About two weeks ago, I got an e-mail from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, the original Bracketologist whose work I eat with a spoon every winter. Joe, a big baseball guy, and I have been talking about getting together for a game now that I’m back in New York, and he wanted to invite me to a Phillies/Braves game at Citizens Bank Park during the last week of the season. I quickly accepted, and with crossed fingers, said, “Maybe it’ll even be an important game.” Just a couple of days ago, I was holding out similar hope, only it was for the idea that the Braves, rather than the Phillies, would be making news. After all, the Braves had been coming on strong and closed to within three games of the wild card on Tuesday night. A win Wednesday would make Thursday’s game an elimination game of sorts.

While I was noodling over scenarios between those two teams, I was also going on radio, on TV, and on the Internet, and telling anyone who would pay attention that the Phillies weren’t going to catch the Mets, that the New Yorkers’ late-season scuffling wasn’t going to cost them the division, that they would probably get straightened out with Pedro Martinez on the mound against whatever is left of the Cardinals.

These two storylines came together last night as I stood amidst a boisterous, towel-waving, giddy crowd of 40,589 (their ranks swollen by a huge walk-up), watching the Phillies win for the 11th time in 14 games and move into a tie for first place in the National League East.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: sometimes, being wrong isn’t all that bad. I had as much fun last night as I’ve had at a ballpark in a long time, caught up in the enthusiasm that the crowd has for this Phillies team, a flawed, fun, streaking group of players who have come back from the near-dead to take control of their own playoff destiny. Not since the 2002 Division Series in Anaheim, when I watched the Angels dispatch the Yankees in a hail of Thundersticks and singles, have I felt a crowd get this behind a ballclub, and be this into a game.

The linescore makes it look more like a blowout than it really was. In fact, the Phillies’ early 6-0 lead might never have come about if not for one mistake by starter John Smoltz. After Jimmy Rollins opened the first with a single, Shane Victorino laid down a nice bunt between the mound and the third-base line. Smoltz got to the ball, but should have eaten it; it was going to take a perfect throw, and Smoltz made his falling away from the play. The throw tailed on him, flying past Mark Teixeira and down the right field line. Rollins scored all the way from first-watching him reach fourth gear was a highlight of the evening-and Victorino went to third. With the corners in on the grass, Chase Utley hit a ball off of Teixeira’s glove that scored Victorino, and Howard followed with a two-run home run for a 4-0 lead, and pandemonium.

Now, rewind and recreate the inning from the point at which Smoltz gets to Victorino’s bunt. If instead of throwing it to a cutting Kevin Curtis he instead puts it in his pocket, the Phillies have first and second with no one out. Teixeira is playing normally for Utley, and the same ball becomes a 3-6-3 or 3-6-1 double play. With two outs and a runner on third, Howard is almost certainly pitched around, yielding two outs, two on, and Aaron Rowand at the plate.

There’s no saying that the Phillies wouldn’t have scored a bunch of runs and won the game anyway in that scenario. Smoltz’s error-or errors, if you want to ding him for both the decision and the throw-completely changed the game, eventually providing Kyle Kendrick a comfortable cushion for his unimpressive stuff. Allowed by his offense to make a mistake or two, Kendrick tossed zeroes into the sixth, keeping the ball down for most of the night before elevating a couple of pitches to Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira. His six-inning, three-run outing was Kendrick’s 13th quality start in 20 tries, and if many of those are the traditionalist-angering type, such as last night’s, a team with the Phillies’ offense finds those performances incredibly valuable.

I spent a lot of time talking about Kendrick with one of Joe’s friends-also named Joe, giving our group three of us-and we concluded that he’s a staff filler, a number four, a guy whose main value will be in the innings he throws, not necessarily their quality. At what he’ll be paid for the next few seasons, that’s not bad; I see more downside than upside, however, especially given the environment.

Speaking of that environment… CBP’s reputation as a bandbox is well-earned. Howard’s home run benefited from the porch in right field, and Pat Burrell‘s was a nine-iron shot that might have been an out in 27 other ballparks. At game’s start, the wind was blowing out so fiercely that I predicted a 21-20 game; the wind died down steadily as the game progressed, but I can only imagine that on days it stays windy, it’s like pitching in the fourth circle of hell. The ballpark feels small, the way Wrigley Field or Fenway Park does, contrasted to, say, the sense you get at Jacobs Field or Comerica Park. As a fan of variety in baseball environments, I love them all, and I would love to see a Phillies/Padres matchup in the postseason, just for that clash of extremes.

Other notes from last night, and in looking forward to what should be a great weekend:

  • It wasn’t until I got back home that I realized we’d seen history made. Ryan Howard‘s third-inning strikeout was his 196th of the season, breaking the single-season mark held by Adam Dunn. Barring a strange weekend in which he strikes out just twice, Howard will become the first player to ever whiff 200 times in a season. Keep in mind that he missed two weeks with a quadriceps injury along the way.

    We did also see the Phillies become, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the first team to reach first place for the first time as late as 159 games into the season. Anyone remember that they started 4-11?

  • The Phils’ bullpen held up last night, with Tom Gordon, J.C. Romero, and Brett Myers combining to allow one run in three innings. Myers made it interesting in the ninth, but shut the door before Chipper Jones could get one last crack at being a hero. Charlie Manuel has ridden these three guys mercilessly this month; all have made at least 14 appearances in September, with Romero appearing in a whopping 18 of the Phillies’ 25 games. They haven’t been terrific-Romero has been the best of the bunch, allowing just three hits in that time-but they’ve been good enough. It’s not always about pitching and defense; sometimes, it’s about bludgeoning your way so far in front of your pitching and defense that it won’t matter.

  • The Cardinals were very popular in Philadelphia last night, as the crowd reacted every time the score of the Mets game changed in Philly, and roared as the big screen broadcast the final out of that contest between the eighth and ninth innings of our game.

    I honestly don’t know what to say about the Mets, who finally got a good performance from their pitching staff only to get shut out in the process. I am not one, have never been one, to extrapolate a failure of character from a failure of performance, and I won’t do so now. What I will say is that I don’t know what kind of pressure a player feels in this scenario, and whether whatever a player feels affects his play. I suspect it is an intensely personal thing, influenced by much more than what kind of ballplayer he is. Major league players go through so many tests to get to this point that I just don’t think you can make general statements that a team is “choking,” because the implication that the performance reflects a failure of character, rather than simply a failure to play baseball well, is too big a leap to make given all that these players have done before.

    I recognize the desire to create a story, but I just don’t find the story believable. The Mets’ players weren’t better people than the Phillies’ players two weeks ago, and they’re not worse people than them today.

  • Outside of the NL East, the big story yesterday was the Diamondbacks holding back Brandon Webb for fear of long rain delays costing him the start, then beating the Pirates 8-0 anyway. So they retain their lead in the division and they get to use their best starting pitcher tonight against the team that hasn’t lost since June or so. That’s a very nice development, and for the Diamondbacks, a much-needed stop to their brief slide.

    The Diamondbacks and Cubs are the only teams that can clinch a postseason berth tonight, and they need help to do so. It is possible that we will have seven teams alive, and no one in the postseason, with two days left in the season.

  • Jim Baker has much more on the weekend’s games. I’ll fill this space over the weekend as events warrant…while checking train schedules for a possible return trip to Philly on Monday for a one-game playoff.

    September is a gift.

Thank you for reading

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