Those Philadelphia Phillies fans who were around to experience it got to enjoy the greatest sustained run of winning in franchise history when the team captured five straight NL East crowns from 2007-11. During that period the Phillies won back-to-back National League pennants in 2008-09 and, of course, the 2008 World Series championship.
What some younger Phillies fans may not be aware of, however, is that the club was building towards that run for a half-dozen years before it actually began. The 2001-06 Phillies went a combined 511-460, finishing in second place in the division four times and third place twice.
The Phillies teased us with potential postseason appearances in nearly all of those half-dozen seasons before finally rallying in September to win the first of those five straight National League East Division titles in 2007.
Let’s remind you, or educate you, with a brief look back at the start of what was the greatest winning stretch in Philadelphia Phillies history, which actually occurred not only from 2007-11, but over 10 of 11 winning campaigns from 2001-11.
Heading into the new millennium the Phillies had suffered through a stretch of seven straight losing seasons. They also had been losers in 13 of 14 years, a period broken only by the 1993 worst-to-first National League pennant winners. Going back all the way to 1987, the team had finished no better than fourth place on nine occasions and five times they ended up at the very bottom of the division.
The last of those losing seasons had resulted in Terry Francona losing his job, replaced as Phillies manager by wildly popular former 1980 World Series player and 1993 NL champion coach Larry Bowa. The lineup was led by 26-year-old Gold Glove third baseman Scott Rolen, 27-year-old 30/30 right fielder Bobby Abreu and featured 24-year-old left fielder Pat Burrell and 22-year-old shortstop Jimmy Rollins, each in their first full big-league seasons. On the mound, closer Jose Mesa set a club record with 42 saves. The Phillies were in first place for most of the season’s first half, holding a 4 1/2 game lead at their highest point on June 21. After being overtaken by the Atlanta Braves, the Phillies moved back into first place with a victory on September 1. But by the time the season was halted for a week by the 9/11 attacks the Phillies had fallen 3 1/2 behind Atlanta. Coming out of that break the club enjoyed a rousing series against the Braves, sweeping them at a patriotic Veterans Stadium to pull within a half-game in the standings. On October 2 the Phillies took the opener of a series in Atlanta to pull back within one game. However, the host Braves iced the division by winning the next two. The Phillies won their final three games, but finished two behind the Braves in the NL East, seven in back of the NL Wildcard Saint Louis Cardinals.
This was the only losing season during that 2001-11 winning stretch, but just barely. The Phillies finished at 80-81, missing out on a shot to at least finish .500 when a postponed game was deemed unnecessary for standings purposes. The team got off with a poor first month, dropping to 9-19 on May 1. They would spend much of the next three months treading water. But then a winning stretch of 17 in 21 games moved them above .500 at 69-66 by September 1. Even that streak left them still 17 behind the Braves in the division and a distant nine behind the Dodgers for the NL Wildcard. Unfortunately, the losing season was then clinched when they lost nine of 10 games to start that final month. A four-game win streak got them briefly back above .500 at 79-78 on September 24, but the Phillies lost three of their final four to end on a losing note. The final nail came when the Florida Marlins walked off with a victory in 10 innings on the last Sunday of the season. Mesa saved 45 games to break his own club record, and the pitching rotation was led by solid seasons from lefty Randy Wolf and righty Vicente Padilla. Fan groups known as the “Wolf Pack” and the “Padilla Flotilla” sprouted up at each of their home starts. But the rest of the pitching staff pretty much bombed. Rolen made the NL All-Star team for the first time while winning his first Silver Slugger and fourth Gold Glove, but this was also the year that turned him off to many Phillies fans as his public unhappiness with the front office forced a trade. Wade shipped him to Saint Louis two weeks after that All-Star Game in a five-player deal that brought Placido Polanco to Philly. A major bright spot was what would be Burrell’s best all-around season. He slashed .282/.376/.544 with 37 homers, 39 doubles, 116 RBIs, and 96 runs scored at age 25.
Knowing that this would be the final year after 33 seasons at Veterans Stadium, the Phillies wanted to go out with a bang. They also hoped to lay the groundwork for a big first year in their under-construction baseball-only park. GM Ed Wade pulled off a series of deals that added proven veterans to what was an improving homegrown core of Rollins and future Wall of Famers Burrell, Abreu, and Mike Lieberthal. On December 2, 2002 he signed third baseman David Bell, which would allow Polanco to move over to second base. Four days later, Wade pulled off the major free agent signing of slugging first baseman Jim Thome. Before the month ended he traded with the Braves, bringing in right-handed starting pitcher Kevin Millwood to front the rotation. They also turned the center field position over to 25-year-old Marlon Byrd, who had come up through the farm system and would replace Doug Glanville, who left via free agency. 22-year-old righty Brett Myers would enjoy his first full season in the starting rotation. It all worked as the Phillies, led by Thome’s power, never spent a single day below the .500 mark. A stretch in which they won four of five games left them a season-high 16 games over that .500 mark at 85-69 on September 19. Though they were well behind the rampaging Braves, who were on their way to a ninth of what would become 11 straight NL East titles, the Phillies led the NL Wildcard race by two full games. But then came a devastating, frustrating collapse. The Phillies lost six straight and seven of their last eight games. Meanwhile, the Florida Marlins won six of their final seven. That included a pivotal three-game showdown sweep between the two teams at Pro Player Stadium as they stormed past the Phillies. The Fish would win the NL Wildcard and carry that late-season hot stretch into the postseason, where they stunned the New York Yankees to capture their second World Series crown in six years. The Phillies finished 86-76, but a disappointing five games off the Wildcard pace. Thome blasted 47 homers and drove in 131 runs, becoming a huge fan favorite. Millwood tossed the final no-hitter in the history of The Vet. A 24-year-old by the name of Chase Utley made his Phillies debut, beginning his career with a grand slam for his first big-league hit. To cap it off, the franchise said goodbye to the stadium with an appearance by many of their great players from the previous three decades taking one final lap around the bases. The ballpark would be slowly dismantled and finally imploded on March 21, 2004.
The Phillies entered the 2004 season in the beautiful new Citizens Bank Park as a legitimate playoff contender. They would end it with 86 wins for the third time in four years. Bowa began the year as the club’s popular skipper. He would end it on the unemployment line, a victim of another September collapse and the team’s continued inability to get over the hump to reach the postseason. Wade continued trying to push the talent forward, dealing three pitching prospects to Houston in November 2003 for fireballing closer Billy Wagner and then three more to Minnesota in December for lefty starter Eric Milton. To bolster the bench he brought back Glanville as a free agent signee just prior to spring training. For a second straight season the Phillies would not spend a single day below the .500 mark. A five-game win streak to end a homestand on August 17 pushed them out to a season-best 15 games over the .500 mark. That still left the club 11 games behind the Braves, but a half-game ahead of the Marlins for the lone NL Wildcard berth. On September 19 they won for a fourth time in five games to once again push a half-game past the Fish for that Wildcard spot. But just as the previous year the Phillies would collapse over the final 10 days. The club lost six in a row, seven of their final eight games, exactly as they had in 2003. After the last of those six straight losses, a 6-0 shutout defeat at Citizens Bank Park, and having been eliminated from the playoffs the prior day, Wade fired Bowa, replacing him on an interim basis with coach Gary Varsho. The club ended their first season in the new ballpark by crushing the Marlins 10-4 to give Varsho his lone big-league managerial victory. During that disappointing September a 24-year-old first baseman named Ryan Howard would make his debut, appearing in 19 games and launching his first two career home runs.
Phillies fans were skeptical of the new manager, 61-year-old Charlie Manuel, who had built his reputation as a hitting guru while mentoring Thome and the 1990’s-era Cleveland Indians powerhouse teams. Viewed by many on the local radio talk show circuit as a country bumpkin, the talkers and many fans had wanted Jim Leyland for the job. He would end up getting hired instead by the Detroit Tigers for 2006 and lead them to AL pennants twice through 2013. Manuel would ultimately win over the Phillies fans and those radio talkers, and then some. In that first 2005 campaign, however, the finish would be even more excruciating than those last few years. Thome would get off to an extremely poor start in April and then spend a month on the DL with a bad back. He returned in late May but was clearly not the same hitter. His season would end for good on June 30. Into the breach stepped Howard, who fashioned an NL Rookie of the Year campaign by drilling 22 homers in just 88 games. Utley took over the second base job and slashed .291/.376/.540 with 28 homers, 39 doubles, and 105 RBIs. Rollins hit .290, scored 115 runs, stole 41 bases, and was an NL All-Star for a third time. That Howard-Utley-Rollins combo in 2005 gave a first look to Phillies fans at what would end up as a decade straight together on the club’s infield. Having signed as a Rule 5 selection from the Dodgers back in December 2004, a speedy 24-year-old outfielder named Shane Victorino would make his debut that September. Wagner enjoyed a phenomenal season once again, registering a 1.51 ERA with 38 saves while striking out 87 opposing batters over 77.1 innings. This was the last year of the Atlanta Braves run of divisional dominance in the NL East as they would hold off the Phillies by a slim two-game margin. Heading into the last week of the season the Phillies trailed the Braves by five, but were just a game behind the Houston Astros for the NL Wildcard berth. The Phillies opened that final week by dropping the first two games, which clinched that 11th straight division crown for Atlanta and dropped them 2 1/2 back of Houston. A final rush in which the Phillies won their last four games wouldn’t be enough. The Phillies were one behind the Astros with two left to play. But Houston won a pair of tight games on that last weekend with their closer Brad Lidge earning clutch saves in both to clinch the Wildcard. Manuel’s first team won 88 games, the most by any Phillies team in a dozen years. But they still missed the postseason, finishing two games behind Atlanta in the division and one back of Houston for the Wildcard.
The failure to once again make the postseason would this time cost Wade his job He was replaced as the Phillies GM by Pat Gillick in November 2005. Three weeks into his tenure, Gillick turned the page on the Thome era by dealing the slugger to the defending World Series champion Chicago White Sox in a trade that brought back 28-year-old center fielder Aaron Rowand. In early December, Gillick signed free agent Tom Gordon to take over the closer role after Wagner had left for the division rival New York Mets via that same route. The Phillies dropped six of their first seven games and were still five below the .500 mark on April 30 when they finally began to roll. A nine-game win streak stretched out to 13 of 14, pulling them into second place and within a game of the Mets in the standings. After June 1 the Phillies would spend all but 12 days in second place in the NL East Division standings. However, the Mets were enjoying a dominating season. Wagner saved 40 games for a team that included future Hall of Fame veterans Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine in the rotation. An explosive offense featured Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, David Wright, and Jose Reyes. The Mets would win the division by a dozen games over the Phillies that year, but the Wildcard again came down to the final week. This time the Phillies trailed the Los Angeles Dodgers by just a 1/2 game as that final stretch began. Once again a slow finish doomed the Phillies, who went just 3-4 while the Dodgers were winning their last six in a row. In the end it was an 85-win season, the club’s fifth winner in six years. But they finished three behind LA for the Wildcard, once again missing out on the playoffs. It would be the last time they would fall short for another half-dozen years. Gillick would turn a page somewhat on that recent era. He dealt away Abreu along with starting pitcher Cory Lidle to the Yankees at the trade deadline in July 2006 and let Lieberthal walk away as a free agent after the season. When the Phillies lost starting pitcher Wolf to injury he called up 22-year-old southpaw Cole Hamels for his big-league debut. In mid-August, Gillick flipped a couple of low-level minor leaguers to Seattle for 43-year-old lefty pitcher Jamie Moyer. Howard slammed 58 home runs to set a new Phillies franchise record. He also slashed .313/425/.659 with 149 RBIs to capture the National League Most Valuable Player award. Utley led the league with 131 runs scored while drilling 32 homers and driving in 102 runs. The second baseman slashed .309/.379/.527 and was voted to his first of five straight NL All-Star spots. Utley finished seventh in that NL MVP voting and, as Howard, took home a Silver Slugger. Rollins was right on Utley’s heels with 127 runs scored while swiping 36 bags. After the Abreu trade, Victorino took over in right field. Appearing in 27 games, 27-year-old catcher Carlos Ruiz was given his first big-league opportunity. The Phillies had indeed been winning for years. But now the stage was set for another step up to even more winning, including the capturing of the sport’s ultimate prize.