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Late innings a worry as sluggish bullpen could sink Phils' season


ST. LOUIS -- The home run got out in a hurry. The nine outs that followed took forever.

The home run changed this series. The bullpen could still sink this Phillies season.

Or maybe not.

Ben Francisco could be a Matt Stairs-like hero in Philadelphia for years to come ... but until this month is over, the late innings are going to be a huge concern.

NLDS: Phillies at Cardinals
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Francisco's three-run pinch home run won Game 3 for the Phillies, and very possibly won this Division Series against the Cardinals. But it only lives on in Phillies lore if Ryan Madson and the rest, who held on (barely) for a 3-2 win Tuesday, keep holding on for the rest of the month.

But is the rest of this month going to go like this?

"It took pretty long," Shane Victorino said of those last nine Cardinal outs. "It felt pretty long."

It took four Charlie Manuel pitching changes. It took surviving 11 at-bats in three innings where the Cardinals had the tying run on base or at the plate.

It took the first five-out save of Madson's big-league career, his first save of more than one inning since September 2009, and just his second ever.

"I figured that the game was right there on the line, and we had to stop them," Manuel said. "He came in and did a super heck of a job."

Truth be told, the game was on the line all night, and certainly right from the moment that Francisco's home run off Jaime Garcia landed right among the Phillie relievers beyond the left-field fence.

"I was screaming, 'C'mon, get here, ball, get here,' " Brad Lidge said.

Lidge, you no doubt remember, was once the Phillies closer. Now he's only one of a long line of guys that Manuel will use, a line that now includes regular-season starter Vance Worley, as well as regular-season savior Antonio Bastardo (who struggled down the stretch, but was said by Phillies people to be throwing much better by the end of the regular season).

Because the Phillies rotation is so good, that long line of relievers normally doesn't need to cover many innings. Some nights, when things go right, Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee goes the distance, or at worst hands the ball directly to Madson in the ninth.

To win it all, the Phillies will also need to win some games like Tuesday's. And that's why before the Phils traded for Hunter Pence, there was a real debate in the organization over whether they should deal for relief help instead.

Pence helped the Phillies set a franchise record with 102 regular-season wins, but this season will only be judged a success if it ends with a championship. And that means that if the bullpen fails, the July decision will be second-guessed.

Tuesday, thanks in large part to Madson, it didn't fail.

He entered in the eighth, with one out, the bases loaded, Allen Craig at the plate and Albert Pujols on deck. It took him just two pitches to induce a Craig double play.

Pujols doubled to lead off the ninth, and eventually scored. But Madson got through the inning, and looked comfortable enough doing it.

"When you see a guy on top of his game and relaxed out there, that's huge," said Lidge, who was once that guy and now serves as Madson's mentor.

Madson understood the challenge of the five-out save, one that has become common for postseason closers.

"Anytime you sit down and unplug, it's hard to plug back in," he said. "That's why it's hard."

This game was a hard one for the Phillies, and they knew it would be. Garcia has beaten them regularly in the regular season, and almost no Phillies hitters have even decent career numbers against him.

Garcia had given up just four hits, all singles, before the Francisco home run. Phillies starter Cole Hamels also carried a shutout through six innings, but he allowed eight baserunners and threw 117 pitches.

Eventually, the Cardinals would strand 14 runners on base, which had to make this a frustrating night for them. Even more discouraging: The Phillies will start Roy Oswalt in a possible clinching game on Wednesday, with Halladay ready if needed for a Game 5 on Friday in Philadelphia.

"Obviously, we're feeling real good about where we are right now," Lidge said.

They should feel good, because eliminating this dangerous Cardinals team will be a worthy accomplishment.

It's not, however, an accomplishment that will define this Phillies season, which is why the Francisco home run can't be what defines this season, either.

The nine outs after the homer can, if they serve as the start of a month of good-enough work by the Phillies bullpen. It can be heart-pounding, it can be tension-filled, but it had better end the way Tuesday ended.

Otherwise, that Ben Francisco shot was just another home run.


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