A Study In Defeat

Playoff elimination: it's the day of reckoning every player and fan dreads, regardless of the sport. Some fans of terrible teams lament that they would love to have a team performing well enough to get eliminated in the playoffs. Tell this to Chicago fans in 2003, who just had an ESPN documentary done about the dark side of their loyalty to the Cubs.

We have had compelling LCS games to enjoy thus far. Nelson Cruz showed off and hit a walk-off Grand Slam when all his team needed to win was a sacrifice fly. Albert Pujols got 4 extra base hits in Game 2 with a home run and Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun went on an all-out power-hitting tear for two games for Milwaukee in a 1-1 deadlocked series. Plus, who knows which Brewers' turn it is to insult Chris Carpenter?

But what about the playoff casualties this year? Those left in the wake of these teams include the Yankees, Phillies, Rays, and Diamondbacks. None of them could have been happy to see their season end, but these teams can be split very clearly into two camps. The Yankees and Phillies — two teams of complete robust statistical machines of power and precision that inexcusably came up short — and the Rays and Diamondbacks, two teams that were not expected to get anywhere near the postseason, overachieved, and will be remembered far more for their victories than their final defeat.

The similarities between the post-mortem in New York and Philadelphia are eerie. The two East Coast major media markets have reputations of being tough to please and unforgiving with both fans and media. Both teams were favorites to advance to the World Series, had home field advantage throughout, and had a nationally well-known cast of stars and big names returning from years past. Both teams had won a single World Series in the past few years, the Yankees in 2009, the Phillies in 2008, and yet both had teams talented enough to win multiple titles.

As the Yankees and Phillies comfortably won their playoff openers, they would both drop the second game at home, tying the series at 1.

After the middle games were split in both series, Game 5 for each team was a surprising yet all-too-familiar story of the home team's big bats not coming up with any clutch hits in numerous big situations. For the Yankees, Ivan Nova was lit-up in the first inning for back-to-back home runs by Don Kelly and Delmon Young. While the story seemed to be manager Girardi playing matchup from the third inning on with his pitchers, he managed to limit the damage, only allowing 1 more run the rest of the way. The Yankee hitters failures then took center stage in the next day's sports pages.

In the fourth inning, Jorge Posada singled with runners on first and second. Alex Rodriguez was held up at third with 1 out. He would remain stranded there by starter Doug Fister as Martin and then Gardner failed to get runs in with the bases loaded. In the seventh, the Yanks loaded the bases with 1 out again, down by 2. An RBI walk from Teixeira was all they could muster. Jeter's winning home run bid in the eighth only had warning track power and the heart of the order went down meekly in the ninth to closer Jose Valverde. Ultimately ,the pinstripes were done in by a lack of big hits by the big hitters in their lineup.

Game 5 for the Phillies also saw a first inning deficit as Roy Halladay gave up a leadoff triple to Rafael Furcal and then an RBI double to Skip Schumacher for what would be the game's only run. Halladay's efforts to keep the game scoreless for the next 7 innings were downright heroic, but in vein. This also due to a robust lineup's inability to score even a single run against Chris Carpenter, who pitched the full 9 shutout innings to silence the Phillies' bats and their crowd.

Even the two teams' long-established hitting stars, Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Howard, both developing a reputation for disappearing in postseason, went 2-for-18 and 2-for-19, respectively.

Due to the heavy expectations on these teams, both seasons have to be considered a failure and a disappointment for all they were unable to accomplish in the postseason, fair or not. Many were left to wonder how mostly the same group of players managed to come through in so many of these big spots in their championship years of 2008 and 2009, respectively, when they seemed so inept now.

The other half of this story is one of the two most recent expansion teams. Tampa Bay and Arizona both entered the league in 1998. The anti-New York and Philly markets, both teams play in very low-pressure (for Tampa Bay fans, I'm being kind here) environments from the fans and media. The D-Backs took to winning quickly by 2001 and while the Rays were a joke for a full decade, their 2008 team became an incredible worst-to-first story by knocking off the Red Sox and getting to the World Series. After their 2010 team lost several big names, they were not expected to contend in '11, and for the most part, they didn't … until they got blazing- hot at the very end of the season.

The 2011 Tampa Bay Rays story will be retold just as much, if not more, than the story of their 2008 team. While the antsy Red Sox frittered away a 9-game lead over a span of weeks, the Rays showcased superior pitching and manager Joe Maddon had them ready to play day after day.

It wasn't enough for the Rays to sweep the Yankees on the final weekend of the season, they had to win the finale in perhaps the most dramatic way possible. Overcoming a 7-run deficit, a 2-out Dan Johnson home run tied it in the ninth and a 12th inning Evan Longoria home run just over the kiddie-size fence down the left field line clinched the Rays the wild card a mere three minutes after Jonathan Papelbon had blown his final save opportunity of the year in Baltimore. While many fans clamored for a one-game playoff, the drama of this final day of the regular season was greater than any one-game playoff could have provided, and the Rays proved to be Cinderella men once again.

As a result, their first round division series loss to the Texas Rangers becomes merely a footnote in all of this, overlooked by what they had overcome. Years from now, some fans may remember that Adrian Beltre hit 3 home runs in the clinching Game 4 of the series for the Rangers. Other than that, there was little memorable about the series and fans will always remember their 2011 Rays team fondly.

The Arizona Diamondbacks were also not given a chance to compete in 2011. Picked to finish dead-last in the division by all the experts, manager Kirk Gibson led a team that was 19th in baseball in batting average. No one in their lineup even came close to hitting .300 or driving in 100 runs (Justin Upton came the closest, with a .289 and 88, respectively). Instead, they relied on a Cy Young season from a pitcher that no one had previously thought worth a damn. Ian Kennedy was a former Yankee castoff just last season; this season, he is the NL Cy Young favorite.

While there was no dramatic finish to their regular season the way there was for the Rays, the fact remains that Arizona came from nowhere (they had not made the postseason since 2007, which featured a largely different cast) and dominated a division they were expected to finish last in, which includes the defending world champion San Francisco Giants.

The first round draw for the Diamondbacks was against the high-octane offense of the Milwaukee Brewers. Unlike the Yankees and Phillies, the Brewers offensive studs have hit the ball a ton this postseason. As expected the Brewers won both their first two games at home and seemed to have complete control of the series.

D-Backs manager Gibson was famous for his never-say-die attitude as a player. This year, his team showed this same resiliency as they thoroughly dominated the Brewers in Games 3 and 4 in Arizona. Amazingly, the offensively challenged club belted a grand slam in each game to put things out of reach. They won the two games by a combined score of 18-7. Again, the little team from the desert got to prove wrong all the critics who gave them no shot.

Game 5 turned out to be a tight pitcher's duel between aces Yovani Gallardo and Kennedy. While the Brewers took a 2-1 lead in the sixth, Arizona batted in the top of the ninth down to their last 3 outs. Again, they came back with a late rally. A Gerardo Parra double, Sean Burroughs single, and a Willie Bloomquist bunt single tied the game at 2 to ultimately force extra innings. The game finally ended in the 10th on a Nyjer Morgan RBI single, giving the Brewers the decisive win.

While the loss was heartbreaking for the Diamondbacks, even the cynics had to take note that the team battled back even in their final defeat against a heavily favored opponent, battled back from a 2-0 series deficit and in the ninth inning of Game 5; to cap a brilliantly overachieving season.

As the offseason has just begun for the four teams bounced out in the ALDS, two of these teams can enjoy the postseason with some sort of piece of mind and satisfaction in what they accomplished. In Philly and New York however, no matter how cold the coming months get, the fans, writers, and media will keep them in the hot seat all winter long.

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