Phillies once again pay for not playing smart in NLDS: A fan’s reaction

The Philadelphia Phillies are not used to stumbling over themselves this season. Unfortunately, the Phillies have chosen the wrong time to make mental mistakes and risk being ill-equipped to snap out of it.

Just when Philadelphia fans—like myself—thought that the team was ready to get back to normal, the Phils shot themselves in the foot in Game 4 of the NLDS in what may become a fatal 5-3 loss. After three games of living on the edge against the St. Louis Cardinals, their fourth meeting was the most puzzling and maddening to date.

I have attacked the Phillies for days for swinging too early in counts and being far too aggressive. However, they shut me up by getting three hits and two runs in the first five pitches of Game 4. Yet it soon became clear that Philadelphia should have quit while it was ahead, after a strikeout-throw-out double play that Hunter Pence(notes) should not have brought on by running.

Just when Cardinals starter Edwin Jackson(notes) was on the ropes, the Phillies let him back on his feet and never threatened to knock him down again. By now, Charlie Manuel should know that blows like that can shut the entire Philadelphia offense down for several innings at a time. The answer for slumps like that is to play small ball, try to get base runners on and not take any more unnecessary chances, especially as the margin for error gets smaller and smaller.

Yet when Chase Utley(notes) didn't take that advice and foolishly tried to advance to third on a ground out in the sixth, he and the Phillies gave the impression that they really didn't want to win this game. It may have been meant to provide a spark to the offense and make it easier for Ryan Howard(notes) to drive the tying run in. But by staying put on second with just one out, both Howard and Shane Victorino(notes) would have had a chance to bring Utley in—and with Howard's struggles, Philadelphia should feel less comfortable with him in a two-out position.

The Phillies can't make these aggressive mistakes against a more polished tactician like Tony LaRussa, and against a Cardinals team that will rise from the dead again and again with every opportunity. Right now, St. Louis is the kind of club that can get a four-RBI game from a struggling player like David Freese(notes), can have Jackson recover to out-duel Roy Oswalt(notes), and can survive a rare hitless game from Albert Pujols(notes).

In fact, since Pujols made the key throw to get Utley out, he still made the biggest contribution of Game 4 without swinging his bat—a skill that the Phillies' hitters haven't been able to muster. But time and again, Philadelphia's answer for offensive slumps is to just hack away early, instead of doing the little things to get on base and extend innings before unleashing the big blows.

The San Francisco Giants proved last postseason that a smarter approach led by a more creative manager like Bruce Bochy could power them towards an upset. Now all of a sudden, the Cardinals and LaRussa are one win away from an even bigger upset of Philadelphia.

Through most of the regular season, it didn't look like much could derail the Phillies dream season. The only thing that seemed likely to derail Philadelphia was Philadelphia itself, which has been the case for much of the NLDS. And if the Phillies think that being at home with Roy Halladay(notes) on the mound will be all they need to snap out of it in Game 5, then that will be the biggest and most infamous mental error of all.

Other stories from this contributor:

Phillies lucky to survive NLDS Game 3

Phillies need Hamels to restore order in NLDS

Phillies get taste of their own medicine in NLDS Game 2

Phillies, Halladay dominate another NLDS opener

Best-of-five series in first round hardest in baseball playoffs?

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Updated Thursday, Oct 6, 2011