Commentary

Old Friends Become First-Time Foes

The Game 5 showdown will be the first between Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay

Updated: October 7, 2011, 9:09 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- It isn't just a baseball game.

It's a game where lives will change and careers will be defined.

It's a game that will send one team home and leave the other heaving a gigantic sigh of relief.

It's Game 5 of the 2011 National League Division Series, on a spine-tingling Friday night in Philadelphia. It's Phillies versus Cardinals, Cy Young versus Cy Young, The Best Team in Baseball versus a wild-card team that keeps roaring back from the endangered-species list.

Do baseball games get any more riveting than this?

"I'm excited, man," Phillies closer Ryan Madson said Thursday, as Showdown Day in a tremendous postseason series grew closer. "It's going to be intense. It's one of those games where, to play your best in it, you've got to try and keep the emotions out of it, go out there and have fun. And that's the key word -- fun. Go out there and have fun and relax and not let the situation dictate how you are out there."

Meanwhile, the manager of the other team in this duel used a different word to describe this game, and, in particular, the fabulous pitching matchup: Roy Halladay versus Chris Carpenter. The word Tony La Russa tossed out there was "classic." And that'll work, too.

"I said it [last Sunday, after Game 2], just because I'm a baseball fan as much as anybody," La Russa said, "what a thrill it would be to go back to Philadelphia and see Carp and Halladay go at each other. They've got so much common history, and they're both great pitchers, great competitors. And now we're going to do it. It's going to be as good as it gets."

And one reason it will be so good is that there's so much at stake here.

For a Phillies team that has been constructed for October evenings just like this, the legacy of the franchise will be hanging in the autumn breeze Friday night. Win, and the World Series dream is alive and well. Lose, and the scars could take decades to heal.

For a Cardinals team that was supposed to be hanging out on putting greens and fishing boats by now, the pressure might not seem to be quite that intense. But don't be so sure of that. To think that way would be to ignore The Albert Factor.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarAlbert Pujols' last game for the Cardinals could be this Game 5.

Lose, and the Cardinals may never take the field again with the remarkable Albert Pujols in their lineup. Win, and you never know where this might lead this team and its greatest player -- on the field or off.

So these are the games that major league players live to play. Cy Young versus Cy Young with two seasons strapped to their backs. You can't beat that. Can you?

"It'll be a challenge," said the Cardinals' Matt Holliday when Halladay's name came up. "We're talking about the two best pitchers that each team has, on full rest, in a Game 5. If you enjoy watching baseball, this might be one you might want to tune into."

For Halladay, this is a moment his entire career has been leading him toward. This was why he asked the Blue Jays to trade him -- to this team. This was why the Phillies dared to make the trade that brought him to their town.

So this is his time. This is his night.

"That's the reason he was brought up here," said Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, "to come out and be The Man -- be Doc and perform a little surgery."

Well, the surgeon made it clear Thursday he looks forward to "the challenge that it is," more than he plans to "worry about what happens if we don't do it."

"One way or the other, it's a baseball game," Roy Halladay said. "And it's a game that you love to play, and you can't forget that."

And for Chris Carpenter, the man who will line up against Halladay on this night, this is a game he has waited for since a Game 2 start on short rest five days ago that veered out of control way too fast.

"I'm looking forward to it, no question," Carpenter said Thursday. "I wasn't sharp in Game 2, but I'm looking forward to doing a better job. I can tell you that much. And it's going to be fun. It's going to be an exciting night."

These are two men who have known each other for a decade and a half, back to minor league bus rides together. After October's action, they can look forward to their regular postseason fishing trip together. Their careers have traveled parallel arcs, ridden nearly the same roller coaster. Yet they have never actually pitched against each other -- until now.

When they finally meet, it will be just the third time in postseason history that two Cy Young award-winners have faced off in either a Game 5 or Game 7 win-or-go-home October baseball game. And that just adds another special layer to an already classic matchup.

"We have our work cut out for us," Halladay said. "But … I'm looking forward to it, and I know Chris is, also. You know, it's fun. We haven't gotten a chance to pitch against each other. And if you're going to do it for the first time, might as well be now."

[+] EnlargeRoy Halladay
Howard Smith-US PresswireDoc Halladay will be pitching against old friend Chris Carpenter.

But there is so much more on the line here than just the records and reputations of these two pitchers. This will be a night when Carpenter and Halladay have a unique opportunity to direct the final scenes of a true postseason epic, to help shape how we remember one of the most compelling and fascinating division series in recent memory.

Even though one of these teams is the winningest team in baseball and the other is "just" a wild-card team that has been scrambling to keep its season alive for a month and a half, in truth the gap between them is much smaller than it might seem.

In truth, the Phillies and Cardinals have become the National League's two preeminent franchises (with apologies to the Giants, the Brewers and, in a whole different sort of way, the Cubs). And it's only fitting that they have finally met up with each other in October after somehow dodging each other for half a decade.

The Phillies are cast as the super power in this series. If they lose, their otherwise-stupendous season will be a monumental disappointment. But if that happens, it won't be a simple case of a team that wasn't as good as the hype or the press clippings or the regular-season record made it appear.

It will be because there were two teams playing in this series -- and it was The Best Team in Baseball that allowed the team that wasn't supposed to be here to grab control of a series that was almost over before it started.

Over the first 11 innings of this NLDS, the Cardinals were outplayed, outpitched and outscored, 15-6. But over the last 25 innings, they've been in almost total charge. Starting with the third inning of Game 2, the Cardinals have hit .302 and put 41 runners on base in 24 innings, while the Phillies' big-name offense has spun a mind-boggling 14 non-threatening 1-2-3 innings off its donut-shop assembly line.

The Cardinals have applied constant pressure and have done things against the Phillies that just about no one else has done all year. Somehow, the Cardinals have been able to lay off Cole Hamels' dive-bomb changeup, come from four runs back to beat Cliff Lee and beat Roy Oswalt in a game he once led by two runs in the first.

The way this series was supposed to work in theory, you'd have thought the Phillies would have had at least a couple of games in which the sport's most vaunted rotation would have gone out and won all by itself, with sheer domination. But the Cardinals' hitters just haven't let that happen. They've fouled off an incredible 44 percent of all the two-strike pitches they've seen in this series. And when they've swung early in an attempt to capitalize on this Phillies staff's propensity for strike-throwing, Cardinals hitters have hit .410 in this series in at-bats of three pitches or fewer. That's more than 100 points higher than the league average.

Meanwhile, the hitters in the middle of the Phillies' order -- Ryan Howard (18), Shane Victorino (14), Raul Ibanez (13) and Hunter Pence (11) -- have chased an inordinate number of pitches out of the strike zone. And that, too, has seemed to play right into the Cardinals' hands.

But in Game 5, does any of that matter -- especially in a Game 5 like this one? No number on any stat sheet can decide a game like this. This will be a night, said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, for "the human element."

His team has a clubhouse full of men who have played a million games like this over the past five Octobers. And it's "a very comforting feeling," said Phillies reliever Brad Lidge, "knowing we've done this a lot."

"We've always had guys who step up," Lidge said. "And I'm confident these guys will step up because that's what they've always done since I've been here. That's what we are. That's what we do."

But this is a new October, a new test, a new experience. It's the one thing this generation of Phillies has never done -- play in a win-or-take-a-hike baseball game quite like this one.

So this is more than just a baseball game. It's a game that could shape the way people remember their magical -- or not-so-magical -- season forever. So game time can't come fast enough. It's time for the electricity to flow.

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 a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com