PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Phillies find themselves in a new role this postseason.
The two-time defending NL champions are no strangers to big games, having advanced this far in three straight years. The only difference between now and the last two trips to the league championship series is the Phillies are the favorites to win it all this time, thanks in large part to the three proven aces in their pitching rotation.
It’s World Series or bust in Philadelphia. Nothing less is acceptable in a city that’s become spoiled by its baseball team’s success.
Who would’ve thought the losingest franchise in pro sports would reach the point where it’s the one other teams hope to emulate?
The Phillies are trying to become the first NL club in 66 years to win three consecutive pennants, and they’re going for their second World Series title in three years.
Oddsmakers have made them an overwhelming favorite to beat the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS, and also give them an edge over the New York Yankees or Texas Rangers in the World Series.
“It’s a good challenge for you. Expectations should bring out the best in someone,” manager Charlie Manuel said on a rainy Thursday. “At the same time, I like players to have expectations of themselves. That’s even better. I like everything about our players and we think we can play and we think we can play in big, tough games. Last year when we got beat in the World Series, I said I want to go back and play the New York Yankees. That’s what I was talking about.”
For some, higher expectations increase pressure. But the Phillies are a loose, close-knit group that has plenty of experience playing important games in October. They expected to reach this point, even when they trailed Atlanta by seven games in the NL East in late July.
“When you get to talking favorites and what’s expected of you, that goes beyond the realm of what you can control,” left fielder Raul Ibanez said. “We don’t focus as a club on what’s expected of us. We focus on what’s expected of ourselves. We have high expectations of ourselves as a team, regardless of what’s being said outside the locker room.
“It’s a confident team, not an arrogant team. It’s a team that’s going to grind it out and fight. I think the only expectations that are important are the ones we place on ourselves. It’s a great environment to come work every day. We never feel like we’re out of a game. Nobody ever quits. You never hear a negative word or a snide comment. Never. It’s a bunch of guys that have tenacity, a passion for the game and really a passion for winning.”
Game 1 against San Francisco is Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park. It’ll be a marquee matchup featuring Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum going head-to-head on the mound.
The Giants are newcomers to the postseason. They clinched the NL West on the last day of the regular season to snap a six-year playoff drought, and eliminated the injury-depleted Braves in four one-run games to advance past the first round.
Now that they’re here, the Giants won’t be satisfied unless they win. They appreciate how good the Phillies are, but refuse to be intimidated.
“You don’t really fear any team,” right fielder Cody Ross said. “As a player you always feel like you’re better than teams and you have to have that sort of mentality that you can go in there and beat them two out of three during the season, but knowing in the back of your mind that they’re a really good team. They’ve had their struggles, though. They had a tough time scoring runs throughout the year at one point. It’s going to be a dog fight. Both teams have really good pitching staffs and both teams have guys who can really swing the bat. I think it’s going to be an amazing series.”
Giants left fielder Pat Burrell was a big part of Philadelphia’s championship team in 2008. He played for the Phillies when they got swept by Colorado a year earlier after ending a 13-year postseason drought. He sees the Giants being ahead of schedule because they not only made it in but they advanced.
“We decided we were better than that and we were going to take it to the next level,” Burrell said of the Phillies’ mentality after losing in ’07. “I think along the way you learn these types of things. That’s why this team is so special. A lot of the guys haven’t been to the postseason before, pivotal guys on our team. The way that the guys have performed under the pressure having not been there before is incredible. It makes for a pretty special group.”