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10/08/11 3:56 AM ET

Victory near, Phillies' bats let them down

Struggles of aging lineup prove costly in decisive NLDS loss

PHILADELPHIA -- One centimeter, Raul Ibanez said, is probably the difference between flying out to deep right with two runners on and giving the Phillies the lead in a game where it was clear runs would be scarce.

But that's how this game works. That's how close the Phils were to advancing to a fourth straight National League Championship Series -- instead of packing their bags far sooner than anyone in the clubhouse intended.

"I probably caught the bottom of the ball by a centimeter," Ibanez said of his fourth-inning flyout, the closest the Phillies came to scoring off Chris Carpenter, the brilliant Cardinals ace who pitched a three-hit shutout in a 1-0 victory. "I just caught the bottom of the ball a little. If I probably catch a little more on top of the ball, I hit it enough to get out."

It would've changed everything.

It would've given Philadelphia a 3-1 lead -- which, with the way Roy Halladay was dealing on this night, likely would have been enough to advance in the postseason and extend this charmed season.

Instead, the offense managed just three hits, one for extra bases, and mostly looked lost against Carpenter, who induced 16 ground-ball outs and allowed just five men to reach base all night.

"It felt like one of those nights where we were going to break through," Ryan Howard said. "We had them on the ropes a couple times, guys just missed pitches. I just missed a couple pitches. Raul missed a pitch. We felt like we were on the verge. For some reason, it just didn't happen."

Howard had one of the roughest games in his career. The team's trainers believe he might have torn his left Achilles tendon while grounding out to end the game, during which he collapsed while running to first.

"It sucks. It sucks," Howard said. "Being in this situation, having it come down and making the last out and having it happen the way that it happened, it sucks. You don't want to be a part of that. We came up short. The only thing we can do is try to focus on next year and, for me, to try to get healthy."

Ever since Cliff Lee signed as a free agent last winter, forming one of the most formidable pitching staffs in baseball history, expectations instantly became a World Series trophy and a parade down Broad Street.

But if there was to be something that kept those dreams from coming to fruition, an Achilles' heel for the team with the best record in baseball, it was an aging offense that continued its decline through this season. The acquisition of Hunter Pence at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline was a boon, but as was the case last October against the Giants in the NLCS, the Phillies' offense came up short.

With the season now over, decisions loom for the franchise.

Shortstop Jimmy Rollins and Ibanez are both free agents. Third baseman Placido Polanco will have surgery to repair a sports hernia that hampered him for much of the second half.

But how much can the team change offensively? The Phils hardly played with their everyday lineup and still won a franchise-record 102 games, entering October as the team to beat.

"That just goes to show you, especially in a long run, how we can do," manager Charlie Manuel said. "But when you hit against teams that are playing better baseball than you ... and especially in the playoffs or a series, then you get beat. And I kind of think that's what's happened to us in the last couple years. But at the same time, I think we're every bit as good or better than the teams we've been playing overall, if you look at it."

The margin for error, though, is often minimal.

Nate Mink is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.