10/27/08 3:06 AM ET
Phillies are still one win away but...
Sense of impending championship enveloping city and fans
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
It is a city that is ready to explode.
That is not a word you are supposed to use in journalism unless you are talking about an actual chemical explosion. But there is no other word. It has been too long. It has been too frustrating. It has been a quarter century since Moses Malone and Dr. J and the 76ers last gave the City of Brotherly Love a professional sports championship, and it was further back in 1980 that the Phillies won their only title.
The energy level keeps rising and rising. Joe Blanton is "closing my eyes" and hitting home runs now. Ryan Howard is not only out of his slump, but he is also hitting more than one homer in a game again. Jimmy Rollins is reaching base four times and scoring thrice at leadoff. The Phillies bullpen is untouchable, and Ryan Madson is becoming maybe the scariest setup man in the game. The breaks seem to be going their way.
Fans are twirling their white rally towels in unison throughout the games, and each time it looks like mid-January with a snowstorm shrouding the landscape. They are starting to talk more and more about 1980. They have not seen their Phillies lose at home yet this postseason -- 6-0 at this dreamy, sapphire stadium so far -- and they are daring to feel confident. But they have seen too much in the past to fully let it go, kind of like those Red Sox fans were feeling after Game 3 of the 2004 Fall Classic.
Their Phillies have a 3-1 lead over the Cinderella-story Rays in the best-of-seven 104th World Series, the Home Run Series. After three games that could have gone either way, Charlie Manuel's team just broke open a game for the first time this series, this one a 10-2 blowout on Sunday night. Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria are a collective 0-for-29 with 15 strikeouts on the Tampa Bay side. The National League is on the verge of beating the American League for the ultimate glory for the second time in the last three years.
"We're one game away, but we're still one game away," Rollins said, sitting next to Howard at the dais in the postgame interview room. "So if we get that game, I believe we will be happy, the city will be happy, there will be a big parade and kind of, I guess, getting that monkey off our back for that drought of a championship."
Perhaps the biggest reason of all for the fast-building steam in this boiling pot is a young left-hander named Cole Hamels, who is on the mound tonight in Game 5 with the chance for a clincher that could make him the only Major Leaguer in history to win five games in a postseason strictly as a starting pitcher. Randy Johnson (2001) and Francisco Rodriguez (2002) won five, both with at least one relief outing. It is an all-too-perfect scenario for the Phillies. They can clinch at home and see a true parade of parades.
"It's a little bit tougher the second time around because the adjustments are made," Howard said, referring to Hamels' second start of the series. "And if Cole goes out there and makes his adjustments and just does what he's been doing, I think we'll be fine. The team has the utmost confidence in him. But at the same time, we as hitters have to go out there and put up runs for him. So if Cole just goes out there and be Cole, or Hollywood, then, hey, we're looking pretty good."
Of course, this whole thing also can go back to St. Petersburg for a Game 6 on Wednesday and possibly a Game 7 on Thursday. Anything can happen then, because the Rays had the best home record in the Majors this season. It could be time for more cowbells. But "I Can't Go For That" is a hit song Daryl Hall once sang along with John Oates back in the day when the Phillies won it all, and now Hall is coming to sing the national anthem before Game 5.
A big night awaits, very possibly the biggest night your average baseball fan under the age of 30 ever witnessed. Champagne awaits. One of the most explosive metropolitan celebrations in recent memory now awaits, and hopefully ample common sense and safety, as well. At least one more baseball game in 2008 awaits, and there could be more. Tampa Bay just won three consecutive games in its last series against the Red Sox, something Rays manager Joe Maddon was reminded.
"Yeah, I mean, you're right, but I don't even like to talk about three in a row," he said. "The mantra has been one at a time. I want to approach it that way. That's how we've approached the whole season. It's about beating the guy tomorrow and getting back home. It's about tomorrow. I don't want us looking any further ahead than that.
"Their pitcher is really good; so is ours [Scott Kazmir]. We have to not give them four outs in an inning. We have to have better at-bats. We have to see more pitches. Those are the keys to our success that have gotten away from us a bit. To the Phillies' credit, they've played really well and they are very good, but we have to play our game in order to win tomorrow and the next couple of days after that."
Listening to Phillies manager Charlie Manuel in the afterglow of Game 4, it is no wonder his team is where it is right now. The Phillies have a quiet air of business, focused on the first inning to come and then on the second inning. They have seen what Pena and Longoria can do; they saw the Rays come from the end of the baseball world and rise past an entire league to reach this showcase, this grandest of sporting events.
When asked what he would tell his team about being up 3-1, it is as if Manuel's advice was meant for the whole town.
"Same thing I've been telling them about seven months: We've got a game tomorrow. We played today to win the game. We did. We've got a game tomorrow. We're going to play that game to win. And we take it one day at a time. I've been saying that now, I'm sure, people around here are getting tired of it. I say that every day ... and we sell it to all of our players, and that's kind of how we play. We're going to give everything we got and put it into [Game 5], all the effort we possibly can."
If that effort is enough for a victory, then the Philadelphia Phillies will be the 2008 world champions in baseball. They will have a celebration scene in the stadium that generations to come will remember, the same way so many remember the last time the Phillies won it all. It was so long ago. For the past quarter century, the seasons have come and gone, leaving fans to wonder when the Eagles, the Flyers, the Sixers and this baseball club would bring home the championship. Other cities have waited longer for a baseball winner, but this city has a unique kind of steam rising, and now the lid is starting to lose its hold and Philadelphia is about to explode.
Only five teams since 1925 have won a World Series after facing a 3-1 deficit: the 1925 Pirates, the 1958 Yankees, the 1968 Tigers, the 1979 Pirates and the 1985 Royals. It tells you that it is doable. It tells you that it is hard.
Watch the celebration scene already gradually unfolding each night, louder and louder, along Broad Street, and it tells you that something amazing is nigh.
Game 5 is at 8 p.m. ET. It could be the last game of the year, and it will be colder, with the wind-chill sinking into the 30s in the late innings, not quite as cold as the bubbly in the home team's clubhouse but chilly nonetheless.
Maybe there will be more, and maybe it ends in Florida, where it is always 72 degrees inside Tropicana Field and sunny and warm outside.
The time is near to decide. Brace yourself.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.