The 162-episode soap opera that precedes the postseason does more than determine which clubs get a date for baseball's version of the senior prom. In the first two rounds, it also sets up the seeding for the tournament that follows.
The wild card can never have the homefield advantage. Beyond that, it goes to the team with the best record. The Phillies won 92 games this season. The Dodgers won 84. So when both teams survived the gantlet run that is the best-of-five division series, the Phillies earned the extra game at Citizens Bank Park.
During the regular season, geography was the ultimate difference-maker. All eight meetings were played in August. Los Angeles won the first four, all at Dodger Stadium. The Phillies won the next four, all at home.
Throw it all out the window? There were good reasons to doubt that the form would hold once fall ball got under way.
Each of the games in Chavez Ravine in August was decided by one or two runs, and the Phillies led two of the games going into the eighth. So those results could easily have been changed.
And when the Dodgers arrived in Philadelphia, they were mired in a deep slump, but came roaring into the postseason as one of the hottest teams in baseball. This
National League Championship Series shaped up as a blank slate.
Except that through the first three games - and the first seven innings of the fourth - it was the same old, same old.
Then Shane Victorino and Matt Stairs unloaded two-run homers in the eighth inning last night to lift the Phillies to a 7-5 win, changing the entire calculus of the NLCS.
Now they have built in some margin for error, some leeway. And it's impossible to overemphasize what a large swing of the pendulum that represents.
Imagine what it would have been like had the Dodgers won.
If the Phils could have been promised, absolutely guaranteed, that home-team supremacy would continue for the rest of this round, they would have happily accepted the bargain. They would have still held the homefield edge, shrunken now to two games to one. They would have then won the pennant and advanced to the World Series for the first time since 1993 in front of a frenzied sellout crowd on Pattison Avenue on Saturday night.
The flaw in that plan is easy to spot, though. One bad bounce, one bad pitch, anything at all that didn't go their way, and they could have found themselves on the outside looking in.
"This is the first game we won here," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "We've been talking all year about how big games are. This was the biggest game we've won so far. But the next one is even bigger. That's kind of how we look at it."
Dodgers manager Joe Torre canceled his team's workout for today and insisted the series isn't over.
"We have to win the remaining games," he pointed out. "I sense we'll be right here with the right attitude. They're certainly not afraid, and I expect us to be out here [tomorrow] and play hard."
Before the game, Torre was at a loss to explain why the team wearing gray uniforms had been unable to win even once.
"This is rare," he said. "Of course, it has happened in the World Series in the past. It happened to us [Yankees] in Arizona in 2001, and I know it happened between Minnesota and the Cardinals [in 1987]. Both those were indoor/outdoor parks. You can understand more of a difference in that situation."
While giving Phillies fans their props, he didn't think that explained the lopsided results.
"In Philadelphia, they have great, passionate fans," he said. "No question, they make a lot of noise. I wasn't here last year, but people who were say the passion in this ballpark late in the season and in the postseason has been extraordinary. That makes me feel good, because I know the players certainly like playing here, and the fans have really been supportive.
"I can't explain this one. Both clubs have good bullpens, which indicates you can win on the road. But hopefully that's going to change."
What he meant, of course, was that he hoped it changed after the series went back to Philadelphia.
Since it changed last night instead, there's no guarantee the Dodgers will even make that trip. *
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