Phillies season down to one game

Posted: October 05, 2011

ST. LOUIS - One game.

After riding their stellar starting pitching to the best regular season in franchise history, it all comes down to one game for the Phillies. Their 5-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday set up a decisive Game 5 at Citizens Bank Park on Friday night.

Roy Halladay will pitch for the Phillies. His close friend and former teammate, Chris Carpenter, will start for the Cardinals.

If you love baseball, it is a perfect scenario - two of the best pitchers in baseball facing off in a game that will send one team to the National League Championship Series and one team home. If you're a Phillies fan counting on another trip to the World Series, it means another night of anxiety and stress - and just maybe the end of the season.

"It might be fitting that it goes down to the fifth game," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "We're a good team, they're a good team. It's up to us to go get it. It's sitting right there for us."

"We have our horse going," Roy Oswalt said after taking the loss. "They have their horse going. It's going to be a packed house back in Philly. The pressure's back on them."

Well, that's not quite right. The pressure is squarely on the Phillies, for whom anything short of the World Series will be seen as a stunning disappointment.

The Cardinals, who snuck into the playoffs on the last possible night (thanks to the Phillies' sweep of the Atlanta Braves, thank you very much), are that most dangerous of teams. They have already exceeded their own expectations by being here.

And truth be told, the Phillies have played as if they are feeling the pressure. With the exception of their 11-6 romp in Game 1, the Phillies are in the kind of offensive funk that has proven fatal in the last two postseasons. This embarrassment of pitching riches was supposed to be insurance against just such an offensive slump. That has not been the case so far.

Look at how the Phillies got to this point.

Halladay started Game 1, surrendering a three-run homer to Lance Berkman before his teammates had a chance to bat. He was outstanding after that, and the Phillies put up a bunch of runs for an 11-6 win.

But Cliff Lee, ace No. 2, was ordinary in Game 2. He gave up five runs on 12 hits, blowing a 4-0 lead handed to him by the offense.

Cole Hamels, the homegrown ace, pitched well to win Game 3, but he went just six innings. And the Phillies' entire offensive output came on one swing of Ben Francisco's bat.

Oswalt, the forgotten ace, had a chance to end this series and write a happy chapter in the story of an injury-plagued season. Like Lee, he was handed an early lead - 2-0 this time. Like Lee, he couldn't hold it. Like Lee, he gave up five runs.

Through their recent years of success, these Phillies have not played in a series that went the full distance. The franchise's last winner-take-all playoff game was in 1981. As tense as the postseason is, a Game 5 or Game 7 is played at another level of intensity.

The lesson is clear: One game, especially one game with such high stakes, can be decided by a freak play, an unexpected hero, a lucky or unlucky break. If Francisco's home run doesn't clear the fence, or if Chase Utley doesn't get himself thrown out at third in the sixth inning Wednesday, or if Lee doesn't get hit around - well, you get the idea. Each of these games has turned on such impossible-to-predict plays and moments.

Heck, a squirrel can dash onto the field and disrupt the game. For the second night in a row, a long-tailed rodent ran onto the Busch Stadium field. This time, it scurried across the batter's box, distracting Oswalt as he threw a pitch to Scott Schumaker. Oswalt asked umpire Angel Hernandez if the pitch, a ball, could be discounted.

"I was wondering what size animal it needed to be to not be a pitch," Oswalt said.

The squirrel ended up being no more than a curious footnote. So did Shane Victorino's pratfall in center field. But those episodes prove that anything can happen, and a game can be won or lost in a flash.

In the postseason series they have won since 2008, the Phillies have taken care of business before reaching the cliff's edge. Now they are there.

"If we win Friday, we won't care too much about tonight," pitcher Brad Lidge said. "You always want to get them when you can. You don't want to let any extra games go by when you have an opportunity to put your foot on it."

They have Halladay, home field and hope. And really, that's not a bad combination.

Contact Phil Sheridan

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