PHILADELPHIA – The shadows were growing long and the outs remaining were growing short; these were the lonely, late-inning moments that make October, October.
The Philadelphia Phillies were down two runs to the Colorado Rockies with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, a man on and Chase Utley and his .322 average and 103 runs batted in at the plate. Utley was having the perfect imperfect game; he had seen nine pitches and struck out three times. But this is when big guns blast, and he was needed now more than ever.
He struck out looking.
Now it was the bottom of the ninth, and up came Ryan Howard – 47 more homers, 136 more RBIs – with Philly needing a spark to get its overflow crowd roaring. Howard was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, but he was still Ryan Howard.
He struck out looking.
"That was the difference in the game, we didn't hit," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who was talking about most of his lineup but could have focused on the heart of it.
Colorado walked into a riled up Citizens Bank Park here on a warm Wednesday afternoon and seized a one-game National League Division Series lead by silencing Philadelphia's big bats in a 4-2 victory.
One game is just one game – even in a short series – but the Phillies aren't going to make anything out of their first playoff appearance in 14 seasons unless they get something, anything, out of Utley and Howard.
Oh-for-eight with seven strikeouts isn't going to cut it.
Manual was the first to credit Rockies pitching, as well he should. But there is battling, scraping and having good at-bats; then there is waving weakly at breaking pitches and watching fastballs blow by, especially in the late innings.
The high-powered Phillies allowed the game to be controlled by Rockies pitchers, most notably starter Jeff Francis, the lanky lefty from British Columbia who set the tone by whiffing the first four batters he faced (including Utley and Howard).
He struck out eight in six innings, providing some much-needed calm for a team still amped from Monday's dramatic, 13-inning, come-from-behind, play-at-the-plate-victory over the San Diego Padres, which capped a monster September surge.
Everything about Francis was calming – his pace, his confidence, his ability to throw fastballs in the mid-90s and curveballs in the low-70s. His teammates wouldn't say they had any concerns, but Francis had gotten wrecked by the Phillies this season, posting an ugly 15.12 ERA. Less than a month ago he gave up 8 runs in 3 1/3 innings. That game featured Howard reaching base twice and Utley three times, including a two- run homer.
His teammates had to be holding their breath.
"He struck out the first four batters," Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins said. "You know, that was huge."
Right after Francis struck out the side in the first, the Rockies delivered the three runs they would need.
And now the pressure falls swiftly on the Phillies, who can't head to the mountains down 0-2.
Neither Utley nor Howard had any answers. And they were hardly alone in getting asked. Lead-off hitter Jimmy Rollins went 0-for-3 with a strikeout. Shane Victorino went 0-4 with a whiff. Four hits from this team?
"Some of our hitters may have been uptight," admitted Manuel. "But Francis was better than the other times I've seen him."
The old baseball adage says momentum is only as strong as your next starter (maybe rookie Franklin Morales can't duplicate Francis), but no matter what was said or who was apologized for, everyone knows things turn quickly in the playoffs, slumps start fast and seasons end faster.
"They are the key hitters in that lineup, most definitely," said Francis of Utley and Howard. "That's what you want to do. You want to put them away quickly. You don't want to mess around and fortunately they were swinging and missing."
Or watching them go by in the most important moments of the afternoon, the biggest at-bats of the season.
- Ryan Howard