Dead October

by longformphilly

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Matt Gelb | Philadelphia Inquirer | October 2011

Ryan Howard collapsed 30 feet from home plate when a season of high expectations came crashing down on his balky Achilles. The fans threw white towels onto the field as the Cardinals formed a pile on the right side of the infield at Citizens Bank Park Friday night. Here it was, the nightmare scenario, and it was worse than anyone could have imagined.

Howard lay on the ground as the final out of Game 5 was made to end the Phillies’ season with a 1-0 St. Louis victory that clinched the National League division series for the Cards. He had bounced meekly to second, and in one final hope to avoid making the final out for the second straight year, Howard pushed too much.

He was carried off the field by third-base coach Juan Samuel, assistant athletic trainer Mark Andersen, and Shane Victorino. It was a fitting image of another ruined season caused by a limp offense. Last year, Howard took strike three. This time, he barely made it further out of the box.

An entire city paused in shock. This was supposed to be Roy Halladay’s day – and it was, after navigating eight innings with 126 high-stress pitches. But the bats ruined it.

Howard will be the poster boy for failure. He was 0 for his final 15 in this series, his final at-bats before a five-year, $125 million contract commences in 2012. But there were plenty of other offenders.

The painful realization is that the Phillies have improved their regular-season record each year since the 2008 championship, yet each season has ended sooner in October. First it was an admirable defeat in the World Series to the Yankees. Then, an offensive coma befell them in the National League Championship Series against the Giants. And now, utter disappointment.

Each time his team came to bat Friday, Charlie Manuel moved from his trademark spot in the corner of the Phillies dugout to the steps. In the fourth inning, he was halfway up the stairs. By the sixth inning, his right foot rested on the top step. The manager had arrived at Citizens Bank Park at 10:30 a.m. and he, like the entire city, was restless.

Carpenter finished off the season with eight pitches in the ninth inning. Chase Utley drove a ball to the wall in center that was caught. Hunter Pence bounced one to third. Then Howard ended the season.

It was the first 1-0 shutout in a decisive Game 5 or 7 since 1991, when the Twins outlasted the Braves, 1-0, in Game 7 of the World Series, but Halladay played the role of John Smoltz, not Jack Morris.

The strength of the Four Aces was not enough this season, but the obituary for the 2011 Phillies will hardly show them as the culprits. They were derailed by an aging offense, one that swung at pitches out of the strike zone and failed to drive the ball.

Nervous energy filled the ballpark before the first pitch. When Halladay began his walk to the bullpen at 7:59 p.m., the smattering of fans in their seats cheered. Thirty-one minutes later, he was introduced as the starting pitcher, and it was impossible to hear his name above the yelling.

But just 11 minutes after that, there was silence. Halladay sauntered behind the mound, bounced the rosin bag off his right hand twice, and could merely watch as the Cardinals jumped ahead, two batters into the game.

They scored quickly because Halladay yet again stumbled in the first inning. Of his 34 starts this season, the first batter he faced reached 17 times. This time, Rafael Furcal tripled. The St. Louis shortstop got to third perhaps only because Victorino missed the cutoff man on his throw from center. The ball bounced past Utley and Jimmy Rollins fired it to third for a close play.

Furcal scored on a Skip Schumaker double. He hit a curveball on the 10th pitch of an epic at-bat in which he fouled off six pitches.

And that was the only criticism possible for Halladay on what was a spectacular night wasted by the offense. The list of crimes is lengthy. Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz were a combined 3 for 36 in the series, creating a veritable black hole at the bottom of the lineup. Pence grounded out in his final seven at-bats of the series.

Rollins and Utley were about the only ones with success – but no one was on base ahead of them or clutch enough behind them.

And once Howard crumbled to the grass, everyone was left speechless.

Writer bio: Matt Gelb, a Chalfont native, covers the Phillies for The Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com. He graduated from Central Bucks High School – West, and Syracuse University, before joining the Inquirer in 2009.

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