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The Narrative Of The 2008 MLB Season

It had been 28 years since the great sports fans of Philadelphia had tasted a World Series title. The 2008 baseball season was marked by a late surge that had the Phillies involved in a wild multi-divisional race for playoff spots and they weren’t the favorites when they ultimately did reach October. But when all was said and done, Philadelphia was back on top again.

The Phils were led by their bats, and the offense was built around the muscle of first baseman Ryan Howard. The big slugger hit 48 homers, drove in 146 runs and finished second in the NL MVP voting. And he had plenty of help. Chase Utley was the best second baseman in the National League, batting .292, hitting 33 home runs and posting 104 RBIs. Pat Burrell hit 33 bombs. Jayson Werth added 24 more. The Phils had table-setters in Jimmy Rollins, who stole 47 bases and Shane Victorino who swiped 36. Up and down the lineup, Philly was potent.

Philadelphia had contended in 2005 and 2006, then won the NL East in 2007, but were ultimately held back by pitching problems. 2008 would be different. They had a young ace in Cole Hamels, who won 14 games with a 3.09 ERA. They had an old warhorse in Jamie Moyer, who won 16 games at the age of 45. And they had a great closer in Brad Lidge, who saved 41 games with a buck-95 ERA. The Phillies’ staff ERA was fourth in the National League.

The New York Mets were the key NL East rival and New York had a good lineup themselves. Carlos Beltran had a terrific all-around year—a .284 batting average, 27 home runs, 112 RBIs, 116 runs scored and 25 steals. The Mets had power on the corners with first baseman Carlos Delgado and third baseman David Wright, who each posted 30+ homers and 100+ ribbies. Jose Reyes hit .297 and stole 56 bags. And the pitching staff was anchored by Johan Santana, whose 16 wins and 2.53 ERA got him a third-place finish in the NL Cy Young voting.

A slow start in New York got manager Willie Randolph fired after 69 games and it was the Florida Marlins who spurted to the early lead. By the All-Star break, the Phillies, Mets, and Marlins were all in a tight race. By Labor Day, Florida had faded, with New York and Philadelphia neck-and-neck.

No one could get separation in this sizzling race, and when the last weekend of the season arrived, the Phils clung to a one-game lead. Moreover, there was only one wild-card spot available prior to 2012. That meant the NL East race was also tied up with the doings in the NL Central.

The Cubs were the defending champs in the Central and Chicago was even better in 2008. The most prolific offense in the National League was well-balanced. Aramis Ramirez, Geovany Soto, Mark DeRosa, Alfonso Soriano, and Derrek Lee all hit 20-plus homers, and Ramirez drove in 111 runs. Ryan Theriot hit .307. Everyone took their walks. The third-best pitching in the NL was led by Ryan Dempster’s 17 wins and 2.96 ERA. Ted Lilly also won 17 and Carlos Zambrano tacked on 14 more. Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood made for a great tandem in finishing out games.

Chicago’s early challenge came from St. Louis, who got a vintage year from Albert Pujols. With a .357 batting average, 37 homers and 116 RBIs, Pujols won the last of what would be three MVP awards in his extraordinary career. But Albert didn’t have enough help. After running even with the Cubbies for the first couple months, St. Louis slipped 4 ½ back by the All-Star break, and faded even harder in the second half.

It was Milwaukee who stepped up. Ryan Braun was a rising star, and with 37 homers and 106 RBIs, he finished third in the MVP tally. Prince Fielder went deep 34 times and knocked in 102 runs. Ben Sheets was a solid starter, with a 3.09 ERA.

But after a slow start, it was apparent the Brewers needed more. They went all-in and acquired Cleveland ace C.C. Sabathia in June, well in advance of the trade deadline. The move paid massive dividends. Sabathia made 17 starts as a Brewer and went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA. The acquisition would go down as one of the best rental acquisitions ever made. By the All-Star break, Milwaukee was in the wild-card race, and five back of Chicago.

By early September, Milwaukee was hanging within 4 ½ of Chicago, and a comfortable five games ahead in the wild-card race. Then the Brewers started to stumble. The Cubs pulled away and put both the NL Central and the best record in the league overall to bed.

The Brewer meltdown was bad enough that manager Ned Yost was fired with twelve games to play. But Milwaukee was still in it. Going into that final weekend, the Brewers and Mets were tied for the wild-card spot and only one game behind the Phillies.

Thus, we had a 3-teams-for-2-spots game of musical chairs. On Friday night, the Mets lost, while both the Phils and Brewers won. Philadelphia had assured themselves of a tie for the NL East, while Milwaukee had nudged a game ahead for the wild-card. The Brewers gave that lead back on Saturday when they lost, while the Mets won. The Phillies squeezed out a 4-3 win over the Washington Nationals to clinch the East and the #2 seed in the National League.

Milwaukee was at home against Chicago. The Brewers sent Sabathia to the mound on Sunday and the big ace delivered for them one more time. New York lost to Miami. For the second year in a row, the Mets had been eliminated on the last day of the season. The Brew Crew was going to the playoffs for the first time since 1982.

The four-team National League bracket was filled out in the NL West, where the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks were jousting. The Dodgers were led by Joe Torre, who had been dismissed by the Yankees after an extraordinary 12-year-run in the Bronx. Los Angeles would lead the NL in staff ERA this season, thanks to a balanced rotation led by Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda. The Dodgers also got contributions from a 20-year-old rookie by the name of Clayton Kershaw.

What L.A. couldn’t do very well was hit. Andre Ethier was a nice young player, who exceeded both the .300 batting average and 20 HR benchmarks. But they needed more. And at the trade deadline, they got it. A big deal with the Boston Red Sox brought in Manny Ramirez. Manny had been disgruntled in the Hub but found new life in Hollywood. In just 53 games as a Dodger, Manny hit .396, with 17 home runs and 53 RBIs.

Arizona was a similar team to Los Angeles, in that they were built on pitching. The Diamondbacks had Cy Young runner-up Brandon Webb, who won 22 games. But the D-Backs couldn’t hit, and there was no midseason trade to rescue them.

For much of the season, Arizona held a small, but steady lead in the NL West race. But, fueled by Manny, L.A. reversed that in September and nudged out in front. Neither team was particularly good, but the Dodgers got to 84-78 and that was enough to clinch early in the final week and ultimately finish two games ahead.

The Red Sox were coming off their second World Series title in four years, and the Sox were primed again in 2008. Even with Manny disgruntled, Boston still scored plenty of runs. Even allowing that ’08 was something of an off-year for the great David Ortiz, that still amounted to a .369 on-base percentage and .507 slugging percentage. Kevin Youkilis hit .312 with 29 homers and 115 RBIs. And with a .326 batting average, 17 homers, 118 runs scored, tough defense at second base, Dustin Pedroia captured the AL MVP award. Red Sox pitching was led by Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who combined to win 34 games, with Jonathan Papelbon saving 41.

Boston had a challenger in the AL East, but it wasn’t the New York Yankees. Even though the Yanks got vintage years from Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Mike Mussina, the rest of the lineup didn’t keep up. And New York was passed by the sudden rise of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Tampa Bay didn’t have a signature star, but they had a productive corner infield. Carlos Pena hit 31 homers and drove in 102 runs, while Evan Longoria went deep 27 times and posted 85 RBIs. The Rays had a balanced rotation. James Shields’ 14 wins and 3.56 ERA were the best on a staff where everyone won double digits. And a late-season callup of a lefty named David Price would prove significant in October.

The Rays not only surpassed the Yankees, they surpassed the Red Sox. Tampa ran even with Boston for the first half of the season, then pulled out to a 5 ½ game lead by Labor Day. By mid-September, it was clear both the Rays and Red Sox were going to the playoffs. On the final day of the season, Tampa Bay wrapped up the AL East.

Boston may have been the defending champs, and Tampa Bay the terrific surprise story. But the best team in all of baseball during the regular season was the Los Angeles Angels. It started with pitching. The Halos were another rotation that was very balanced, with all five starters getting to at least ten wins. The best of the group was Joe Saunders, who won 17 and finished with an ERA of 3.41. Los Angeles also had a reliable winner in John Lackey.

And if they had a lead late in the game? Forget about it. Francisco Rodriguez set the single-season saves record with 62, posting a 2.24 ERA in the process. Collectively, the Angel staff ranked third in the American League for composite ERA.

Hitting was more of a concern. Vlad Guerrero Sr. had a nice year with 27 homers and a .303 batting average. Torii Hunter and Mike Napoli were each 20-HR guys. Howie Kendrick hit over .300. But something more was needed. So, in a year that was defined by big midsummer acquisitions, the Angels got one of their own. They acquired first baseman Mark Teixeira from Texas. Down the stretch, over just 54 games, Teixeira hit 13 homers and batted .358.

The Angels blew open the AL West race in the late summer, taking what was a comfortable six-game lead at the All-Star break and driving it to a 17-game margin by Labor Day. They closed the year with 100 wins and were seen as the team to beat heading into the postseason.

It was the AL Central that produced the drama in the American League playoff race. The Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins went beyond the final day.

The White Sox were led by Carlos Quentin, whose .288 batting average, 36 homers, and 100 ribbies got him a top-5 MVP finish. Jermaine Dye had a numbers of .292/34/96, while veteran DH Jim Thome hit 34 homers and drove in 90 runs. Chicago’s pitching was built around the starting trio of John Danks, Mark Buerhle and Gavin Floyd, who combined to win 44 games.

Minnesota had the great Triple J combo—Justin (Morneau), Joe (Mauer) and Joe (Nathan). Morneau hit .300, with 23 homers and 129 RBIs. The first baseman was the runner-up in the AL MVP race. Mauer finished fourth in the MVP voting, as the catcher had an OBP of .413 and a slugging percentage of .451. Nathan, the closer, backed up a steady rotation with 39 saves and a 1.33 ERA.

Cleveland hung around with Minnesota and Chicago for the first couple months. Indians lefty Cliff Lee had a dominant 22-3 season and won the AL Cy Young Award, but there wasn’t enough around him. The Tribe faded and the race belonged to the White Sox and Twins. They went neck-and-neck, with neither able to gain any separation. By the final weekend, Minnesota had a half-game lead—but Chicago controlled the half-game and would play a Monday makeup game if necessary.

On Friday and Saturday, neither team wanted to take control and both lost. Sunday, they each turned around and won. The Twins still led by a half-game. So, the White Sox played a makeup game with Detroit. Chicago won. On Tuesday, the White Sox and Twins played a tiebreaker game for the division title. In a terrific pitcher’s duel, Thome broke up a scoreless tie in the seventh with a solo blast. The 1-0 lead stood up and Chicago had won the Central.

The big surprise in the Division Series came in the National League. The Cubs not only lost, but they rolled over and were wiped out. The Dodgers came to Wrigley and dropped 17 runs in taking the two first games. Los Angeles went back west and closed out a three-game sweep.

L.A.’s other team wasn’t as fortunate. The Angels had the unfortunate draw of the Red Sox, who had knocked them out of the ALDS in both 2004 and 2007. Boston did it again. They won the opener behind Lester and took Game 2 on a tiebreaking ninth-inning home run from J.D. Drew. The Angels stayed alive with a 12-inning win at Fenway in Game 3. Lester was brilliant again in Game 4 and had a 2-0 lead after seven innings. Los Angeles got to the Boston bullpen and tied it with two runs in the eighth. But a two-out RBI single from Jed Lowrie in the bottom of the ninth sent Boston onto the ALCS.

Tampa Bay, playing its first postseason series ever, was ready for the moment. The Rays held serve at home in taking the first two games from Chicago. The White Sox went back home and grabbed Game 3. But a two-homer game from B.J. Upton in Game 4 gave the Rays the win and the series.

Philadelphia and Milwaukee rode their season-ending drama into a Division Series matchup with each other. Hamels was brilliant in winning Game 1. Sabathia returned to the mound for Milwaukee in Game 2. But perhaps gassed by his late-season heroics, Sabathia was hit hard early. Victorino launched a second-inning grand slam and the Phils won 5-2. They eventually wrapped up the series in four games.

A Phillies-Dodgers NLCS battle woke up the echoes of the late 1970s and early 1980s. These two franchises had met for the pennant in 1977, 1978, and 1983. From the perspective of history, we know this was the first of two straight years they would meet again. The series completely belonged to Philadelphia. Hamels again got them started with Game 1 excellence. The bats unloaded for eight runs to win Game 2. The Dodgers won Game 3, but Philadelphia scored seven runs to win Game 4 and then handed the ball to Hamels. The ace delivered again, winning Game 5 and the pennant.

After losing Game 1 at home, Tampa Bay’s bats spent the better part of four games going crazy. They scored nine runs in a wild 11-inning win in Game 2. The Rays stunned the Fenway crowd with nine more runs in Game 3, then dropped 13 to win Game 4, and finally stormed out to a 7-0 lead in Game 5. This series was all but over.

Or was it? In a stunning turnabout, the Red Sox scored four times in the seventh, three times in the eighth and then won it in the ninth. With Boston already having a history of dramatic ALCS rallies from both 2004 and 2007, they headed back to Tampa full of confidence that this year would be more of the same. They won Game 6. The decisive seventh game was a brilliant pitcher’s duel between Lester and Matt Garza. The Rays led 3-1 after the seventh. The Red Sox loaded the bases. The young Price came out of the bullpen to strike out Drew and ultimately close out Tampa Bay’s improbable American League pennant.

It was down to the Rays and Phillies. The Fall Classic opened in Tampa. For the third straight series, Hamels opened with a strong Game 1 win. The Rays evened up the series in Game 2. In a dramatic Game 3, Tampa tied the game in the eighth, but Philadelphia won it on a walkoff single from Carlos Ruiz in the ninth. The Phils took that momentum and rode it to a Game 4 rout.

Rain was forecast for Philadelphia on Monday night. Commissioner Bud Selig informed the teams in advance that the full nine innings would be played—the World Series would not end on a rain-shortened game. With the score tied 2-2 going into the bottom of the sixth, the skies opened up. The game was postponed. Tuesday was no better. It wasn’t until Wednesday that the Rays and Phils got back on the field.

Batting in the bottom of the sixth, the Phils immediately got a run. The Rays tied it right back up, hoping to get the Series back home. Philadelphia answered again in the seventh, taking a 4-3 lead. This time, it stood up. Lidge closed it out.

It had been a long time coming, and the weather conditions made Phillie fans wait two extra days. But they were champions again.