Phillies win fourth straight NL East title

Posted: September 28, 2010

WASHINGTON - One by one, they trickled out of the infield and down the concrete steps before disappearing into visitors' clubhouse of a mostly empty stadium. There was plenty of hugging and hand-shaking and on-the-back patting. But for a few precious seconds, there was no champagne popping. That, they had decided, would wait.

So they filed inside and they gathered around the dark green bottles that sat in the center of the carpeted room. And when the last of them finally arrived, they pointed to three men who had spent the better part of their adult lives waiting to feel that sweet, sticky spray.

Roy Halladay, Mike Sweeney and Brian Schneider: your honors.

"All the guys came around us," Schneider said later as he stood amid the mayhem of the Phillies' latest division title celebration. "I'll never forget that. They know we've never been able to experience this. It was awesome for them to think of us."

In a lot of respects, the Phillies' 8-0 victory over the Washington Nationals last night was the most distinctive of their club-record four consecutive division title clinches. Gone was the virginal wonderment of 2007, the can-we-do-it-this-time ecstasy of 2008, and the dynasty-in-the-making hopefulness of 2009. True, they accomplished something none of the three previous Phillies teams had, locking up homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, in addition to their National League East crown (long story short: They hold tiebreakers over both the Padres and Giants, neither of whom can finish with a better record than the Phils' current 94-63). True, in advancing to the postseason for the fourth straight season, they accomplished something that only two other teams in the National League have been able to do (the 1991-2005 Braves and the 1921-24 New York Giants).

But the first word that came to mind when witnessing last night's celebration? Subdued, despite a boisterous contingent of Phillies fans who turned Nationals Park into what one handmade sign called "Citizens Bank Park South."

Until . . .

Until you saw Schneider in his goggles.

Until you saw Sweeney in his champagne-soaked T-shirt.

Until you saw the usually stone-cold Halladay wearing the type of grin you never thought existed.

"This is the coolest thing I've been a part of," he said. "I saw too much of it on TV. I tried not to think about it. This is everything it's cracked up to be, especially with a group of guys you like."

You want to talk about tough decisions? Pitching coach Rich Dubee had to make one last night. For eight innings, Halladay had dominated the Nationals, allowing his only two baserunners on a pair of singles. He spent most of the evening pitching with a lead that was, at most, modest. For the first eight innings, the scoring was limited to a solo home and two-run double by Jayson Werth and an RBI double by Carlos Ruiz. But then came the ninth, and a four-run explosion by a Phillies lineup that had struggled to scratch together rallies for the better part of a week. And, suddenly, the Phillies held a comfortable, eight-run lead with their prize ace sitting in the dugout, and Jose Contreras warming in the bullpen.

"I mean, we're looking at an 8-0 lead and I'm thinking, 'God,' " Dubee said. "That was a tough decision. Do you take the guy out, or do you leave a guy out there who has been so important and came here for this reason? He deserved the right to finish that game."

And finish it he did, striking out Danny Espinosa on a 1-2 changeup for his fourth, and most important, shutout of the season. When Halladay helped engineer a trade to the Phillies in December by agreeing to what many thought to be a below-market, 3-year, $60 million contract extension, he did so with last night in mind. For 12-plus seasons, he toiled in relative anonymity for a Blue Jays franchise that was mired in mediocrity. At 33, with a Cy Young and more money than most human beings can spend, Halladay knew he wanted to pitch for a contender.

"I played in Toronto, I played with Roy, I don't know how frustrated he [was], but I can imagine," said rightfielder Jayson Werth, who went 3-for-5 with four RBI last night. "For us to do it again this year and for him to be a big part of it . . . It's special. But we've got a long way to go."

They've already come a long way, battling a rash of injuries and uncharacteristic offensive slumps to turn a seven-game deficit (48-46 on July 21) into a division title in a little more than 2 months (46-17 since).

They also locked up homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, meaning their final five games of the season will be little more than a tuneup for what they hope will be a third consecutive trip to the World Series.

For now, though, they will enjoy the moment. None more than the three first-timers. *

Phillers

Roy Halladay improved to 21-10 and lowered his ERA to 2.44 . . . Carlos Ruiz went 3-for-4 to improve his batting average to .298. *

For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese. Follow him on Twitter at

http://twitter.com/HighCheese.

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