For the last three years, this Phillies team has been a lot like those you-know-what's who always end up killing Kenny in South Park. It doesn't matter what trajectory the plot arc happens to be traveling, at some point, you know what is going to happen. And so you sit there, and you wait for it. For the refridgerator to fall from the sky, or the street sweeper to fly around the corner, or the pack of wild dogs to congregate. Or, in the Phillies case, for the big hit or timely defensive play that changes everything.
You wait for Brett Myers working a walk off of C.C. Sabathia, or Ryan Howard throwing out the potential winning run at home, or Matt Stairs hitting a home run against Jonathan Broxton, or Jimmy Rollins knocking a walk-off hit.
Four games into this National League Championship Series, you continue to wait for that moment. Today, you wake up to the possibility that baseball season might be over, the earliest you have done so over the past three seasons. It is Oct. 21, and the Phillies' are facing elimination. We aren't used to the season ending before daylight savings time does.
Maybe this is all just groundwork for their grandest trick yet. Maybe in a few short days they will be looking down at you with that familiar cock-sure expression, once again wondering why anybody would ever doubt them. Down three-games-to-one? Bah, we always had it.
Yet if that is the case, they are doing one hell of a job of selling the set-up. Because for the last week, the Phillies have looked more mortal than they have in any National League playoff series since 2007.
It starts with action on the field. Shane Victorino double clutching on a throw to home last night. Aaron Rowand throwing Carlos Ruiz out at home. The bullpen surrendering two big runs in the sixth inning.
But it extends to the managerial decisions. Almost without exception, Charlie Manuel has found a way to consistently pull the right string over the past few years.
Last night, though, was something different.
1) Removing Joe Blanton after 63 pitches
I thought it was a tough decision at the time, for the sheer fact that the Phillies suddenly needed their bullpen to record 13 outs, their longest work of the postseason. And it was unclear how they would get those outs, particularly in a tie game (as it turns out, Roy Oswalt ended up having to make a cameo). But on further reflection, it was the obvious move. Blanton was facing Buster Posey, who already had two hits and two RBI off of him, with a man on base. Jose Contreras responded with a strikeout. Blanton said after the game that he could have gone longer, but that he understood that pulling him there was the right move for a tight postseason game.
You could argue, though, that Manuel should have brought J.C. Romero or Antonio Bastardo in to face the lefty Huff in the previous at-bat.
2) Not bunting Jimmy Rollins
This is probably the most curious decision of them all. You know the set-up: Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth had just led off the eighth with back-to-back doubles to tie the game and put the go-ahead run at second with no out. If the Phillies could move the runner to third base in the next at-bat, they would have the go-ahead run at third with less than two out, meaning it would likely score on most balls in play.
At the plate was Jimmy Rollins, who has actually been one of the team's better hitters this NLCS, but who was batting from the left side of the plate, where he has struggled to find his timing all season (he had a hit earlier in the game, but it came from the right side of the plate). Rollins hasn't been asked to sacrifice this season, but he was 2-for-2 last year and 3-for-3 in 2008. In his career, he is 33-for-43 (77 percent) on sacrfice bunt attempts.
Statistics will tell you that bunting is almost never the proper move. And on that, Charlie Manuel and math-heads will agree.
But however strong a probability they had of being right, they ended up being wrong. Rollins popped out, and Sergio Romo struck out the last two batters to strand Werth at second. Sure, Rollins had bunted the run over and Romo had struck out the last two batters, the run wouldn't have scored. But a man on third has a great possibility to change pitch selection. So nobody knows what would have happened.
Manuel explained his decision pretty much by saying, "You don't bunt Jimmy Rollins in that situation."
"Rollins usually pulls the ball," Manuel said. "If he hits the ball to the right side of the dime, that's one of his strong points, he's got a short quick swing to the left side that he usually pulls the ball. Not only that, if he pulls the ball, he also has a chance to get a hit or drive the run in. And that's how you play the game. And we do that a lot with Rollins. We let him hit there because that's one of his big strong suits from the left side is pull the ball."
3) Letting Ben Francisco face Romo in the eighth.
Manuel said after the game he thought about pinch-hitting the left-handed Raul Ibanez for Francisco there in the eighth inning with one out and Werth on second. But, Manuel said, he thought if he did that the Giants would respond by bringing in a lefty out of their bullpen, forcing Manuel to either let Ibanez hit against a lefty, or burn Ibanez and replace him with a right-handed hitter like Mike Sweeney. Only problem, then, is who would play left field with both Ibanez and Francisco out of the game. Rookie outfielder Domonic Brown had already pinch-hit, and we're assuming Manuel did not want to give Oswalt his second stint as a left fielder.
Ross Gload, however, was available on the bench. He started six games in right field during the regular season and played one game in left. But he hadn't played the outfield since late July, before he strained his groin in a game against the Dodgers.
"That was a choice there," Manuel said. "I either let -- if I pinch-hit for Francisco there and they bring in the lefty, which he's going to do, if I don't want Francisco hitting off a lefty, I can send Sweeney up and all of a sudden I don't have a left fielder, I don't have a left fielder left.
But at the same time I kind of like Francisco had two good at-bats and I kind of liked him hitting on Romo we know what he's going to do, throw sliders. I kind of liked him hitting there plus he had a couple of good at-bats during the game."
There are plenty of other decisions you can break down, including the one that had Manuel calling on Game 6 starter Roy Oswalt to pitch the ninth instead of closer Brad Lidge, who didn't end up appearing in the game at all.
Now, of course, the Phillies are simply hoping there will be a Game 6.