Phils' emotions hit the right note

Citizens Bank Park, empty during practice yesterday, will be packed with excitement and emotion for tonight's Game 5 of the NLDS.
Citizens Bank Park, empty during practice yesterday, will be packed with excitement and emotion for tonight's Game 5 of the NLDS. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: October 07, 2011

LET US OPEN the proceedings today with a word from Theodore Roosevelt, who never played in a Game 5 or a Game 7 but who nonetheless understood competition and could probably guess what the Phillies and the Cardinals are about to endure.

It is one of TR's most famous quotations. In truncated form, he said:

" . . . The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming . . . and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

In the arena. That is where the Phillies and Cardinals will be tonight, literally and figuratively. At 8:30, give or take a few inane TBS commercials, pitchers Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter will commence with the kind of confrontation that defines their way of life.

It is no place for fear - yet you wonder, how could they not feel afraid, at least a tiny bit? Their seasons are at stake - theirs and their teams' - and there is no avoiding it. To fail here is to be singed by the harshest of spotlights. To fall here is to spend the next 6 months trying to pick yourself up.

"A lot of times, yeah, I'll talk to guys," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said, when asked about the enormity of the thing. "But most of the time, you never have to say anything about the magnitude of the game or anything like that. You just tell them to be - just be yourself, just play the game like he knows how, like do what he's capable of doing, stay within himself, and have a lot of fun, but concentrate on what you're doing."

The fact that they can walk into such a circumstance and perform at a high level is what marks them as special, as different from you and me. And so, with the pressure undoubtedly on the Phillies - the team that has enjoyed the higher expectations; the team with the greater distance to fall - it was both unsurprising and impressive how they sounded in the postgame clubhouse after Wednesday's Game 4 loss.

They are very good at this business of hitting the correct emotional tone. This core of Phillies players has been through both a world championship and epic frustration. They hit the right note when they are slumping and when they are streaking, wringing most of the emotion out of those very opposite experiences. They have hit the right note here, too: confident in themselves and in Halladay, not panicking despite several slumping bats in the lineup, as matter-of-fact as the moment might permit.

"I think the biggest thing is just having really a healthy perspective on the whole thing," Halladay said. "I think if you go in thinking about the consequences and what could happen, you know, it's distracting."

There is no outward sign of fear from the Phillies, not even a hint of a whiff. There is just the sense that, with Halladay vs. Carpenter, we are about to witness a classic of the species.

The best elimination game any of us ever saw was a hockey game. It was only two springs ago, when the Flyers beat the Bruins in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It will never be topped.

Down by 3-0 in games in the series, down by a 3-0 score in Game 7, the Flyers came back and won and stunned both the Bruins and, maybe, themselves. It was a trick of levitation, the Flyers continually lifting their own corpse, but no matter how closely you looked, you couldn't see the wires. They will talk about that game forever.

The next-best was the Phillies' win over Houston in Game 5 of the 1980 NLCS. For those too young to remember a series in which four games went into extra innings, with night after night stripped down to its primal core - excitement, tension and fear entwined together - the Game 5 shorthand was this:

Houston led by 5-2 after seven innings, with Nolan Ryan on the mound. But the Phillies came back and did the seemingly impossible, chasing Ryan and scoring five runs in the eighth. Still, it took an RBI double by Garry Maddox in the 10th to win it, finally.

It was a long time ago, but the parameters of an elimination night never really change. Sometime tonight, a face marred by dust and sweat and blood will emerge with a smile. That is the only certainty.

Between now and then, you know what the feeling is mostly?

Helplessness.


Send email to

hofmanr@phillynews.com,

or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at

www.philly.com/TheIdleRich.

For recent columns go to

www.philly.com/RichHofmann.

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