SAN FRANCISCO - As it turned out, Charlie Manuel's mistake wasn't putting his faith in Joe Blanton for Game 4. It was losing faith in Blanton too early.
Yanking Blanton in the fifth inning, when he still had the lead, set in motion a chain of events that ended with Roy Oswalt's gamely trying, and failing, to pitch in an unfamiliar role.
Oswalt, who pitched eight innings on Sunday, gave up two singles and a sacrifice fly that will haunt these Phillies for a long time. They are now one loss from a long, cold winter of regret and second-guessing. The Phillies have to go 3-0 in the same pitching matchups that produced one win and two losses earlier in the series.
Oswalt watched Juan Uribe's fly ball soar into left. He watched Aubrey Huff, whose one-out single gave the Giants life, sprint home with the game-winning run. Oswalt snatched Ben Francisco's short throw out of the air with a disgusted wave of his glove, then turned and walked toward the Phillies' dugout as the celebrating Giants danced and fell in front of him.
But it wasn't Oswalt who lost this game. It was Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee, whose pitching maneuvers were puzzling all game long.
We'll never know what would have happened if they had started Roy Halladay on short rest Wednesday night. Maybe he would have shut the Giants down, maybe not. Manuel's gamble was that Blanton would turn in a decent start, the offense would score a few runs off rookie Madison Bumgarner, and the series would be tied.
And that's just what was happening until Manuel walked to the mound with two out in the bottom of the fifth inning. Let's be clear. No one is suggesting Blanton is any more than what he is, a good major-league pitcher. He does not have the stellar array of pitches that Halladay, Oswalt, and Cole Hamels use to dazzle hitters. He is not a shutout waiting to happen.
But Manuel and Dubee decided to give him the ball in the biggest game of the postseason so far.
"We pitched Blanton and we had a chance to win the game," Manuel said, bristling at having to defend the original decision again. "Blanton had a lead when he left."
But that's the problem. If starting Blanton was the right call, then logic dictates they needed to go all in with him. If he was good enough to deserve this start, he was good enough to finish the fifth and then go another inning or two.
Manuel came to the mound after Huff slashed an RBI single to center. It was the Giants' only hit of the inning. Blanton had walked the leadoff hitter, Andres Torres. He got Edgar Renteria to hit a grounder to third base that might have been a double play if Placido Polanco hadn't booted the ball. Polanco was able to get Renteria at first, but Torres was in scoring position.
After Freddy Sánchez lined out to center, Huff hit a ball that nearly took Blanton's head off. Shane Victorino made a strong throw home, but Torres beat it by a half-step.
Buster Posey was up next. He had singled and doubled off Blanton earlier in the game. That was no doubt on Manuel's mind when he decided to bring in Jose Contreras. The move worked in the short term, as Contreras struck Posey out.
But when you looked out and saw Chad Durbin, Antonio Bastardo, Kyle Kendrick, and, ultimately, Oswalt warming up, you had to wonder. Blanton had thrown just 63 pitches. He still had the lead. If Posey had done some damage, then yes, it would probably be time to make a change. But Blanton deserved a chance to get out of the inning.
Instead, Manuel asked a bullpen that hasn't had much work to pitch almost half the game.
It didn't go well.
Durbin gave up the lead with a nightmarish sixth inning. He started by walking Pat Burrell, something that used to be nearly impossible to do. Then the improbable Cody Ross sliced a double down the left-field line. That brought the rotund Pablo Sandoval to his second-favorite plate.
Manuel said he considered bringing in the lefthanded Bastardo to flip the switch-hitting Sandoval to the right side. Instead, the plan was for Durbin to stay away from the strike zone and get the free-swinging Sandoval to strike himself out.
That didn't go well. Sandoval's two-run double gave the Giants the lead. The Phillies managed to tie the game in the eighth. The Giants went to their closer, Brian Wilson, for the ninth. The Phillies, their bullpen mostly used up with extra innings suddenly looming, went to Oswalt.
That didn't go well, either, and now the Phillies are one loss from going home.