NLDS Game 5: Cardinals vs. Phillies is further evidence of crushing pressure on MLB favorites

The Four Aces were trumped here on Friday night by a pack of face Cards. In the annals of upsets, this 1-0 St. Louis win over Philadelphia to capture their National League Division Series will stand high for coast-to-coast incredulity.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

But, in a broader sense, this ruthlessly tense Game 5, with Chris Carpenter outdueling his buddy Roy Halladay, epitomizes the forces of astronomical expectation and crushing pressure that have led to spectacular collapses all over baseball in the last fortnight. We haven’t had a Fall Classic yet, but we have just seen the baseball season with the most classic falls.

The louder the home crowd cheers, the more they wave their white towels, the more astronomically high the universal anticipation becomes that something will be accomplished that has rarely been seen, the harder it becomes to play the apparently straightforward game of baseball.

For the past two weeks, we’ve watched as the panic attacks have reached an apex among baseball’s three most glamorous, talented and rich teams.

It’s been gruesome but fascinating, cruel yet riveting. Only baseball brings public torture of the mighty to such a sustained excruciating pitch.

First, Red Sox choke! But at least they brought it on themselves for a whole month. Then the Yankees choked on Thursday night in the Big Ballpark. But they’ve gotten old, their pitching’s thin and, for a decade, they’ve mastered the division series flop, executing that dive five times.

But the Phillies, no, not the Aces, too. Can’t happen, won’t happen.

It happened. Right down to slugger Ryan Howard, 2 for 20 in this series, lying crumpled in the dirt at home plate, grabbing his leg, a symbol of pain, disbelief and failure, as his final weak groundball ended the Phils’ year.

Now, almost unbelievably, in a defeat so narrow and harsh that it seems no team could merit it, the Phillies — with Halladay on the mound for eight superb innings while Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt watched — have been knocked out of the baseball postseason in the very first round.

Left atop the hill was not one of those Aces, but the Cardinals’ ace, Carpenter, who allowed three hits in a 110-pitch shutout that stands with the best postseason games ever pitched. Only two other postseason 1-0, winner-take-all games have ever been pitched, to end the ’62 and ’91 World Series. He’s done it before on a grand stage, with eight scoreless innings on three hits in his only start in the 2006 World Series that the 83-win Cards won.

The loser was his career-long buddy, right down to vacations together and mutual in-depth study of pitching theory, the luckless Halladay, who allowed a triple and double to the first two batters he faced, then blanked the Cards. Too late. When the pressure grabs you, one run can be enough.

Oh, the Phillies — don’t dare mock them — came close, so close. A 400-foot Chase Utley blast to lead off the ninth inning died in front of the center field fence 401 feet away. Superb defense by the Cards, especially nimble shortstop Rafael Furcal, thwarted potential rallies. However, the harsh truth is that the Phils got only one man past second base and he died at third when a Raul Ibanez flyball to right died on the warning track. “This is a small ballpark. I was thinking, ‘Please stay in,’ ” Carpenter said.

Mostly, the night was filled with the eloquent silence of frustration for the Phils, punctuated, for shame, by a sprinkling of boos in the late innings.

“It was an unbelievable night. Roy is probably the best pitcher in the game and we jumped on him early for a run,” Carpenter said. “I was able to go out and establish my fastball early, then go off-speed when I needed to. But we had some fine defensive plays, too.

“And Howard flew out on a 3-0 pitch,” he added, incredulously. But that was actually a fine symbol for the night: Pressure equals impatience.

And the lack of expectation breeds spontaneity. “The looseness of our club,” Carpenter said, “really helps.”

And why wouldn’t they be loose? Their expectations were dead six weeks ago when they were 101 / 2 games out of the wild-card spot in late August; they finally pushed aside the fast-folding Braves on the last night of the regular season. Now, bring on the Brewers for the NL pennant.

When the first two Cards of the game tripled, then doubled for a run off Halladay, the packed crowd was stunned. But not nearly as shocked as they gradually became as it became clear Carpenter was using his precise command and speed changes to prey ruthlessly on the Phils’ impatience.

If you wonder why Phils Manager Charlie Manuel came to the ballpark 10 hours before game time to sit in his office and meditate on his lineup, that was it. He knows how bats freeze, especially those of the favorite, in an October pitcher’s duel with a season at stake.

“We went to spring training this year and our expectation was for us to go to the World Series and win. That’s a high mountain,” Manuel said before the game.

“I definitely don’t even want to think about anything negative. That’s what you’ve got to send out [to the players], you know,” Manuel added. But when you got to your office before the clubhouse man, what does that say?

Afterward, Manuel said: “This one might hurt worse [than any other] when I have time to think about it. I feel some anger and some I-don’t-know. But mostly I just feel empty.”

If you want to know why Detroit Manager Jim Leyland called his friend Tony La Russa of the Cards at “2 or 3 o’clock” early Friday morning, it is obvious, too. La Russa said he and Leyland “agree that one thing we have in common is that the home club has a lot of expectations. The Yankees have expectations. The Phillies win 100 games. They’ve got a great club and that’s a tough burden.”

La Russa is, perhaps the game’s reigning expert on team chokes. He’s been on the wrong side twice in the ’88 and ’90 World Series with the mighty Oakland Athletics. His best 100-plus-win Cards team didn’t go all the way, either. But he won the ’06 Series with an 83-win underdog. Now this.

“The Yankees had [the pressure]. The Phillies right now, they’ve been our league’s best and that carries with it a certain extra pressure,” La Russa said before the game. “It’s ridiculous, if you don’t win the World Series, you’ve had a lousy year. That’s ridiculous, but some people would say that.

“Players understand that. It’s not fair and it creates a distraction. But we’ve had that. We’ve had that situation with the A’s and the Cardinals. And you just have to ignore it. I’m confident the Phillies will ignore it.”

Thanks for planting the seed. With each inning, it grew into a tree that, by the final out, seemed to have a noose hanging from an upper branches. No team sport has pressure — for proud, heavy favorites — like baseball. For anyone who doubts, the last 10 days are proof beyond rebuttal.

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