PHILADELPHIA • The Phillies have only themselves to blame for being in this predicament, forced to play a decisive postseason game for the first time in 30 years. And we're not just talking about the way — other than unlikely Game 3 hero Ben Francisco — they neglected to bring their bats to the Gateway City, while running the bases like the Bad News Phils.
No, they can kick themselves that they're even facing Albert Pujols & Co. in the first place. First, because they allowed their giddy fifth straight post-NL East-Division clinching celebration to trigger an eight-game losing streak, the first two to the Cardinals. Then, because in an effort to pick up their game down the stretch, they proceeded to do the Redbirds a huge favor and knock off the Braves three straight in Atlanta. That enabled St. Louis to slide through the wild-card door.
Some way of showing gratitude by Tony La Russa's guys, who've made this NLDS largely an exercise in futility for the team that wasn't supposed to have it so tough. Now after putting the (David) Freese on in Game 4 Wednesday, it suddenly all comes down to one game here tonight. The battle cry here all season has been World Champions or Bust! If it goes bust tonight — when former Blue Jays teammates and hunting buddies Roy "Doc" Halladay and Chris Carpenter square off with the season on the line — this city's tears will really flow.
The last time the Phils were in a similar do-or-die situation, Ryan Howard was probably still in diapers. Back during the 1981 split-season — where due to a two-month midseason player's strike the first half and second half leaders of each division met in a special series — the Montreal Expos surprised the host Phils and Hall of Fame lefthander and former Cardinal Steve Carlton, 3-0, in the finale of a best-of-five.
That came a year following what might arguably still be the greatest postseason series ever — a taut thriller with the Houston Astros where the final four games went extra innings. In Game 5, down 5-2 in the 8th and facing legendary Nolan Ryan, the Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa and Greg Luzinski-led Phillies rallied for five runs, eventually winning it in 10.
They proceeded from there to top George Brett and the Royals in six for their first ever World Championship. Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley at the time were less than two years old.
Since then the Phils have been in 14 postseason series. This is the first to go the distance, making it a nerve-wracking time in town.
After all, this wasn't supposed to happen with this team, which ran away from the field all season en route to a franchise record 102 wins. Just as the folks down the block from the ballpark will tell you the Eagles' 1-3 start wasn't supposed to happen, either. That lone victory, by the way came courtesy of the team from St. Louis.
An omen, perhaps?
Phillies' fans will reach for any silver lining in the darkening clouds, because frankly they don't want to even contemplate the idea it could all be over just hours from now. In Doc they trust, for sure. Those anemic bats? Well, that's another story.
To understand the psyche here you have to understand the history. And there's a certain symmetry that it should be the Cardinals standing in the Phillies way at this point, because in many ways Philly's sports inferiority complex began with the Cardinals. Three generations have passed since Gene Mauch's 1964 Phillies blew a 6 1/2-game lead with 12 to play to the Cardinals — who went on to win it all — but the sting still lingers.
That started a chain reaction throughout the populace with its teams. Always expect the worst … and you'll rarely be disappointed. In the decades that have followed since, we've celebrated exactly six championships. Two apiece in baseball (1980, 2008), basketball (1967, 1983) and hockey (1974-75). NONE in football, where every so-called Eagles "Dream Team" has ended in the same nightmare, only twice making it all the way to the Super Bowl.
These Phillies, though, were supposed to change that. And maybe they still will. But winning tonight only guarantees tomorrow. It won't erase the sins of the past. It simply gives you the opportunity to start fresh and go on.
"If we don't get it, it's our fault," said Charlie Manuel, who ironically just moved past Mauch as the franchise's all-time winningest manager, following Game 4.
If they don't get it, yes life will go on here in Philadelphia. So will sports.
But when it comes to the faith in the teams we pour our hearts and souls into, well, that may never be quite the same.