PHILADELPHIA -- Phillies fans have waited 14 years for their team to appear in a postseason game, so it seems only fitting that they'll spend at least one more night in a state of suspended animation.
Just imagine how the manager must feel. As the 2007 season's clock approaches midnight, Charlie Manuel has no idea if he'll emerge from this ordeal as Mr. Popularity or turn back into a bumpkin.
A game that began with shadows creeping across the Citizens Bank Park infield turned into a gut-churning exercise in procrastination. With a loss by slumping New York and a win over Washington's Matt Chico, the Phillies would have had the luxury of celebrating the National League East title, giving the regulars some rest in the season finale and arranging their playoff rotation -- in that order.
Scratch that game plan. The combination of a 13-0 New York win over Florida coupled with a 4-2 Phillies loss to Washington puts the Mets and Phillies in a dead heat at 88-73. And sometime in the next 24 or 48 hours, Philly die-hards will discover if their team is blessed or cursed, whether the 2007 season is one to remember or lament, and if Manuel is sly as a fox or just an upbeat, fun-loving baseball lifer who couldn't seal the deal.
Pardon the Phillies if they feel emotionally whiplashed. After spending 158 games out of first place, they finally tied the Mets on Thursday. Then they took sole possession of the lead Friday. And now they'll try to reclaim the lead when it matters most before a stadium full of rally-towel-waving maniacs.
"The way I look at it, it's another game," first baseman Ryan Howard said. "I know there are a lot of outside sources that like to add a little pressure. But the way this team has battled through this entire season, to have it come down to the final day is fun for me. Hopefully, it will be fun for everybody else, too."
Philadelphia's scheduled starting pitcher might be velocity-impaired, but it's unlikely he'll be overwhelmed by pregame jitters. In a classic case of AARP symmetry at work, 44-year-old Jamie Moyer will take on Jason Bergmann in the season finale at Citizens Bank Park, while 41-year-old Tom Glavine goes for the Mets against Dontrelle Willis in New York.
If the Phillies do, indeed, make the playoffs for the first time since 1993, Manuel might be tempted to go with a seven-man pitching staff. He's set with Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick, Kyle Lohse and Moyer in the rotation, and he has three guys at the back end of the bullpen that he trusts in J.C. Romero, Tom Gordon and closer Brett Myers.
After that, the Phillies have a bunch of guys who make the manager pace incessantly in the dugout. It's a great weight-loss plan, but not so good for emotional stability.
With nowhere else to turn Saturday, Manuel gave the ball to Adam Eaton, whose 10-10 record doesn't come close to reflecting the troubles he's seen. In the first year of a three-year, $24.5 million contract, Eaton has a dreadful 6.29 ERA and a 1.63 WHIP. He's been a fantasy league nightmare.
Eaton, understandably, was on a short leash with so much riding on this game. But even he might have been ill-prepared for just how short. After Eaton danced in and out of jams for the first three innings, Manuel came to the mound with his hand out and an "I can't bear to see this anymore" look on his face.
Critics who think Manuel just sits back and watches the world go by must have been surprised to see him channel his inner Tony La Russa on Saturday. Manuel used six pitchers in relief, including Lohse. The bullpen did its job for the most part, but the Philadelphia lineup did almost nothing to engage the crowd until late homers by Aaron Rowand and Howard.
Shortstop and MVP candidate Jimmy Rollins got picked off first base and looked overanxious at the plate. Left fielder Pat Burrell bobbled a Ryan Zimmerman double in the corner, Howard muffed a ground ball, and catcher Carlos Ruiz threw to the wrong base on a bunt and fired another throw into center field. The Phillies also had trouble picking up the spin on Chico's pitches amid the late afternoon shadows, which were a product of the 3:55 p.m. local time start on national TV.
I walked through [the clubhouse] and I heard guys hollering, 'We've been coming back all year -- let's get them tomorrow.' I didn't have to say a word. I just made a circle and went right back.
--Phillies manager Charlie Manuel
"It's Fox," Rowand said. "They're going to throw a shadow game at you here and there. I actually didn't see a pitch until my third at-bat today. But it's not something you can make an excuse for, because both teams had to deal with it. They did a better job of it than we did."
Manuel said he's hoping for six innings out of Moyer in the finale, but the Phillies are prepared for anything. Lohse, a possible candidate to start in a playoff game against New York on Monday in Philadelphia, threw 28 pitches out of the bullpen Saturday and is ready to pitch in relief again Sunday if necessary.
"This isn't like any other time of year," Lohse said. "It's all hands on deck. If you can come in and get one out and pass it on to the next guy, that's the way we have to handle it."
Manuel said he's "definitely" thinking about starting Kendrick, who's 10-4 in his rookie season, if there's a playoff Monday. But given how quickly momentum swings and outlooks change in this crazy season, the Phillies have grown accustomed to not thinking too far ahead.
After his team dropped back into a tie with the Mets, Manuel entered the clubhouse looking to slap a few backs and buck up a few spirits.
"I walked through there and I heard guys hollering, 'We've been coming back all year -- let's get them tomorrow,'" Manuel said. "I didn't have to say a word. I just made a circle and went right back."
There's not a player in the Philadelphia clubhouse who needs a pep talk or even a subtle reminder this late in the season. Time is growing short, and they all know what's at stake.