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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Phils' core quintet remains cool as ever under playoff pressure


PHILADELPHIA -- One moves, the others feel it. One bends, the others shift with it. One strains, the others strengthen it.

Like five fingers on a hand, when the Phillies in 2007 started appearing in October as regularly as Columbus Day, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, Shane Victorino and Chase Utley have been attached in one way or another to nearly every fastball, every standing ovation and every disappointment Philadelphia has encountered in the greatest run in franchise history.

Shane Victorino, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard refuse to be phased by the Giants. (Getty Images)  
Shane Victorino, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard refuse to be phased by the Giants. (Getty Images)  
The quintet has started 38 consecutive postseason games together which, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, is the longest such streak of consecutive starts for one team by five players in major-league history.

Which certainly goes a long way toward explaining why the Phillies, since falling behind San Francisco three games to one on Wednesday evening, have been behaving with the even temper of a yoga instructor.

"Definitely," Rollins was saying as we walked toward the Phillies' family reception area in AT&T Park late Thursday night as the traveling party gathered for the overnight charter flight home. "You know what everybody has, and you know what everybody can do.

"So you're not worried about that."

If you want to say the Phillies lead this NL Championship Series two games to three heading toward their potential elimination in Game 6 Saturday evening, well ... go right ahead. Hanging around this supremely confident and veteran Phillies club for the past couple of days, from their perspective, that's pretty much how things appear.

You'll certainly get some arguing from the San Francisco Giants, who weren't overjoyed to board their charter flight early Friday morning for their 3,000-mile commute just to try and win one more ballgame. The way they see it, they're still in the director's chair.

But it's as if these Phillies know something that nobody else does.

These five players are either about to pull off their greatest postseason comeback yet ... or they're going to be among the most surprised people on earth if the Giants do come from ahead and move on to the World Series.

And there's no question that this calmness flows directly from the unique familiarity, the bond, the brotherhood among these men.

"You're not concerned," Rollins explains. "What it is is trust. You build that trust.

"If a guy wants to switch [defensive] coverages because he feels like the hitter is going to shoot the gap on a hit-and-run, I'm good with it. We've done it. That call's been made.

"If it was a new guy making that call and then it didn't work, you might look at the guy and go, 'Huh?'"

Since 2007, there has been no "huh?"

Time and time again, there has only been a knowing, "uh-huh."

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"It's neat," says Ruben Amaro Jr., assistant general manager for the Phillies for 10 years before succeeding GM Pat Gillick following the '08 World Series title. "It's a neat group of guys whom we would consider the basis of our core players.

"They've obviously had a great career so far. We're hoping it can continue to run for awhile."

With mid-season acquisition Roy Oswalt set to oppose Jonathan Sanchez, the Giants' young lefty, in Game 6, the Phillies are standing squarely at the crossroads of dynasty and disappointment.

They win the next two games, they become the first club to win three consecutive NL pennants since the 1942-1944 St. Louis Cardinals. They take another step toward becoming the Yankees of the Senior Circuit.

They lose Saturday, or Sunday, and the team that owned the majors' best record this season (97-65), the team that many thought was built to win a second World Series in three seasons, crash lands short of expectations.

"There are going to be changes," Amaro says. "There always are. You try to keep your core players and hope they can be productive assets on into the future as there are injuries and they become longer in the tooth.

"Fortunately, we have guys under control for awhile, so we'll see where it goes from there."

Rollins, 31, was the Phillies' second-round pick in the 1996 draft. He remains a magnetic personality, one of the Mt. Rushmore faces of the franchise, the 2007 NL MVP. He's signed to a five-year, $40 million deal through 2010, with a 2011 club option for $8.25 million (or a $2 million buyout).

Howard, 30, was the Phillies' fifth-round pick in the 2001 draft. The unabashed slugger and middle-of-the-order presence, Howard won the NL MVP award the year before Rollins, and he's finished in the top five every season since. He's signed to a five-year, $125-million deal through 2016 (with a club option for 2017).

Utley, 31, was the Phillies' first-round pick in the 2000 draft. A five-time All-Star and perennial MVP candidate until injuries started to catch up with him in the past couple of years, Utley is all grit and dirt (and he would rather eat dirt than step into the spotlight for media interviews). He's signed to a seven-year, $85 million deal through 2013.

Victorino, 29, was plucked from the Dodgers in the 2004 Rule V draft by an eagle-eyed front office under then-GM Pat Gillick. The Flyin' Hawaiian, Victorino moved into the leadoff slot this year when Rollins' legs began to betray him. He's signed for three years and $22 million through 2012.

Ruiz, 31, was signed by the Phillies as an amateur free agent in 1998. Considered one of the game's finest receivers, Ruiz is one of only four active players to have caught two no-hitters (along with Jason Varitek, Miguel Olivo and Ivan Rodriguez). He's signed for three years at $8.85 million through 2012 with a $5 million club option for 2013.

The Yankees' Core Four has more World Series rings, of course. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada have five apiece. The Phillies' quintet has one, from 2008, and a near-miss last year.

But what Rollins, Utley, Howard, Victorino and Ruiz are doing is remarkable in its own right. And they have a chance to make it even more remarkable if they can dig out from this hole they're in.

Over the past four postseasons, the only time the Phillies have trailed by as much as 3-1 in a series was against the Yankees in last year's World Series. While the Phillies won Game 5 to pull to within 3-2, the Yankees promptly won Game 6.

But what's different now, aside from each man being another year older, is the injuries that have begun to encroach.

Rollins missed 77 games this year with various calf, hamstring and quadriceps issues and is hitting just .263 in this NLCS. His 2,886 plate appearances between 2006-2009 ranked second in the majors to Ichiro Suzuki, but he had trouble staying on the field this year.

Amaro thought it was a "good sign" when Rollins tried to steal a bag Wednesday in Game 4 (he was thrown out). An even better sign was when Rollins swiped second and third in Game 5. That is a strong indication that perhaps Rollins' legs finally are in better shape than they've been for a long time. His last stolen base before Thursday was 44 days earlier, back on Sept. 7.

Utley missed 43 games with a left thumb sprain, and he underwent ligament surgery on it July 1. Between that and the hip surgery he had following the '08 season, he does not look like the same player he was two or three years ago. Especially while scuffling along at .158 in this NLCS with some sloppy fielding at second base as well.

Howard missed 16 games with a left ankle sprain this year, which was almost unheard of. Howard, between '06 and '09, ranked sixth in the majors -- four slots behind Rollins -- with 2,755 plate appearances. But in this postseason, he's got 14 strikeouts -- and zero homers -- in 28 at-bats.

"[Utley] said he's not hurt, but he's had a hard time finding the swing consistently," says Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who also notes that "Ryan Howard has been the same way, and so has Jimmy.

"We had those guys out for quite awhile, their ... production, and also their swings, when you look at how they perform in the past and just their swing and the balance and the rhythm and quickness ... they were having a hard time."

Which is the shortcut, really, to explaining why the Phillies have been having a hard time. Victorino, as well, is hitting just .150 in this NLCS.

But the key is, they've been here before, done this before and clearly know what they're doing.

What we're about to find out as they move into position for one, final strike in 2010 is whether they're still capable of doing it.

"One thing that was kind of a goal all along going back to when I was working for [former GM] Ed Wade was to get a club fans here could identify with, a winner," Amaro says. "We got a chance to do that the last couple of years. And it's pretty clear our fan support has been immeasurable.

"We've had the best fan support in the NL [123 consecutive home regular-season sellouts], and the guys on the field are pretty special. That's the reason we've been able to keep these guys together, quite frankly, and add other people.

"It's very special. And obviously, we want to prolong it as long as we can."


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