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Phillies' aura of invincibility fading fast


SAN FRANCISCO -- Conventional wisdom coming into the NL Championship Series was that Philadelphia's rotation was a few ticks above San Francisco's, and adding to the gap was the fact that pitching to the Giants' lineup was going to be far easier than pitching to the big, bad Phillies hitters.

Conventional wisdom has been tossed overboard into McCovey Cove.

Roy Oswalt didn't see it go into the drink. After grabbing an oar on his day off in what still might go down as the Phillies' last gasp, he was too despondent at his locker, head buried in his hands, after serving up the losing run in the bottom of the ninth of an epic Game 4.

Giants 6, Phillies 5. And, as Charlie Manuel's fellas noted in the clubhouse afterward several dozen times, the two-time defending NL champs now have their backs up against the wall.

This is one frustrated and bewildered club.

Right now, cherub-faced Buster Posey's Giants are today.

And the creaky, aging Phillies are yesterday.

All credit goes to Oswalt, sort of a poor man's Cliff Lee, for doing his damndest to try and will the Phillies to victory in a game they pretty much had to have Wednesday. The Phillies had blown a 4-2 lead, fallen behind 5-4, and then as they were tying it at 5 in the eighth, Oswalt approached pitching coach Rich Dubee in the dugout and volunteered to work in relief.

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Being that the Phillies already had used four relievers and really were in no position to use closer Brad Lidge, Dubee didn't hesitate.

"Go get your spikes," he told Oswalt.

In the top of the ninth, the 33-year-old right-hander trotted down to the bullpen to warm up.

Even though he had already thrown his between-starts side session -- 20 minutes' worth -- earlier in the day.

Even though he's slated to start Game 6 -- if there is one -- on Saturday (and yes, he assured late Wednesday night, "I'll be ready" for that start).

Even though, aside from a one-inning get-some-work-in relief appearance against Atlanta on the season's final day, he hadn't worked in relief since July 8, 2006 (he pitched the 10th inning that day for Houston and gave up a game-winning home run to Albert Pujols).

"Numbers don't bother me one bit," Oswalt said. "I could care less. All I do is try to win games."

He had one thought in mind when he volunteered to pitch: "I was thinking 'Eat up an inning' instead of Brad going in to pitch without a save opportunity."

He coaxed an out from leadoff man Freddy Sanchez, who sent a slicing screamer toward right that Jayson Werth tracked down.

But then he threw what he said was probably his worst pitch of the inning, a flat change-up to Aubrey Huff that caught too much of the plate (Oswalt wanted it down and away), and Huff whistled a line-hugging bouncer past diving first baseman Ryan Howard.

Then Posey, who dropped an opposite-field single that sent Huff to third, the rookie's fourth hit on a sensational night.

"He was out over the plate a little, fouled off some good pitches, and then was able to flip a slider over first base," Oswalt said.

Then Juan Uribe tomahawked a deep fly to left, Huff tagged from third ... and bedlam.

"Pretty good pitch down and away," Oswalt said of the fateful fastball.

But in this series that's going, going and all but gone from the Phillies, pretty good isn't getting it done. And let's face it, "pretty good" has only showed up every now and again.

Carlos Ruiz wants to know what happened to the Phillies who used to bury foes with runs or demoralize them with clutch plays. (AP)  
Carlos Ruiz wants to know what happened to the Phillies who used to bury foes with runs or demoralize them with clutch plays. (AP)  
Who are these guys dressed in red?

They're certainly not the Phillies we've known the past two years.

For one thing, those Phillies were smarter.

Again, in the sixth, they fed Cody Ross a middle-in fastball -- reliever Chad Durbin was the guilty party -- and he yanked it to left field for a double to kick-start a two-run rally when the Phillies led 4-3. With Ross in this series, Phillies pitchers are like the pledges in National Lampoon's Animal House: "Thank you, sir, may I have another?!"

Ross' three home runs in this series also have all come on fastballs, the first two in nearly the same spot, middle-in. Duh.

Nearly every time the Phillies have seen an opening in these first four games, the Giants have clubbed them. The Phillies mostly have been out-pitched. They've been out-hit. Surely, the Giants have performed better in pregame stretching, and have eaten their postgame food spread more quickly.

Good Lord.

"They've done a lot of little things right," said Lidge, who has appeared in all of one inning so far. "Every at-bat has been a tough at-bat. They haven't given anything away. They haven't given us any easy innings. They've made us work."

Probably, the Phillies are exhausted simply from watching Giants manager Bruce Bochy maneuver a roster that everyone said was a bat short here, a glove short there, an experienced hand shy over there. With one more double-switch, there are going to be a flock of American League managers asking Bochy to conduct a seminar this winter. On Wednesday, he double-switched three times and, as has been the case for most of this series, everything he touched turned to gold.

Aaron Rowand started in center field, made a beautiful throw in the fifth to nail Carlos Ruiz at the plate (Posey made an even more beautiful play at the plate, short-hopping the throw while blocking the plate and tagging Ruiz) ... and left the game in a double-switch four hitters later.

Uribe, who didn't start because of his bum left wrist, entered in a double-switch in the ninth and banged the game-winning sac fly.

"It says a lot for the personnel on the team," Rowand said. "The mindset. When you're in a pressure situation, guys are getting it done. Tonight was one of those nights where everyone contributed. It was a team win.

"That's still a great team sitting in the other locker room, and they've got three great pitchers going the next three games. They're capable of catching fire and doing a lot of things that other teams in baseball can't do. And you can't take that for granted."

No. But let's just say that sleeping pills don't put the average person in the place the Phillies' bats currently are residing. The numbers are laying there like autumn leaves in a swimming pool. Chase Utley? Hitting .133 this NLCS. Shane Victorino? .200. Carlos Ruiz? .231. No party here.

When the Phillies finally popped for a four-run fifth, they were 2 for 19 with runners in scoring position in this NLCS. After going 2 for 3 in those situations in the fifth, they had a chance to tie the game in the top of the eighth.

But as Oswalt was volunteering to pitch, after Werth's no-out, RBI double tied the game ... he was left standing at second. Jimmy Rollins popped to third, and Sergio Romo whiffed Ben Francisco and Ruiz.

"We fought until the end," said Phillies starter Joe Blanton, whose two wild pitches led to the Giants' first run in the first inning.

And, from Blanton: "We really didn't lose. We just ran out of innings."

"Today was a lot better than the previous games," Howard explained. "We battled. We were able to come back until they manufactured a run at the end. There were a lot of positives."

Remember when the only positive the Phillies settled for was winning?

Now the only thing standing between the Phillies and offseason contract negotiations is Roy Halladay.

If you're trying to save your season, he's the guy you want.

"This is when he's at his best," Rollins said. "I'm expecting Roy to go out and be great."

Maybe. But they smell blood now in AT&T Park, and these are not the Phillies of 2008.


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