Everybody knew about the Cardinals, and about the overall consistency of their lineup, but good pitching - especially this pitching - was supposed to neutralize even the hottest bats. It is one of the sport's time-honored truisms, after all - and this rotation, everyone agreed, was unquestionably the truth.
Yet here the Phillies are, faced now with the exquisite pressure of an elimination game tomorrow night at Citizens Bank Park. Here they are, with Roy Halladay in the position of pitching not only to win a game and a playoff series, but also to preserve a vision nurtured for months by everyone from the architects of the team, to the players themselves, to the nearly 3.7 million people who purchased a piece of the dream at the ticket window.
"We've got one game," Oswalt said. "We've got to win it. We've got our horse going and they've got theirs going. So we'll see how it comes out."
Horses, then: Halladay vs. the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter. Halladay fell behind early in Game 1 of the series but was magnificent thereafter. Carpenter, pitching on short rest in Game 2, lasted only three innings and allowed four runs.
The two are friends who grew up together in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. They have gone on to win Cy Young Awards (one for Carpenter, two for Halladay) and attain elite status in their profession. Carpenter has a World Series ring and now he stands in the way of Halladay getting his. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has been openly salivating about the possibility of the two of them facing off in Game 5, and now it is happening.
"I said it the second game there, just because I'm a baseball fan as much as anybody, what a thrill it would be to go back to Philadelphia and see Carp and Halladay go at each other," La Russa said. "They've got so much common history and they're both great pitchers, great competitors, and now we're going to do it.
"It's going to be as good as it gets," he said, and no one would argue. At the same time, few could have imagined the road that got them to this point - including last night's 5-3 win for the Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
Staked to a 2-0 lead in the first inning, Oswalt gave one back in the first when his old pal, Lance Berkman, rocked an RBI double to centerfield. In the fourth, Cardinals third baseman David Freese ripped a two-run double to make it 3-2. In the sixth, Freese hit a two-run homer to center, the ball traveling 424 feet.
In light of what happened, people will question whether Vance Worley should have been given a shot in Game 4 rather than Oswalt, a running debate through September. But the truth is, Oswalt deserved the start. He just couldn't keep it together for long enough, like Lee and Hamels before him.
"I thought I had pretty good stuff," Oswalt said. " . . . All you can do is throw strikes and try to throw quality pitches, and for the most part, I did. Even the home run, I went back and looked at it, it was a pretty good pitch - especially to hit it out to center. If he pulled it down the line, it may be a little different. But to hit it out to center, it was a pretty good swing."
A good swing from the seven-hole hitter. Maybe two good swings. And now the Phillies go home.
"Good - they've got to beat us twice," Oswalt said. " . . . Should be a lot of fun. Sure it will be a packed house in Philly. The pressure is back on them."
"Oh yeah," Oswalt said.
It isn't on the team with the Aces, and the outsized expectations?
"I don't see it that way," Oswalt said. "They're coming into our house, trying to beat us. We came here and split with them. They've got to come back and beat us at our house."
They've got to beat Roy Halladay, who holds the Phillies' season, and its tattered blueprint, in his hands.
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