Phillies forever tarnished by epic collapse

The crowd was clamoring for a miracle as Ryan Howard took one last mighty cut and then stumbled down the first-base line before landing in agony. I was in section 214 as the feeble groundball became the final out.

Ryan Howard was seriously hurt.

Nobody cared. Has there ever been a clearer snapshot of the fleeting nature of fame than that moment last Friday night?

Howard was the hero of Game 1 of the division series, he was the poster boy for a half-decade of unprecedented success by the Phillies, and nobody gave a damn — including me — as he endured a pain deeper than any in his remarkable career.

As I drove home in silence after the worst loss in Phillies history, the word was already circulating that Howard had ruptured an Achilles tendon in his left foot, raising doubts about his immediate future in baseball. Even then, I felt no great sympathy for the big slugger, and neither did any of the fans who called my radio show.

With the wounds still throbbing after the defeat of the best Phillies team ever, it’s hard to draw any sweeping conclusions about how we will feel about this era and these players months or years from now. But I have a suspicion that things will never be the same, that the harsh glare of this historic loss will change the way we see many of these heroes.

For example, will Charlie Manuel seem as charming and lovable now that he failed to win with this amazing team? Who deserves more blame for the failure of the offense than the manager, whose specialty is hitting? Is one title in seven seasons with the best talent in Phillies history good enough?

And what about Cliff Lee, who blew a 4-0 lead in Game 2 and changed the direction of the series? His love affair with Philadelphia may not have ended that night, but will it ever be so passionate again? Will he be embraced the same way after that shocking collapse?

There are questions at every locker now. Will Roy Halladay still be a brilliant next year, at 35? Will Chase Utley ever be the player he was just a few years ago? Is this the end for the hero of 2008, Brad Lidge? Will Jimmy Rollins ever play another game for the Phillies? Should he?

All of these questions can be answered only by the passage of time, but the one moment in 2011 frozen forever is Ryan Howard on the ground, in horrible pain, and 46,530 people leaving the ballpark in silence. Many of them never even looked back. I know I didn’t.

Baseball can be a very cold sport, and this promises to be an especially frigid winter

for all of us.

Why is Castillo still here?

Juan Castillo must be removed as defensive coordinator immediately.

Every aspect of this overpaid, underachieving defense is broken — shattered — and it will remain that way until someone who knows what he’s doing is running it.

What happened Sunday in Buffalo was not at all surprising — a 31-24 loss to another inferior opponent — but it was infuriating just the same. Every member of the defense, including Nnamdi Asomugha, has forgotten how to tackle. Every running back looks like Walter Payton.

The one moment that best captured the current state of the defense came on the last meaningful play of the game, when Juqua Parker jumped offside on a fourth-down fake snap that wouldn’t fool a Pop Warner player. This Eagles defense isn’t just inept, it’s dumb.

And all of its shortcomings point directly at Castillo, who was, is and always will be nothing more than an offensive-line coach. Yes, the Eagles turned the ball over five times, they screwed up the time management at the end of the half again, they committed stupid penalties and they appeared lost and disinterested until their fierce and futile rally.

But the only thing that matters is that Buffalo scored 31 points, after 24 by San Francisco, 29 by the Giants and 35 by Atlanta. Those are the numbers of a losing team, a lost team. Juan Castillo must go.

Flyers: Best team in town

On the trek out of Citizens Bank Park after the crushing Game 5 loss, the somber fans tried to start a “Let’s Go Flyers” chant. They were just as futile in that effort as the Phillies had been at the plate.

In the months ahead, we can expect those chants to grow as loud and strong as the team they represent. In the new rankings, the Flyers present the best hope for our next championship, and they did nothing in the first week of the season to discourage that optimism.

What was so appealing about the Flyers in their first two games was the freshness of their boldly reshaped roster. Ilya Bryzgalov has already posted one more shutout than the goalie carousel did in the entire regular season last year. Claude Giroux is approaching superstar status, James van Riemsdyk is maturing quickly and the new additions are providing speed and depth.

Equally important is the absence of the two overrated and overpaid stars, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Is there a single, sober fan who believes the Flyers were better off with the dour Richards as captain rather than the feisty Chris Pronger? With Pronger, the Flyers will not fade the way they did last season.

The Flyers are the best team in Philly, and — as predicted on these pages — they will prove it by winning the Cup.

– Angelo Cataldi is the host of 610 WIP’s Morning Show, which airs weekdays 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.

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