By DAVID MURPHY
DENVER, Col. - Their eyes were drooping and half-glazed over, their bodies slouched, their words delivered in a tired monotone. As Charlie Manuel and Brad Lidge sat inside an interview tent just outside Coors Field and tried to make some sense out of the previous four-plus hours, they looked like many of us might had we spent an October evening outside in sub-freezing temperature waging what felt like a do-or-die fight for the right to keep playing baseball.
But after it was over, after they climbed into a golf cart that whisked them back to the warm confines of the visitor's clubhouse, both men cracked smiles: Lidge riding shot-gun, Manuel seated on a bench attached to the back, his legs dangling over the edge as he he grinned at the various passersby walking behind him.
"I like it," said Manuel, who a half hour before had watched Lidge coax Troy Tulowitzki into a pop-out that sealed a dramatic 6-5 victory over the Rockies in Game 3 of the NLDS. "Even when i hate it, I like it. But it tests you. But you know what, that's the good part about it. That's what the game's all about."
It will go in the record books as a simple "W," same as the one the Phillies recorded four days earlier in Game 1. It was not do-or-die. It clinched nothing but the potential to clinch today. But on a night when a valiant bullpen and an opportunistic offense and an embattled closer somehow willed the Phillies to victory in record-cold, their sudden 2-1 series lead felt like so much more.
It was a game that they were supposed to lose. Their starting pitcher lasted just three innings, allowing three runs while struggling with both his fastball command and a home plate umpire who wasn't about to cut him a break. Their lone experienced left-handed reliever left the game in the seventh after facing just two batters, spraining his ankle while trying to field a soft groundball that put runners on first and third with no out in a game they led 5-4. And all of it happened in freezing weather, in a game where the 35-degree temperature at opening pitch tied it with Game 4 of the 1997 World Series for the coldest postseason contenst on record.
But thanks to several tales of redemption, along with catcher Carlos Ruiz's two RBI, they not only prevailed, but left themselves with two chances to secure their second straight trip to the National League Championship Series.
After lefthander J.A. Happ left the game after just three innings, the Phillies bullpen allowed two runs in six innings of work, capped off when Lidge converted his first save opportunity since blowing his 11th of the regular season on Sept. 23. Righthander Joe Blanton, moved from starter to reliever to fortify an injury-riddled relief staff, allowed one run - a solo shot by Carlos Gonzalez in the fourth - in 2 2/3 innings. After lefthander Scott Eyre left the game with a sprained ankle, Manuel called on set-up man/closer Ryan Madson to work out of the jam. He allowed a sacrifice fly to Tulowitzki that evened the score, but limited the damage and preserved a 5-5 tie. Righthander Chad Durbin, whose spot on the playoff roster was in question as recently as the middle of September, pitched a perfect eighth inning.
"(Brett) Myers said, ‘Madson, you’re in.’ And I said, ‘Ah. Good one.’ I thought he was joking," Madson said. "Really. . .I was happy to get the ball in that moment. I was, like, ‘This is going to be fun.’
But it was the performance of two beleaguered Phillies hitters who finally set the stage for Lidge. Short stop Jimmy Rollins, who entered the ninth inning with just two hits in the first three games of the series, laced a single up the middle of Rockies closer Huston Street. After Shane Victorino bunted him over to second, Chase Utley hit a questionable grounder that he legged out for an infield single, moving Rollins to third. Replays showed that Utley's batted ball hit him in the leg, suggesting that it should have been ruled foul. But home plate umpire Jerry Meals - and Colorado manager Jim Tracy - did not see it, leaving Utley safe at first and Rollins representing the go-ahead run at third.
Utley, who entered the game 2-for-8 in the series, had already homered and scored two runs on the night. Ryan Howard then drove the winning run home with a sacrifice fly.
"The ball might have hit me," Utley said. "It's cold out there. My body was numb. I've been in a situation before where I didn't run and it was an easy out."
Meals acknowledged later that he missed the call.
"I never heard it, never saw it," Meals said. "If anybody would've seen it, had an idea that it hit him ... chase utley took off like it was nothing. He gave no indication to us that it hit him. Whatever percent of the time, you're going to get a guy that's going to stop if it hits him."
Regardless, the game was in the hands of Lidge, a man who early last week expressed optimism about the upcoming postseason. His 11 blown saves and 7.21 ERA, which left Manuel turning to Madson in save situations, were wiped away. Last night, he started the postseason 1-for-1. He retired Brad Hawpe, then walked Carlos Gonzalez, who stole second. He got Jason Giambi to pop out on a cut fastball, a pitch he only recently began throwing in games. Then he walked Todd Helton, putting the winning run on first with the tying run already on second and the always-dangerous Tulowitzki at the plate.
And then it happened: Tulowitzki sent a lazy fly ball to left field. Defensive replacement Ben Francisco hovered under it. Ball met glove. Lidge pumped his fist.
And just like that, Cliff Lee was pitching today in Game 4 with a chance to clinch.
"When the postseason starts, it's a completely new slate," said Lidge, who saved seven games last postseason during the Phillies' run to the title. "I feel real good in the postseason and in general right now. So hopefully we'll keep doing the job as a whole that we did with the bullpen tonight."
Scott Eyre was diagnosed with a mild sprained left ankle. He will be re-evaluated today. Eyre said he is determined to remain on the NLDS roster. If he is replaced, he would have to miss the NLCS.
"I'll be fine," he said.