The Phillies Sure Have a Lot of Nerves

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, September 30, 2007

PHILADELPHIA Pennant race nerves can appear in a hundred forms, but they seldom arrive until you have the prize in your hands and suddenly realize, "I have something precious to lose."

For the first time all season, the Philadelphia Phillies found themselves alone in first place on Saturday, on the verge of dealing the New York Mets the second-worst late-season humiliation in baseball history. With just two more season-ending wins over Washington -- referred to here as "the lousy Nationals" -- the NL East title would belong to the Phils, regardless of what the agonized, choking Mets did up at Shea Stadium.

So, what happened? Right on schedule, the Phillies' nerves were waiting for them when they arrived at Citizens Bank Park like a receiving line of demons. With every pressing, overanxious gesture, as they facilitated four tainted Washington runs and lost to the Nats, 4-2, the Phils allowed the Mets to crawl back into a tie for the division lead. Suddenly, the Phillies understood firsthand what the Mets have endured. Fellows, meet your subconsciouses.

For months, in their long trek to catch the Mets, the Phillies have been inoculated from classic, crushing big-game pressure, the kind that made ignominious legends of the '64 Phils, who blew a 6 1/2 -game lead with 12 games to play. They've battled admirably, beating the Mets in their last eight regular season meetings, including seven in a row since Aug. 27. Meanwhile, the $116 million Mets, who held a seven-game lead over the Phils with just 17 to play, were the victims of baseball's most powerful late-season burden -- the weight of So Much to Lose. Now, after less than 24 hours in first place, the Phils know what it feels like to be the hunted. And to be caught.

"Whew," drained Phils manager Charlie Manuel said. "After 161 games, it all comes down to this. Fitting, I guess."

On Sunday, the Nats will send Jason Bergmann, who lives on the Jersey shore, to the mound against 44-year-old Jamie Moyer, while the Mets beg 303-game winner Tom Glavine to get the better of Florida's Dontrelle Willis. Just for spice, if both win and San Diego loses, additional madness will ensue. The Mets would then meet the Phils here Monday in a playoff for the NL East title. The loser would then face San Diego for the wild-card spot.

For the first time all season, the Phils and Mets are in identical psychological situations. Not only are they tied, but both sense how close they are to losing something they thought they had in their hands. Are the momentum and pressure finally equal for both teams? "Exactly," Manuel said. "Now we're in the same place."

So on Sunday, don't be surprised if the Nats or Marlins, both with losing records, seem curiously poised while the Phils and Mets, both contenders for the World Series, are just a synapse twitch away from disaster.

Here at packed, howling, towel-waving Citizens Bank Park, on a magnificent crystal autumn day, the Phillies actually did enough to beat the Nats. Aaron Rowand and Ryan Howard both hit no-doubt solo homers in this elegant jewel of a bandbox, a pitcher's hell that serves cheesesteaks. Those should have been the only runs of the day in a twilight game when shadows and a bad hitter's background -- setting sun on glowing brick -- made any attempt at offense a misery.

However, all four Nats runs were directly, or else subtly, the result of the Phillies' nerves. In the first inning, left fielder Pat Burrell bobbled a double in the left field corner by Ryan Zimmerman and the Nats' Ronnie Belliard, who'd been given the stop sign at third base, sped home with the game's first run. In the fourth inning, after singles by Wily Mo Pe¿a and Brian Schneider, Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz fielded a bad sacrifice bunt attempt by Matt Chico and threw to second base for the force-out instead of third. Schneider was out but Pe¿a advanced to third, and when Felipe Lopez followed with a sacrifice fly to left field, Pe¿a scored. "We definitely had a play at third," Manuel said of the gaffe. "That ended up costing us a run."

Then, in a slapstick seventh inning, the Nats were given the two decisive runs as, essentially, gifts of the phrazzled Phillies. Huge first baseman Howard tried to field a wildly spinning Dmitri Young dribbler about a yard from first base. Howard bobbled it, then he thought he had it and stepped on first base only to realized he didn't have any ball in his mitt after all. Howard located the devilish object at his feet and -- with the lumbering Young still several nautical miles from the base -- grabbed hurriedly at it again, missed it and slipped to his knees as Young was safe and Lopez scored from third.

The sight of their 46-home-run slugger making a spectacle of himself may have been the worst image for the Phils to see. Rookie Justin Maxwell, pinch-running for Young, got a quick jump on a wild pitch that barely got away from Ruiz at the plate. But the catcher was, once again, in too big a hurry and sailed a ridiculous throw far over his second baseman's head into center field as Zimmerman trotted home from third.

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