The defending champions of Major League Baseball played Game No. 175 of their season last night. It was also the most important.

The math confronting them was as cruel as it was simple - the Yankees could afford a loss, the Phillies couldn't.

For the first time over the last two enchanted postseasons, the Fightin's found themselves behind. Not an especially scenic view. One more defeat and they would be down to their last tomorrow.

Desperate is, as Forrest Gump might say, as desperate does.

So now, having fallen, 7-4, in Game No. 175, the math against them is even more daunting. They cannot lose. At all. And they have to win three in a row.

It's not the end of the world, but like they say, you can see it from here.

The Fightin's have spent the last two years demonstrating uncommon resilience. Now that trait will be tested as never before.

From the start, Game No. 175 had the feel of one of those legendary sparring wars in one of those storied Philadelphia gyms.

It was an intriguing pitching matchup, Joe Blanton of the Fightin's working on 12 days' rest, which qualifies as being on a cruise, and CC Sabathia working on only three days of recuperation.

Blanton is a beefy bulldog, stolid if not spectacular, generally reliable. In another time, he would wear red suspenders and a bowler hat and draw you a beer at the corner watering hole and come to your defense if a brawl broke out. He is a 6-3 pitcher - six innings and three runs, cranking them out like a mimeo machine.

Sabathia is a power forward disguised as a pitcher; from atop the mound he looms menacingly. The Yankees opened their considerable vault to acquire him, and were, for the most part, satisfied with the return on their money. The Fightin's, however, had mussed him up in other meetings.

The Phillie who remains an unfathomable mystery to Sabathia is Chase Utley and his short, jolting stroke. Utley could take BP in a phone booth. He swatted two home runs off Sabathia in Game 1, and last night in his first at-bat bounced an RBI double that was just shy of another homer.

The Yankees had leapt to a quick 2-0 lead after only five had batted. This included the third plunking in 24 hours of Alex Rodriguez, who was pardonably peeved. There was no intent, however, though both dugouts were issued warnings.

The heavyweight entertainment portion of the evening was provided by Ryan Howard. The Big Bopper flailed and failed his way through a horrid 0 for 9, including eight strikeouts, before finally lashing a single in the fourth. And then he turned on the jets.

He stole second.

With ease.

And then, propelled by Pedro Feliz's hit, Howard steamed around third and never broke stride. He barreled home with a belly slide into catcher Jorge Posada, elbowing the ball loose. It was a play he couldn't have made last year and 30 pounds ago.

It was also the sort of play that can rouse a team, and the Fightin's were in dire need of such a charge.

Blanton was lifted after six, and he was pretty much as advertised - six innings, four runs. Workmanlike. He left having permitted a robust offensive team only five hits. He left as he usually does, keeping his team in it, leaving the Phils with a change to win it.

Enter Utley. Sabathia had him buried in the count at 1-2 and then Kapow! High and deep and long gone. That walk-in closet swing is a thing of beauty.

Sabathia exited, also having done a commendable job - 62/3 innings and three runs.

Enter Joba Chamberlain and his flamethrower. He was gunning strike after strike past the Fightin's, about to fan the side in the eighth, when, without warning, Pedro Feliz got a bat on one of those flame balls and jacked it into the left-field stands, where the loyalists fell all over themselves scratching for the souvenir.

4-4.

The Fightin's were back to even.

Enter Brad Lidge. He was one strike away from retiring the side when Johnny Damon singled, stole second and then third when no Phillie covered, and came home on a ringing double by A-Rod. There followed two more runs. Just when you thought Lidge had been redeemed, well . . .

Enter Sandman. Mariano Rivera. Greatest relief pitcher of all time.

That sound you heard was the door being slammed shut.