PHILADELPHIA – There is something in baseball about being there before, standing on an October evening and watching the innings fall away, listening to the home crowd groan miserably as the 0s begin to light the path to failure.
There is the strategy. And then there is the nerve to stand by it.
"That was our big discussion," Philadelphia Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson said. "Make him get the ball up. We were fortunate enough to get two. All you can do is just hope that situation comes up."
From their recent past of organizational mediocrity (to be kind), a couple of hard-won (and gift-wrapped) Septembers, and now a second chance in two seasons at October, the Phillies grew from the ballclub that for five innings swung over and flailed at and topped sinkerballs in the first game of the NLCS to the ballclub that in an instant pumped a couple of those pitches into the bleachers and won the first game of the NLCS, 3-2 over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In the sixth inning, paddling hard against a guy who had won four of his past five postseason road starts and who'd throw to their shins for two hours, the Phillies came off the top of the ball and got into the belly of it because, well, it finally became possible.
Chase Utley, whose playoff history was four hits in 28 at-bats, got a first-pitch sinker in the sixth inning, seconds after Rafael Furcal threw a ball into foul territory. His home run, looped into the first row in right field, tied the score 2-2. Lowe, possibly distracted for the first time since August, then started Ryan Howard with consecutive balls before getting a ground ball for an out, then started Pat Burrell with three consecutive balls before throwing a strike and then another thigh-high sinker. Among the bleacher residents' favorite targets over the years, Burrell topspinned that pitch over the left-field fence, not by a lot, but by enough for a one-run lead.
For five-plus innings, Lowe had made this pantry of a ballpark play large. In a few minutes' time, the Phillies shrunk it to fit their game, two more home runs, three more runs, their postseason offense now generating 21 runs in five games, 15 of those runs off the home-run ball.
"I don't think either one of ours would be out at Dodger Stadium," Burrell said.
That's what 92 wins will get you; a couple of early games in the ballpark that suits your swing and brings an early win against Lowe. Amid the fluttering hankies and the history of not doing things like this, they've beaten the Dodgers' horse, they've done it dramatically, and they did it with Cole Hamels and Burrell and, they hope, a resurgent Utley. Joe Torre has Manny Ramirez and a pitching staff and a lot of potentially vulnerable spots in his lineup. Charlie Manuel has a bullpen and a lot of potentially loud bats in his lineup. The Phillies out-homered the Dodgers 214-137 in the regular season. They've out-homered the Dodgers 7-4 in the postseason.
More important now, they prevailed against a pitcher who was on his game, who buried them every time but two, and the Phillies didn't miss when they could have. They had been waiting on Burrell, who now has three home runs in two games. They'd been waiting on Utley and the general suspicion he's worn down by the time the air goes cool. They still are waiting on Ryan Howard, who hit one ball out of the infield in Game 1.
It's a start, winning this game in a couple of little corners, grinding through a few dozen at-bats, pushing patience over panic.
"Yeah," Utley said, "it's all about trying to put some hits together, trying to have good at-bats."
When Utley stood in in the sixth inning, Shane Victorino at second base, the Phillies had put five balls in the air that actually landed in the outfield. Four were singles. Only one of them resulted in a runner reaching second base.
There were pockets of the game in which the Phillies laid off Lowe's early sinkers, letting them fall under the strike zone for ball one.
"Next thing you knew," Victorino said, "he was coming back and getting to 1-and-1."
So they exhaled, then tried it again. Utley got a first-pitch non-sinker. Then Burrell waited him out again, hunted something that wasn't diving.
There was time. There was opportunity. The Phillies were smart, or certainly Utley and Burrell were, and they were selective, and they found the place where the game would turn.
"Things happen quick in this game of baseball," Victorino said. "Momentum shifts off a mistake, a big home run, a big pitch. And then you could feel it in the air."
It arrived in a couple of subtle moments, invisible unless you're looking for them, unless you've been there before. The Phillies didn't miss.
"That," Thompson said, "is exactly it."