Rich Hofmann | Kendrick doesn't know he should be a nervous rook

Kyle Kendrick covers first base to retire Jeff Francoeur on grounder to second.

STILL A ROOKIE? "I'm a rookie, yeah, definitely,"

Kyle Kendrick said, so very

comfortable in his skin, not wide-eyed, not at all, despite all of the yelling and the fireworks and the history being made all around him.

They have been big games for the Phillies, every one of them, for weeks now. Such is the nature of the chase. Watching the horror that has engulfed the New York Mets is only half of the deal. The other half is here, with this team, night after emotion-draining night. But this one, last night, was the biggest of them all (at least until tonight). And this one, last night, was Kendrick's.

Six innings, three earned runs, another quality start, another win: Phils 6, Braves 4. The bridge to the seventh inning, so often a bridge too far for the Phillies, was built by Kendrick with professional calm. The rookie who started the season in Double A has earned the highest of compliments this year in that people now expect him to be good, expect him not to get rattled, even on a night when Citizens Bank Park trembled and the Phillies pulled even with the stricken Mets.

How best to describe it? Phils manager Charlie Manuel said, "Yeah, I feel like in some ways I'm sending out a kid but, at the same time, he does a man's job. He puts us in a good position to win the game and he keeps his poise good and he keeps working."

Kendrick is 23, born in 1984, 20 years after 1964. Nineteen sixty-four. It is the year that gives Philadelphia sports fans a kind of psychic identity. Even if you weren't old enough to experience it, you still know about it. You couldn't not know about it, even if the details remain somewhere between hazy and mythical: Yes, the Reds' Chico Ruiz did steal home against them to start the slide but, no, Jim Bunning and Chris Short were not the only two pitchers that manager Gene Mauch ran out there during the collapse.

But those details matter little. The epic collapse - the Phils blew a 6 1/2-game lead with 12 to play - remains the sturdy framework upon which this town has hung every one of its sporting insecurities for the last four decades.

And now it is the Mets who are challenging that awful history, to the Phillies' everlasting benefit. The Mets had a seven-game lead in the NL East with 17 games to play and now it is gone, vanished, pffft, with three games left. And while a Philadelphian's perverse pride would insist that 1964 was worse - make that a really perverse pride - the Mets have edged themselves toward a memorable historical abyss.

As for the Phillies, they have nudged the Mets when they haven't pushed them. As closer Brett Myers said, "This ballclub has kept winning and I think it put some pressure on them."

It is the starting pitching that has led them the last two nights, the last crucial nights, first Kyle Lohse and then Kendrick. He allowed three runs in six innings last night, the back-to-back homers by Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira marring the ending, but not destroying it.

And Myers said: "We just had two of the best starts of the year with Lohse and Kendrick tonight. For a rookie to go out there and pitch in that atmosphere and keep a good-hitting ballclub down the way he did, that's great . . . He pitched a heck of a game. That speaks accolades to what he's done this year."

No one was surprised at what Kendrick did last night. Everyone expected it. Nothing seems to faze him, not even a ballpark that really was just drunk with emotion - from the game, from the scoreboard watching, from the unlikeliness of it all.

"This is what it's about," Kendrick said. "If you don't want to pitch in that game, I don't know. It was a lot of fun . . .

"We've still got a lot of work to do but we're right there. We're right there. We've just got to come back tomorrow and do the same thing."

But, well, how?

"I just do what I do, what I did in Double A, just attack the strike zone, attack the hitters, get ahead," Kendrick said. "The main thing for me is just give my team a chance to win . . . To see them swing the bats like that every night is pretty impressive."

This was Kendrick's last regular-season start. But with three games left, it most likely will be all-hands-on-deck on Saturday and Sunday. For his part, Kendrick raised his hand: "If they want me to help them on Saturday or Sunday, I'll take the ball. No question."

It is what you would expect him to say.

And this:

"We haven't done anything yet," said Kyle Kendrick, wise man, age 23. *

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