NEW YORK -- The sky will once again be the limit for the Philadelphia Phillies, if they can get Brad Lidge and Cole Hamels headed in the right direction.
The Phillies came up short in their attempt to become the first National League team to win back-to-back World Series since the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds. But that was their only failing in 2009. And coming in second in the World Series to a team as good as the New York Yankees is not a particularly large failing.
The Yankees defeated the Phils, 7-3, on Wednesday night to win the 2009 World Series in six games. As disappointing as this defeat was, the Phillies have earned the right to look to the future with confidence.
"I'll tell you something, we will be back," manager Charlie Manuel said. "As [Douglas] MacArthur said, I guess, 'We will be back.' "
(For those of you keeping score at home, Gen. MacArthur said, on the topic of returning to the Philippines in World War II and retaking the islands from the Japanese: "I shall return." The manager had the sense of the quote. The difference between "we" and "I" may have been that MacArthur was a terrific general, but he was also a "me" guy, unlike Manuel.)
The Phillies did not win their second straight World Series, but they did not fall far. Like the 2008 Phillies, the 2009 team was tough-minded and resilient. It was also an impressive offensive club, with imposing power combined with speed. The Phillies led the NL in runs scored and were fourth in the Majors. They led the NL in homers, and were tied for second overall. They were second in the NL in stolen bases and seventh overall. It could very easily be argued that this was baseball's most diversified offense.
And the Phillies proved again in the postseason that they were the class of the National League. They defeated the Rockies and the Dodgers by a combined seven games to two in the playoffs. There certainly was drama involved in some of the individual NL postseason games, but the Phillies didn't leave a lot of doubt about the eventual outcome.
CHAMPS NO MORE
Only three National League teams have won back-to-back World Series. The Yankees have played a big part in that, preventing a repeat winner six times.
What the Phillies achieved this season -- a third straight NL East title, a second straight NL pennant -- may have been even more remarkable given what happened with two of their most important pitchers. Had Lidge and Hamels performed close to their 2008 levels, even the outcome of the World Series could have been different.
Lidge was perfect in save opportunities in 2008 -- 48-for-48 including the postseason. This season he had an unthinkable 7.21 ERA in the 2009 regular season. He recovered in the first two postseason rounds, but then, in Game 4 of the World Series, he gave up three runs in the ninth inning and the Yankees took command of the series, 3-1. When a save situation presented itself in Game 5, Manuel went with Ryan Madson to close the game.
Hamels' decline, as it pertained to the postseason, was a near-total reversal of form. He dominated the 2008 postseason, being named the MVP in both the NL Championship Series and the World Series. But in the 2009 postseason, he compiled a 7.58 ERA in four starts. His Game 3 loss was pivotal. Had there been a Game 7, it would have been his turn to pitch in the Phillies' rotation, but there was a sizable body of opinion that the Phillies should find another alternative.
The Phillies compensated for Hamels' shortcomings when general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. traded for another top-shelf lefty, Cliff Lee. Lee was nothing less than brilliant in the postseason and made it possible for the Phillies to come this far, but without Hamels pitching effectively the chances of beating a club as good as the Yankees was dramatically reduced.
Hamels is just 25. Given good health, there is no reason why he cannot regain his form and fulfill his potential. Lidge underwent a previous career slump and recovered. After some terrific seasons with the Astros, including 2005, in which the Houston club reached the World Series, Lidge's performance fell off and he fell out of favor. But he regrouped and came back to have the terrific 2008 season. He is 32, and his stuff remains remarkable. He could come back again.
"I know we can do better because as I sit here tonight, I know Hamels is going to be better and I know Lidge is going to be better," Manuel said after the Game 6 loss. "I can tell you guys that. I know that. So, therefore, that's going to make us better."
The Phillies have the bulk of their considerable talent tied up contractually. They require only some fine-tuning. More pitching depth would help, but there are roughly 29 clubs in that situation, the vast majority of them with significantly less potential than the Phillies.
Manuel, who sets a tone that allows good baseball players to play good baseball, will remain an essential part of the winning equation. Looking toward the future, he likes not only his team's talent, but its intangible qualities.
"We want to keep what we've got as far as attitude and chemistry and ... our philosophy on how to play," Manuel said. "We love to play baseball. Those are definitely the things that helped get us where we're at today, and those are the things that are going to keep us where we're at is our desire and our love to play baseball and always working on trying to play it right."
Suggesting that the 2010 World Series will include the Philadelphia Phillies making a third straight appearance is hardly a far-fetched notion. Based on what this club has become, it is much closer to a likely outcome.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.