It's hard to believe, but the Phillies' clinching win of the NLDS was actually more tense, more thrilling, more fulfilling than the long night's journey into morning that was the Game Three victory.
You had Cliff Lee, masterful through seven innings but undone by shoddy defense and relief in the eighth; you had Pedro Feliz, who turned in terrible at-bats again and again; you had Chase Utley, whose fielding mistake opened the floodgates for a Rockies rally that briefly looked like it would send the series back to Philadelphia for a decisive Game Five, but rebounded to turn in a great clutch at-bat in the ninth to get on base with the tying run; you had Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth, who delivered the big run-scoring hits that put the Phils back ahead; and finally, you had Scott Eyre, rebounding from what looked like a season-ending injury not even 20 hours before to get the first two outs in the ninth, and Brad Lidge, drinking again from the sweet cup of redemption, ending another series with another huge strikeout.
As in Game One, this one was about the starters early on. Shane Victorino hit a solo homer in the top of the first to give the Phils a quick 1-0 lead, and Ubaldo Jimenez was lucky to escape a 30-pitch first inning without further damage. But after escaping a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the third with strikeouts of Raul Ibanez and Werth, he locked in for awhile. Lee was even better, holding the Rockies to just four singles through the first five innings. Werth came up again in the top of the sixth and crushed a Jimenez offering into the Phillies bullpen for a 2-0 lead. Colorado finally got on the board in the bottom of the inning, as Todd Helton walked on a series of close pitches and Troy Tulowitzki doubled to the gap to score him. But Garrett Atkins followed with a lineout to Feliz at third that ended the inning as Tulowitzki, running on contact, was doubled off second.
The Phils had another great opportunity in the top of the eighth, loading the bases with one out on three Franklin Morales walks. But Rafael Betancourt came on to retire Feliz on one pitch, a weak popup to third, and escaped when Carlos Ruiz grounded back to the mound. It looked like the missed opportunities--nine men left on base to that point--would cost them as Colorado mounted their last, best rally in the home eighth. With one out, Lee walked Dexter Fowler. Helton came up next and grounded to Utley; rather than taking the sure out, Utley flipped toward second as Fowler leapt over him, possibly interfering; the ball bounced off the glove of Jimmy Rollins, putting two men on. That was it for Lee, as Charlie Manuel double-switched in Ryan Madson to pitch and Ben Francisco to play left field. He briefly looked like a genius when Francisco made a diving catch of Tulowitzki's shallow fly--but pinch-hitter Jason Giambi followed with a flared single to left, tying the game. The next hitter, Yorvit Torrealba, tormented the Phillies again with a double to the gap in right, scoring both men to give the Rockies a 4-2 lead.
Incredibly, the Phillies weren't done. After Greg Dobbs led off the ninth with a strikeout, Rollins singled off Huston Street for the third time in as many at-bats in this series. Victorino grounded into a fielder's choice, bringing up Utley with two outs; on a full count, Utley took an outside pitch to earn a free pass. Howard followed with a ringing double to right that scored both men--despite Victorino's hesitation at third base, which almost caused Utley to catch him--and tied the game. Then Werth delivered his biggest hit in a series full of them: with two strikes, he got his arms extended to knock an outside pitch over the head of Clint Barmes into shallow right. Howard steamed around third and scored without a throw to give the Phils a 5-4 lead.
With left-handed hitters due in the ninth, Manuel turned to Scott Eyre, evidently recovered from that ankle injury on Fowler's Game Three bunt. He induced a groundout from pinch-hitter Eric Young Jr., but could not stop the force of nature that was Carlos Gonzalez in this series: the Rockies outfielder blooped a single into left to put the tying run on. Fowler followed with a soft lineout to Rollins, but Helton singled up the middle to put the potential winning run on. With right-hander Tulowitzki due, Manuel waved in Brad Lidge. He got ahead of Tulowitzki 1-2 with an outside fastball and a slider taken for strikes, and after a check-swing that made it 2-2, ended the series with a 2008-vintage slider on which the Rockies shortstop could not hold up.
These last two nights were playoff baseball at its best. Now it's time to catch up on sleep, take some deep breaths, and get ready for another rematch--against the Dodgers, for the National League pennant.