able to duplicate their success from the past few seasons; the team needs a righthanded power bat; the bullpen needs to be redone; the rotation after the three aces could use some help; and then there's the bench.
This season the offense scored 772 runs, its fewest since 2002. In the series with the Giants, the Phillies went 8-for-45 with runners in scoring position, emblematic of some of its often sporadic offense during the year.
"It's definitely frustrating," Howard said. "We didn't play to our full potential, and we know that. I'm not going to say we overachieved. I'm saying we overcame."
Howard, who didn't have an RBI in the NLCS, was one of those injured players, going on the disabled list with an ankle injury. He still played 143 games and hit 31 home runs with 108 RBIs -- both totals the lowest of his five full big-league seasons by a considerable margin -- and saw a significant dip in his slugging percentage too. Those are obviously still very good statistics, but he'll turn 31 in November, will make $20 million next season and only in 2012 does he begin collecting on his five-year, $125-million mega contract, a deal that already feels like it will be disproportionately large.
Once center fielder
Perhaps more importantly is that the Phillies won't have a notable right-handed power bat if he leaves. Third baseman
Then there's the bullpen. While
Philosophically, general manager
And then Amaro still had to make a deadline deal, shipping some young players for Oswalt to shore up the rotation anyway. The
The bench may be the Phillies' most glaring weakness. In 10 pinch-hit appearances in the NLCS, Philadelphia's bench players went 0-for-9 with a walk. On Saturday night
Amaro needs to improve some of these complimentary pieces this offseason. The hard part is already out of the way, as the Phillies have assembled a great core of players, but he needs to make sure the stars have more support around them, perhaps even at some expense of the future. The Phillies learned the hard way what can happen when they have to play without their big guns.
The Braves already gave Philadelphia a strong run for the NL East this season, and as long as they respond well to new manager
For the first time in three years, the Phillies' offseason has already begun while baseball is still being played. And they've got some work to do.