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Best in Baseball: Clinch Already
Posted By Christopher Rowe On Sep 17 2011 @ 11:28 am In Philadelphia Phillies | No Comments
At a record of 97-52, the Philadelphia Phillies stand on the doorstep of not only franchise history but baseball history. They went 11 innings last night with St. Louis only to fall short of celebrating their fifth straight NL East divisional title. When the clinch happens, it will be not only the fifth straight divisional title but the 11th in franchise history. This will place them in league with the most successful division winners of baseball history including the New York Yankees (8 straight from 1998-2006 and 15 overall) Oakland A’s (first AL team to win 5 straight 1971-1975) and Atlanta Braves (16 overall including 14 straight from 1991-2005). Should the Phillies clinch this weekend against St. Louis they would move past the storied Cardinals franchise – which boasts 10 divisional titles of their own.
Such divisional delineation has only existed in the LCS Era (since 1969) and the latter day Wildcard Era (since 1994). Baseball’s 1960s expansion boom caused the 16 team league to grow to 24 by decade’s end. In 1969, the 24 teams were divided into four six-team divisions while “playoff round” of the postseason was created.
This marked the first time since 1903 that the best regular season in each league did not guarantee a World Series opportunity. The League Championship Series would be a best-of-five games affair pitting the winners of the East and West division. That format remained unchanged until 1985 when the LCS was expanded to a best-of-seven series.
Further expansion in 1977 and 1993 (and then again in 1998) provided impetus for MLB to take hold of their lugubrious divisions and dispel the myth that baseball had no sense of geography. For years Atlanta had suffered in the NL Western Division along with Cincinnati while St. Louis and Chicago toiled in the NL East. The American League sported Milwaukee in the East while Kansas City found themselves champions of the AL West more than once.
The 28-team collection of teams (soon to be expanded to 30 by 1998) decided to break down into three-division formats per league, generally with 5 teams in each division. Not only would this promote more competition but it would create and additional wrinkle in the postseason format. Three division winners per league wouldn’t work so MLB instituted a wildcard team, qualifying the best record in either league from non-division winners to qualify for the League Divisional Series round of playoffs.
This “wilcard” institution resulted in eight teams qualifying for the postseason as well as the migration of the Milwaukee Brewers into the National League. The 30 MLB teams were now geographically organized and roughly equitable having 16 NL teams compared to 14 AL. Baseball existed for 100 years before divisional play and held 105 World Series pitting the best team in either league for the championship but baseball is both a sport and a business.
There have been stirrings that further expansion and reorganization could result in an additional wildcard team qualifying or other changes in the postseason format (adding a wildcard-only round to the expanded postseason) but for now this is the status quo – proving that postseason possibilities put fans in seats.
For Philadelphia, this recent run has evolved from a ragtag collection of castoffs grabbing a divisional pennant on the last day of the season into a five year renaissance of a sterling franchise. The organization that became the first professional sports franchise to lose 10,000 games and which took 97 years to finally claim their first World Championship was finally taking their place among the MLB elite. Look at the names of the other double-digit division winners… St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees… all have held their reign over the sports of baseball.
The Yankees and Cardinals have been the benchmark for MLB success over most of the 20th century, but their success has lasted into the 21st along with late entry Atlanta. Prior to 1991, the Atlanta Braves (as well as Milwaukee and Boston versions of the long-standing franchise) had been perennial also-rans, harkening back to their “glory days” of the 1950s and 1960s or the legend of “Hammerin’ Hank Aaron.”
Since 2007, armed with a core of young talent, a brand new “classic” state of the art ballpark and a loyal fanbase, the Phillies would grown their legend, their attendance numbers and their payroll as they ascended to the top of the National League. 2007’s NL East title resulted in an early exit with a sweep by upstart Colorado. 2008 would return the Phillies to the postseason armed with improved pitching (namely adding Brad Lidge, Joe Blanton, JC Romero and Scott Eyre to fall in behind Hamels, Myers, Moyer and Madson) and hitting (Jayson Werth, Geoff Jenkins, Matt Stairs) to claim the franchise’s second title as “world champions of baseball.” Rosters shifted as Burrell, Myers and Rowand fell by the wayside replaced by Ibanez, Lee, Halladay and Polanco. That 2008 championship effort would be succeeded in 2009 by a return trip to the World Series (lost to the Yankees) and a 2010 NLCS exit at the hands of the San Francisco Giants.
This 2011 team actually has a lot to prove. They would like to post a 100-win season and stake a claim on the best record in baseball. They would like to offer back-to-back Cy Young seasons along with a divisional crown. They have their sights set on the ultimate goal of winning a championship but will celebrate divisional and league crowns along the way. Assuming they win their fifth straight NL East title and make their third World Series appearance in four seasons, can this crew take home another World Series trophy and take their place among baseball’s elite? How often does the best team in baseball win the championship? Far less often than one might think.
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