By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 23, 2007
Charlie Manuel pressed his chest against the railing of the visitor's dugout at RFK Stadium last night to watch the latest in a long string of what he calls "gotta have 'em" games. For the third consecutive season, the Philadelphia Phillies' manager had endured a few weeks of such pressure, and the cumulative stress had exacted a physical toll. Manuel's hair, long ago turned gray, looked practically white. He pounded his fists on the dugout fence and chomped gum and sunflower seeds, which he sometimes does impulsively until his jaw is sore.
The Phillies afforded their manager little relief from anxiety last night during a 4-1 win over the Nationals in front of 26,412 fans at the second-to-last game at RFK Stadium. Philadelphia took an early one-run lead, gave it back by committing a string of costly errors and then rallied to win in 10 innings.
First baseman Ryan Howard ripped a line-drive single to left field off reliever Chris Schroder in the 10th to score Chase Utley from second base. The Phillies rallied for two more runs in the 40-minute half inning, and Clay Condrey held the Nationals scoreless to secure the win. Philadelphia has won three straight, and it will try to sweep the Nationals in the series finale today. Once again, Manuel's team seems destined to spend the final days of its season caught in the erratic swings of a playoff race, which has become an annual rite of passage since he took over the team in 2005.
"We've been in this situation three times in the last three years, and I think you're seeing that our guys have learned to handle it pretty good," Manuel said. "We're fighting for our life here, and there's that feeling that every game could make the difference."
The 63-year-old manager has said often during the last month that he's enjoyed this year's playoff push more than the previous two, during which Philadelphia slumped and spiraled out of playoff contention. With the win -- their third in a row -- the Phillies remained 1 1/2 games behind the Mets in the National League East. They trail the Padres by only a half-game in the wild-card race; San Diego lost to Colorado last night, 6-2.
Manuel had repeatedly warned his team not to underestimate the Nationals -- the team Philadelphia plays four more times this season, and the team that spoiled Philadelphia's chances in 2006 by winning two of three games in a September series. Manuel watched last night, tormented in the dugout, as the Phillies repeatedly fumbled away control of the game before finally seizing it for good.
The Nationals tied the game on a sixth-inning throwing error by second baseman Utley, and they threatened to capitalize on another Phillies mistake in the seventh. Brian Schneider tripled because center fielder Aaron Rowand dove for a ball that slid under him and ran to the wall. But, two batters later, Utley fielded a ground ball and threw out pinch runner Cristian Guzman at home to save the run.
"They like to make it interesting," Manuel said.
After watching the Phillies clubhouse unravel because of stress in each of the last two seasons, Manuel has encouraged this year's group to relax. After they beat the Nationals on Friday night, Philadelphia's veterans forced the rookies to dress in ridiculous outfits and walk around Washington. So, with their postseason fate dependent on the next several days, Phillies rookies emerged from their locker room Friday dressed as Superman, the Tin Man, a fairy princess and Wonder Woman.
"Everybody was cracking up," closer Brett Myers said. "We like to keep it light in here."
That philosophy has worked well for the Phillies during the last few weeks. Once known as a team with a tendency to collapse under pressure, Philadelphia's 48 come-from-behind wins this season are the most in baseball. The Phillies are 8-1 with one game remaining on this road trip, their last of the season. They will finish at home, in the hitter-friendly ballpark that has helped them lead the National League in runs and slugging percentage.
Whether Philadelphia avoids disappointment for the third consecutive season will largely depend on pitching, Manuel said. The Phillies' bullpen has routinely rescued a weak starting rotation during the last two weeks, and the relievers held the Nationals scoreless again last night. Relievers have allowed only two runs over six games; starters have allowed 14 during that same stretch.
"This team has what it takes to get it done, but we're not there yet," Manuel said. "We're going to fight, and it's going to be close. That much we know."