Most sound baseball analysis pooh-poohs the notion that one can point to a single game out of 162 and claim that game alone was the reason a team didn't make the playoffs. After all, over six months of games, virtually every team --- good, bad and indifferent -- wins games they had no business winning, and loses others they had no business losing. No one game is the culprit.
But for the 2005 Phillies' season, sound baseball analysis be damned. We'll come out and say it: September 7, 2005, is the reason the Phillies didn't make the post-season.
On that night, the Phillies lost a game that rivaled Game 4 and Game 6 of the 1993 World Series in terms of emotional devastation. They were playing their last game against the Astros, against whom they had already lost the first five games of the season series (and who had swept the six game series in 2004). After the Phils took an early lead, the Astros came back to make it 5-3 with a sixth inning three-run home run by Mike Lamb.
The Phillies could have packed it in after that blow, but they rallied in the eighth. Jason Michaels led off the inning with a walk, Chase Utley flew out to deep center field, and up stepped Bobby Abreu. Often criticized, completely unfairly we might add, for not being clutch, Abreu crushed a ball into the center-field bullpen, tying the game at 5. The small but intelligent and playoff-starved crowd went crazy. Pat Burrell followed with a walk, putting the go-ahead run on first base with one out.
At this point, the rest of the game became a microcosm of the season. With Endy Chavez on the roster for no good use other than as a pinch runner, Charline Manuel inexplicably didn't pinch run for Burrell during Ryan Howard's at-bat. Howard crushed a double that would have easily scored a speedster from first, but the slow-footed Burrell had to hold up at third. As if his brain was on a one-minute time delay, with men on second and third, Manuel finally had the brilliant idea to pinch run for Burrell, putting Chavez in for him. David Bell was intentionally walked, putting Michael Tucker at the plate with bases loaded and one out. Tucker hit a sharp grounder that resulted in a fielder's choice at home, getting Chavez easily. Again, bases were loaded, but with two outs for pinch-hitter Shane Victorino. Victorino proved that he should have been with the team much longer, getting a clutch single to right, plating Howard as the go-ahead run. The inning should have continued from there, but for some reason, Bell tried to score. He was either waved home by the almost-always-misjudging third-base coach Bill Dancy, or he ran through a sign. Either way, he was out at home by the proverbial country mile. The inning was over with the Phils leading, but that lead could have and should have been more than one run. Manuel's sluggish thinking and Bell's general awfulness kept it at 6-5.
No matter, right? The Phils' star reliever, Billy Wagner, entered the game to close down the Astros in the ninth. Wagner easily retired the first two batters, getting the crowd on their feet for the final out. Then, up stepped career journeyman Jose Vizcaino, who hit a hard grounder to Bell that should have been the final out of the game. Bell, however, made one of his 21 errors for the season, putting Vizcaino at first. Easy-out Willy Taveras, who brought .666 OPS into the game, stepped to the plate. He hit a grounder to Jimmy Rollins who was playing him too deep, allowing Taveras to reach first on an infield single. Two men were on base, from two balls that never left the infield. Wagner then faced his old friend, Craig Biggio, who ran a 1-1 count and then, as Phils' annoyance --- that is, announcer -- Chris Wheeler would say, dropped his bathead on the ball. The crowd was silent as Biggio's line drive sailed over the left field fence, giving the Astros an 8-6 lead the Phils couldn't overcome in the ninth.
This was the kind of loss that kills a sports fan's spirit. It makes you question why you engage in this fruitless endeavor of rooting for a team. Worse still, as the emotional impact of the loss carries over into the rest of your night and the next morning, it makes you realize that this game played by overpaid adults has too deep a hold on your life. But, that realization doesn't change the fact that this one loss was the difference. Had the Phils won and the rest of the season been the same (we understand that's what's known in the business as a "big if"), the Phillies would have made the playoffs for the first time since 1993 and the Astros would have stayed home in October, never reaching the World Series.
Damn this game, and damn this team we love.