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Sunday, October 17, 2010
Updated: October 18, 3:30 AM ET
Off to San Francisco, all square

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- As he wound to unleash his first 94 mph smokeball of the evening, as rally towels spun and flashbulbs popped, the 46,099 turbocharged occupants of Citizens Bank Park undoubtedly had no idea what to expect from Roy Oswalt on Sunday night.

But one man did.

He'd seen it before, in another time, another place, another uniform.

So Brad Lidge turned to his buddies as Oswalt's first pitch went roaring toward home plate and made a prediction he had no doubt would come true.

"I was telling everybody, 'Watch this,'" Lidge would report several hours later. "I think we all kind of knew that that was going to happen. I just happened to have seen it a lot more."

What was about to happen was an exhibition of postseason pitching mastery that may not be remembered quite as vividly through the years as Roy Halladay's indelible October no-hitter. But what Roy Oswalt did for his new teammates in Philadelphia on Sunday might very well turn out to be way more important.

Heck, all it did -- for now, at least -- was save their season.

So one night after Cody Ross and the Giants beat Halladay to win Game 1, that other Roy headed for the mound Sunday. And eight innings of three-hit, nine-punchout brilliance later, Roy Oswalt had reminded the Phillies precisely what he was doing in their uniform in the first place.

"That," said manager Charlie Manuel after Oswalt had pitched the Phillies to a series-evening 6-1 win in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, "is exactly what we got him for."

Charlie Manuel and Roy Oswalt
Manager Charlie Manuel came to the mound for a quick chat, but Roy Oswalt would finish the eighth inning.

Yeah, apparently, you can never have enough aces hanging around at times like this. That's the blueprint the Phillies' entire postseason mission has been built around, in case you hadn't picked up on that. But it's possible even they had no idea how important it was on this night.

Had they lost Sunday to Jonathan Sanchez, a pitcher who has done nothing but bamboozle them throughout his career, the Phillies would have become the 11th team in the past quarter-century to lose the first two games of an LCS at home since the format switched to best-of-seven.

You know how many of the previous 10 had come back to win the series? That would be zero.

So this game, said the other notable leading man in this little NLCS melodrama, Jimmy Rollins, "was must-win from the get-go."

"You play Game 1, and somebody's going to win, somebody's going to lose," Rollins said. "But if you're down, 1-0 [heading into Game 2], you've got to make sure to get the momentum back going into their place. It's a tough place to play. So now we're back in it."

The Phillies hit .175 as a team in AT&T Park this year. They've played 38 games there since the park opened -- and won 14 of them. So had they lost this game, it wouldn't have been another rendition of "High Hopes" they'd have been listening to afterward. "Taps" would have been more like it.

But fortunately for them, the man they handed the baseball to didn't seem to think that losing was an option.

Five years ago, after the Astros made their impossible charge from a 15-30 start to a shocking appearance in the first World Series in franchise history, Oswalt made three consecutive postseason starts after his team had lost a huge October baseball game.

And won all three. Of course.

The last of those three wins came in the game immediately following one of the most seemingly traumatic losses in Astros history -- on a home run by some guy named Albert Pujols, off some pitcher named Brad Lidge, with the Astros one out away from reaching the World Series.

Instead, they had to get on a plane to St. Louis and try to beat the Cardinals in Busch Stadium. Which would have been a terrifying prospect -- if they hadn't had Roy Oswalt lined up to pitch that game. So he stomped out there, held the Cardinals to three hits and one run in seven innings, and canceled all those nightmares almost single-handedly.

And this, he said Sunday, was a game that reminded him of that game.

"I think the biggest thing is, it's momentum," Oswalt said. "You're trying to make momentum come back on your side. In '05, Pujols hit a home run in Game 5, I think, at our place. And right then, I went straight to the clubhouse after he swung the bat, and knew I needed to set a tone early in the game, and I was able to do it."

So this was his déjà vu moment, five years down the line, one time zone to the east, one more giant slice of momentum to hijack. And once he'd made it clear he was in charge, by kicking off his evening with 4 1/3 hitless innings, his old friend Lidge knew the only thing that had changed was the cap on both of their heads.

"That's just who he is," Lidge said afterward. "If he's got the ball after you've just lost a game, you've got to be feeling pretty good about your chances, because he's not going to let it happen twice in a row."

Oswalt has now made nine postseason starts in his career -- and lost none of them. Only one pitcher in history -- Orel Hershiser (with 10) -- ever began his career by making more postseason starts without a loss.

"He's always pitched well in the postseason," said Lidge, who has witnessed every one of those starts firsthand. "But for some reason, when he comes off an outing he wasn't real happy with -- which he did this time -- that was just as big. He wasn't real happy with his outing against Cincinnati. So you knew that wasn't going to happen twice in a row."

The only blemish on Oswalt's latest October gem was the latest regularly scheduled home run by the increasingly Reggie-esque Cody Ross -- who busted up Oswalt's no-hitter with a rocket into the left-field seats with one out in the fifth.

It was Ross' third home run in two games in this series and fourth in his past seven at-bats. But most amazing of all, it made three straight games now that he has broken up somebody's no-hitter with a home run -- Derek Lowe's on Monday, Halladay's on Saturday and now Oswalt's.

Not only has no previous player in history ever broken up postseason no-hit bids with a home run in three straight games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, no one has ever done it in even two straight games.

But despite that Mr. October imitation, Cody Ross was not the offensive hero on this night. That honor went to a man named Jimmy Rollins, a guy who had gotten himself into such a prolonged funk that people in Philadelphia were walking the streets uttering a sentence they couldn't even have comprehended a few months ago: "Charlie needs to get Wilson Valdez back in there."

All right, so maybe not. Once upon a time, Rollins had plenty of Mr. October magic of his own. But as he stepped to the plate in the first inning Sunday, he was coming off the worst, most injury-ravaged season of his life. He was 1-for-15 in this postseason. And he'd struck out three times in Game 1, looking about as ugly at home plate as a one-time MVP could look.

But then there he was, staring down Sanchez with two outs, the bases loaded on an error and two walks. And as his ballpark shook and those ever-present rally towels spun in the night, Rollins dug in and did something he hadn't done in 18 months -- work a bases-loaded walk.

For a guy not known for his patience, and a man who prides himself on rising to these crucial October moments, it had the feel of an important spark of life.

"I thought he started seeing the ball better in that at-bat," said Charlie Manuel, "and for the rest of the night."

From the moment six months ago when Rollins blew out a calf muscle running a few sprints before the home opener, he's had One of Those Years where, if it could go wrong, it did. And he has almost never looked like the dynamo who has been this team's human energizer for most of the past decade.

Jimmy Rollins
Jimmy Rollins was smiling after Game 1. But after Game 2, he actually had a reason to smile.

But from the second he drew that five-pitch walk off Sanchez, this would turn into one night where, for the first time in just about ever, Rollins seemed to have the celestial bodies lined up exactly right.

In his next at-bat, he lofted a popup in front of the mound that, somehow, four Giants managed to avoid catching. And even though the tale of the tape estimated that shot at somewhere in the neighborhood of 47 feet, it turned into Rollins' second hit of this postseason.

A little over a week ago, he was also the man who drove a routine fly ball to right field that the Reds' Jay Bruce lost in the lightbulbs. So even if he can't quite find his MVP stroke, Rollins at least appears to be perfecting the art of emitting secret gamma rays that cause baseballs to evade gloves or something.

"If he is," his tag-team partner, Ryan Howard, chuckled afterward, "I would say, 'Keep emitting them. Keep them going.'"

But Rollins' most important emission was yet to come -- in the four-run seventh inning that would blow open this game for good.

The first run of that inning was scored by none other than Roy Oswalt, who was so determined to score from second on a Placido Polanco single to center that he charged right through a stop sign by third-base coach Sam Perlozzo -- and still somehow scored because Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff was so sure Oswalt was stopping that he cut off the throw home.

Asked what he thought when he saw his pitcher barreling through that flashing red light, Manuel laughed: "I said, 'Go for it.' I mean … what the hell are we going to do -- rope him? I ain't that good. I'm not a cowboy. I might look like one, talk like one, but I'm not one."

Moments later, though, his team would be heading home on this range, thanks to the first bases-clearing double in Phillies postseason history -- off the bat of that very same Jimmy Rollins, a fellow who always seems to spring to life in these game-turning, late-inning October moments.

Over the past two postseasons, Rollins has now gotten 13 hits in the division series and championship series portion of these festivities. Nine of them have come from the sixth inning on. Funny how that happens.

"I know everybody's going to talk about how he struggled in September, how he never came back and really found himself, but he's a big-game player," said Rollins' friend, Shane Victorino. "Everyone knows that."

OK, so maybe not everyone. But the biggest reason Manuel kept sending Jimmy Rollins out there in games like this was that he believed his shortstop still thought of himself as a big-game player. And after his most important big-game moment of this postseason, Rollins made sure to tell the world his confidence had never, ever wavered.

"I've been the same for the last 10 years," he said. "And if you cover me every day, you know, you understand where I'm coming from. You figure out things. You solve problems. Sometimes there's going to be confusion. But once you lose the confidence you're not going to have a chance to play at this level. So that's never going to be there. God gave me this talent, and I'm going to do something with it. That's just the way it is."

Faith can be a powerful force at times like this. And on a pivotal Sunday night in October, Charlie Manuel sent one man out to the mound, and another out to shortstop, with the belief that both of them knew exactly what they were there to do.

And nine innings later, that faith was rewarded -- and his baseball team was still breathing.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.