Alone at the Top

Posted: September 29, 2007

The Phillies truly are the team to beat.

They have not been able to say that this late in a season since 1993, but here they are with two games to play and a one-game lead over the New York Mets in the National League East.

The Phillies beat the Washington Nationals, 6-0, last night at Citizens Bank Park and could clinch the division today with a win over the Nationals and a Mets loss to the Florida Marlins.

Jimmy Rollins first called the Phillies "the team to beat" in January and repeated it many times in spring training.

So, how does it feel to actually be the team to beat?

"It feels like spring training," Rollins joked.

But they know they've won nothing yet.

"It's not Sunday," reliever Tom Gordon said. "It's just Saturday. We just need to concentrate on that and see what happens. And hopefully everything goes well for us. If we put ourselves in position to be winners [today], I think it will get even better. But we have to wait until we get there. When you see that plastic up [to cover the clubhouse lockers for a celebration], then you'll know what time it is."

It has been said before, but it is worth repeating for fans and a franchise that has not lived October baseball since 1993: No team in baseball history has blown a seven-game lead with 17 games to play.

The Mets could be the first.

The Phillies are 12-3 since they trailed the Mets by seven on Sept. 12.

The Mets are 4-11.

As the headline screamed in yesterday's New York Post: "Paging Dr. Heimlich."

Meanwhile, the Phillies couldn't be looser. Manager Charlie Manuel met with reporters in the Phillies' dugout before the game, and the first words out of his mouth were: "What do you want me to say? Today is big?"

He laughed.

It seems he has been asked that question every day by somebody for the last, oh, two months.

Yes, it was big.

This afternoon's game is even bigger.

But to put themselves in that position, they had to take care of business last night.

Cole Hamels did that.

He put in one of the team's best pitching performances of the season. He threw eight shutout innings, allowing just six hits and one walk while striking out 13. Manuel said Wednesday that Hamels would not throw 115 pitches. He threw 116, two short of a career-high 118.

" 'You're not on a pitch count. Go after them,' " Hamels said Manuel told him.

But for a while, it looked as if Nationals righthander Tim Redding would match Hamels. Redding allowed just two hits and one walk through four innings.

But Greg Dobbs hit a leadoff single to left field in the fifth, and Redding hit Carlos Ruiz in the hand with a pitch to put runners on first and second. Hamels followed with a sacrifice bunt to put runners on second and third with one out.

It might be the loudest Phillies fans have cheered for a sacrifice bunt at Citizens Bank Park. But those cheers soon faded and turned into "MVP" chants for Rollins.

Rollins delivered.

He hit a first-pitch single up the middle to score Dobbs and Ruiz to hand the Phillies a 2-0 lead.

Chase Utley hit a double to right field to score Rollins to make it 3-0.

The Phillies added another run in the sixth and two in the seventh when Ryan Howard hit a two-run home run to left-center field to make it 6-0.

The fans had plenty to cheer last night.

They waved their rally towels every time Hamels struck out a batter or the offense scored a run or the out-of-town scoreboard showed the Marlins adding to their score.

"We've been focused for a while now," said Rollins, asked about today's game. "It's not about playing on emotion. It's about playing good baseball. It's about executing. This is the playoffs for us. If we lose, we probably don't get in. If we win, we're probably going to get in."

These might feel like the playoffs, but they're not the real playoffs.

The real playoffs begin Wednesday, and the Phillies hope to host Game 1 in Philadelphia.


Contact staff writer Todd Zolecki at 215-854-4874 or tzolecki@phillynews.com.

Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/zozone.

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