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Phillies look for answers after down year

Associated Press Modified: October 4, 2012 at 5:47 pm •  Published: October 4, 2012

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Built to win now, the Philadelphia Phillies crumbled without their biggest star players.

The Phillies' streak of five consecutive NL East titles ended and so did their run of nine straight winning seasons after an 81-81 finish that seemed like a decent accomplishment given their awful first half.

Injuries to Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay were too much for Philadelphia to overcome. The Phillies struggled to replace their Nos. 3-4 hitters who combined to miss 160 games to start the season, and sorely missed their No. 1 ace for a two-month stretch in the middle.

But can this down year be entirely blamed on injuries or are the Phillies trending downward?

"We have a talented group of guys and injury did play a part," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said Thursday. "I don't like to use that as an excuse, but it is what it is. Be that as it may, we no longer are National League East champions. That goes to the Washington Nationals. We have to knock them off. We have a lot of work to do."

Jimmy Rollins, the former NL MVP, once proclaimed the Phillies were the team to beat in the division before they even began their title run. Then they went out and conquered the East, winning a World Series championship along the way. Rollins isn't ready to concede that the Nationals are the best team in the East, even though they finished with a major league-best 98 wins.

"With us being healthy, they're still second place," Rollins

That's a bold statement for sure. Rollins, however, has a point.

The Phillies played their best baseball during a 7½-week stretch from July 31 to Sept. 21, going 31-17 to climb back into the postseason race after falling to a season-worst 14 games under .500 right after the All-Star break.

They were 13 games out of a wild-card spot when they traded two-time All-Star outfielders Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino hours before the non-waiver deadline, and were already looking ahead to 2013.

Then they started winning as Utley and Howard found their groove, Rollins got hot and others contributed. A seven-game winning streak had the Phillies within three games of St. Louis for the second-wild card berth on Sept. 13. After losing three of four to lowly Houston, the Phillies won four in a row to get to a season-best three games over .500. They again were three games behind the Cardinals with 11 to play only to lose seven of the last 11.

"We got ourselves in a pretty big hole early," pitcher Cliff Lee said. "It was too big of a hole to dig ourselves out of. We played really well in the second half, made our season definitely more respectable, but considering how bad we were in the first half, we were very fortunate to be where we were these past few weeks."

Since winning the franchise's second World Series title in 2008, the Phillies have taken one step backward each season. They lost to the New York Yankees in six games in the 2009 World Series, lost to the San Francisco Giants in six games in the 2010 NLCS, lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in five games in the 2011 NL division series.

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