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Seance: Phillies at Nationals, Sept. 30-Oct. 2

Sept. 30: Phillies 4, Nationals 3 WP: Cory Lidle (13-11) LP: Livan Hernandez (15-10)
Oct. 1: Phillies 8, Nationals 4 WP: Brett Myers (13-8) LP: John Patterson (9-7)
Oct. 2: Phillies 9, Nationals 3 WP: Jon Lieber (17-13) LP: Hector Carrasco (5-4)

Game Three: Phils 9, Nats 3
Talk about bittersweet: the Phils close their best season in a dozen years with a big win in Washington behind ace Jon Lieber and emerging stars Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. But Houston holds on to win 6-4 and clinch the wild card.

Game Two: Phils 8, Nats 4
You wonder if at some point it will dawn on Phillies decisionmakers that this whole "veteranity" thing is severely overrated. With their postseason hopes flickering, the Phils won again today behind young stars Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Brett Myers, ensuring that their regular season finale had at least potential playoff implications. (The Astros beat Chicago 3-1 this afternoon, earning at least a tie for the wild-card spot; the Phils need a win tomorrow and a Houston loss to force a "play-in" game on Monday.) Howard smoked a three-run first-inning double and later added an upper-deck home run; Utley left pitcher-friendly RFK Stadium twice; Myers struck out 12 Washington hitters in 6 2/3 innings to win for the first time since Aug. 31. KEEP HOPE ALIVE!

Game One: Phils 4, Nats 3
A tense win as the Phils took an early lead against Livan Hernandez, then held on late for dear life. Cory Lidle turned in another strong start, Ryan Howard hit home run number 21, Burrell and Utley added RBIs. Ugueth Urbina came in with two out in the 7th; Billy Wagner did the same with two out in the 8th. Both of them, particularly Wagner, contributed to some drama that wasn't strictly necessary, from this phan's perspective. But the lead held up when Nick "Nephew of Bowa" Johnson popped back to the mound with the tying run on 3rd to end the game.

With the Astros' loss going final a half-hour later, the Phils' wild-card deficit is back down to one game. Welcome to Meaningful October Baseball.

I'm going to try and hold off the powerful urge to reminisce on the year evidently concluding or speculate about what's to come for our beloved Phillies. There'll be enough time for all that in the weeks and months ahead... and for now, we've got three games to win.

Which won't be easy. Though probably the Phils' top three starters are on tap for this weekend's action, it wouldn't be a stretch to argue that the Nationals have the advantage in at least the first two games of the series. Add in Washington's disappointing finish to the season after spending much of the first half leading the NL East; their wish to end the franchise's first season in DC on a high note; and that they just swept the Marlins--and it's a safe bet Frank Robinson's team is coming to play.

One possible advantage for the Phillies is that hyperactive Nationals GM Jim Bowden dealt lefty relief specialist Mike Stanton to Boston on Thursday for two minor leaguers. The Sox' gain in their weekend showdown with the Yankees could also lead to more advantageous late-game matchups for Phils lefty sluggers Chase Utley, Bobby Abreu and Ryan Howard.

The Phils enter their final road series of the season with a 39-39 record away from Citizens Bank Park. That's the best road record in the NL East, and tied for the fourth best in the league. The NL Central champion Cardinals are 50-31, and the Cubs are 40-38 away from the Friendly Confines--a mark we'll hope they improve upon in their last three games this year. Arizona has the same road record as the Phillies.

Sunday Preview
So it's come to this: Jon Lieber takes the Phils' hopes in his hands for this definitive must-win game. He's 2-1 in four starts against Washington this year, and has been brilliant on the road over the last month-plus. Lieber has also been a strong daytime pitcher all season, with a 9-5 record and 3.62 ERA in 15 afternoon starts. His oppoent is Hector Carrasco, who spent the first five and a half months of this season in the Washington bullpen; since joining the rotation, he's dropped his ERA from an already-impressive 2.04 to a frankly intimidating 1.73, and he brings a 17.2 inning scoreless streak into today's contest. Not bad for a guy who had spent two of the previous three seasons out of the majors. With a win today, the Nationals would not only eliminate the Phillies, but also clinch a winning record for their first season in Washington.

Saturday Preview
It was four weeks ago today that the Phillies faced John Patterson in a late-afternoon start at Washington's RFK Stadium. Like an unusually attractive adult film performer, Patterson benefited from both dim light and great stuff: he held the Phils to one run and five hits in 7 2/3 strong innings, but took a no-decision when the visitors rallied to tie the game in the 9th. (The Phils ultimately fell in 12 innings, 5-4, to start the five-game losing streak that nearly knocked them out of the race.) Brett Myers counters for the Phillies, coming off his best start in a month: a 7-inning no-decision against the Mets last Monday night in which Myers surrendered two runs. Even so, the 25 year-old has looked fatigued late in seasons, and doesn't have great career numbers against the Expos/Nationals: 3-5, 4.94 ERA in 11 games (10 starts). Facing Patterson, he'll likely need to improve on that for the Phils to extend their playoff push into the last day of the season.

Friday Preview
For his career, Hernandez--a pitcher many of us badly wanted the Phils to trade for last season, when the Expos were clearly dismantling--is 9-6 in 20 starts against the Phils, with a very strong 3.08 ERA. He's just 2-5 with a 5.40 ERA in his last ten starts, but still has gone at least six innings in nine of them, and pitched into the 8th or beyond in six. Livan could also pose the biggest threat to Jimmy Rollins' hit streak; J-Roll is a career .171 hitter against Hernandez. For what it's worth, Cory Lidle has strong career numbers of his own against Montreal/Washington: 5-0, 2.86 in 9 games (6 starts). If Lidle doesn't pick up the victory tonight, 2005 will be his third straight season with 12 wins.