Division crown just the first step for Phillies

Division crown just the first step for Phillies

Division crown just the first step for Phillies
PHILADELPHIA -- Cliff Lee remembers the afternoon the Phillies introduced their rotation to the baseball world.

Roy Halladay and Joe Blanton sat to his right. Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt sat to his left.

He took the center seat during a February news conference at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla., which seemed appropriate because his arrival stirred the enormous expectations for their season. The Phillies completed the first step of their journey to a World Series championship Saturday night when they clinched their fifth consecutive National League East title with a 9-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Citizens Bank Park.

It happened in the 150th game of the season, making it the earliest they have clinched a postseason berth.

"I expected to win the division," Lee said just moments after celebrating on the field. "I expect us to win the World Series. But nothing is going to be handed to us. We've got to go out there and play the way we've played all year and play fundamental baseball. If we continue to do that, good things will happen."

The Phillies have one more magic number remaining: two. A combination of two Phillies victories or Brewers losses will clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. So while they might be resting a few players and pitchers in the final 12 games of the regular season, they still have some work to do before the National League Division Series begins Oct. 1.

The crux of the Phillies' success in the postseason will be the same as in the regular season: the rotation. Halladay is 18-5 with a 2.34 ERA, Lee is 16-7 with a 2.38 ERA and Hamels is 14-8 with a 2.71 ERA. Halladay and Lee are in a three-horse race for the National League Cy Young with Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. Oswalt missed much of the season because of a back injury, but he threw seven scoreless innings in the clincher Saturday. He looked more than ready to pitch one of the first four games in the National League Division Series. Blanton's season has been a loss because of an elbow injury, but rookie Vance Worley has gone 11-2 with a 2.85 ERA.

They have lived up to the hype.

"It really wasn't hype," Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said.

True. There had not been a collection of talent like this with track records like that in the same rotation in a long time.

They simply performed as expected.

"I actually think they were better than advertised because of the expectations put on them," Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee said. "They pitched beyond those expectations. They took it to another level."

Of course, it wasn't just the rotation. The Phillies have scored more runs than any other team in the National League since July 1. Hunter Pence's arrival helped that. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. acquired him from the Houston Astros on July 29, and he has provided a spark of energy on the field and more hunger to a roster eager to leave its mark on the game.

Pence savored every drop of champagne poured over his head in the clubhouse Saturday.

"They blew me up," he said, smiling wide. "I've dreamed about this. It's what you play the game for. When you're working out in the offseason, you're thinking about the champagne. You're thinking about getting to the playoffs, and then taking the next step and the next step, winning the World Series. It's definitely worth all the work and all the sacrifice. I'm thrilled to be a part of it."

Counting division, NLDS, League Championship Series and World Series clinchers, this is the 11th champagne celebration the Phillies have had in the past five seasons.

This had a tamer feel to it.

Maybe not for Pence, who had never been to the postseason before, but for the rest of the team. The Phillies talked in Spring Training about taking advantage of this opportunity. Nobody knows what the future will bring. It is easy to say they will have Halladay, Lee and Hamels back in the rotation in 2012, but who can say they will be healthy or as good? Rollins, Oswalt, Ryan Madson, Raul Ibanez, Brad Lidge and others might not be back next season, either.

They want to win now.

"When you have something as special as we have here, you don't want to let it go to waste," Rollins said.

Ryan Howard agreed.

"The true test starts in October," he said. "We won't really do the real celebration until we can reach our team goal. This is just step one."

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.