Rich Hofmann | Not the finish fans have come to expect

Posted: September 26, 2007

THE PHILLIES arrived at this point, at this night, as a riddle wrapped around an enigma wrapped around a rally towel. Their destiny belonged to them even as their history mocked them. No one knew what to expect at Citizens Bank Park, not really, except that hope and fear would run a desperate race.

And then they watched, all 39,129 of them, as 6 months were compressed somehow into 3 hours, 9 minutes.

Their pitching, short all season, was short again. Their hearts, strong all season, were strong again. All summer, we had witnessed this ongoing battle between the reality of that pitching staff and the persistence of that offensive will. We had seen the Phillies play this same game 50 times, maybe more - and it had come out well enough, often enough, that you couldn't help but wonder.

Again? No, not this time.

Braves 10, Phillies 6.

And Chase Utley said, in the hush of the losing clubhouse, "We've come back so many times this year . . . Tonight, it just didn't work out."

They did not lose because of nerves. They did not lose because of the ghosts of stumbles past. You can sing the same, old Phillies song all you want, but that isn't it. That they are 0-7 in Monday and Tuesday games in the final week of the season since 2003 is a jarring statistic, but it does not explain where they are now.

This isn't about 2003, or 2005, or 2006. This is about 2007. This is not about anxiety. This is about reality, writ large. This game was them.

Fifty times - really. The Phillies played this exact same game twice a week, every week, since Clearwater. This whole thing - the early deficits, the methodical comebacks, the home runs sent shooting into the night - has been a part of their DNA since Day 1. To expect them to play any differently just because it is the final week of September is to expect the impossible.

"We fought back, took a lead and couldn't hold them," manager Charlie Manuel said, summing up, wearily. He looked as if he had been gut-punched, standing there after the game. You never get used to it, it seems. It never gets any easier, as the pages of the calendar get torn away and crumpled and tossed, with only a tiny stack remaining.

They fight back and then they either hold on by their fingernails or they don't. The description and the explanation have always been the same, not that anyone with eyes has really needed much of an explanation all summer. It is what it is, and they are what they are, as tritely inadequate as that sounds.

We had watched it since April, and we watched it again last night. The starting pitcher, Jamie Moyer, couldn't build them a bridge to the seventh inning. The bullpen, so good lately, reverted to form. The manager, Manuel, stared down a series of lousy options and hoped for the best. Last night, he hoped in vain.

And now?

"We've got to win tomorrow - I've been saying that for a month now," said Manuel, whose team has been digging and defying the odds for weeks.

Last night, a 3-0 deficit in the first inning and a 4-1 deficit in the fourth were erased by the bottom of the fifth. Their touchstones, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard and Utley, all homered (as did Jayson Werth).

We have seen it so many times, brawn providing the nightly ignition. It has become the hope/expectation that the Phillies will be able to hit their way out of anything. That the history of the game brands this an impossibility has not seemed to matter. And people have come through the turnstiles because of it. They have come in huge numbers because of this flirtation with the impossible, because of these home runs that go screaming into the night, erasing so many of their problems.

But, well, now?

"Every game, we approach the same way," Utley said. "We try to win. No extra pressure."

But the whole thing is becoming almost unbearable. Everybody in town is on the same-old-Phillies edge. But, well, no. As Manuel said before the game: "New day. New week. New season. New everything. The past is gone. Can't do a damn thing about it."

And here and now?

"We've been coming back all year long," Manuel said. "We've been scratching and clawing. We'll play till it's over or till we end up winning something." *

Send e-mail to

hofmanr@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/hofmann.

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