The Phillies, who finished the regular season with the best record in baseball, had a chance to clinch their fourth consecutive trip to the NLCS on Wednesday with a victory over the Cardinals.
But Roy Oswalt threw one too many mistake pitches and the Phillies' offense continued to struggle in a 5-3 loss.
The Phillies couldn’t have started Game 4 of the NLDS any better. Five pitches into the game, the Phillies had a 2-0 lead with an assist from the late-afternoon playing conditions. Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay, standing in bright sunshine while shadows surrounded home plate, took one step in on lead-off man Jimmy Rollins’ drive on the first pitch of the game and retreated too late. The ball went just over his glove and bounced over the wall for a ground-rule double.
Chase Utley ripped a triple just inside the first-base bag and Hunter Pence drove him in with a sharp single to left. But after Ryan Howard patiently worked an 0-2 count to full, home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez rung him up on a pitch that looked outside and second-base umpire Chad Fairchild called out Pence after he clearly slid under the tag.
One pitch, two calls and the potential for a first-inning rout had been averted.
It sent the Phillies into an offensive funk, similar to the ones they had in the final seven innings in Game 2 and the first six in Game 3. Cardinals right-hander Edwin Jackson retired 17 of the next 20 batters he faced before Arthur Rhodes replaced him in the seventh.
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The Cardinals got a run back immediately on Lance Berkman’s two-out double into the gap. His fourth hit in six at-bats against Oswalt — his good friend and ex-teammate — scored Skip Schumaker, who continued his torrid hitting in this series with a one-out single. Berkman reached third after Shane Victorino slipped as he turned to throw back to the infield. Victorino, mistake-free during the regular season, was charged with the error. Matt Holliday, starting in left field for the first time in this series, grounded out to Rollins.
Oswalt had been 5-0 with a 3.25 ERA in 10 previous postseason starts, the biggest closing out old Busch Stadium and the Cardinals in 2005 to get Houston to its first World Series. The right-hander also worked seven shutout innings against St. Louis in the Phillies' NL East division clincher in mid-September.
''It's good to get some early runs, for sure,'' Oswalt said. ''I felt pretty comfortable after that. Just two bad pitches.''
The biggest jolts for the Cardinals came from their seventh-place hitter. David Freese was 2-for-12 in the first three games with one RBI before punishing the fourth of the Phillies' aces.
Oswalt allowed a run in the first and two runs in the fourth to hand the Cardinals a 3-2 lead. Oswalt walked Berkman and hit Holliday with a pitch in the fourth before Freese doubled into the left-field corner to score both runners.
Right after Oswalt threw a pitch in the fifth, a squirrel darted across the plate.
Oswalt argued, unsuccessfully, that the critter’s dash had distracted him on a pitch called a ball.
''I didn't want to stop in the middle of my motion, so I threw it,'' Oswalt said. ''I was wondering what size of animal it needed to be for it not to be a pitch.''
Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel also argued.
''Of course, being from the South and being a squirrel hunter, if I had a gun there, I might have did something,'' Manuel said. ''I'm a pretty good shot.''
Freese got to Oswalt one more time in the sixth, when he crushed a two-run, home run to the pasture in straight away center field to make it 5-2, whipping the standing room crowd of 47,071 — second-largest at six-year-old Busch Stadium — into a towel-waving frenzy.
Utley walked to begin the Phillies’ sixth. With him running, Pence slapped a ball to deep short that would have been a tight play at first. But when Utley kept running towards third, Albert Pujols charged toward the throw and gunned the Phillies’ second baseman down at third. Ryan Howard flew out to center, then Shane Victorino grounded out to end the inning.
Howard had one more chance to be the hero in his hometown, coming to the plate as the tying run after the Phillies had pushed across a run in the eighth. Facing lefty Marc Rzepczynski, Howard went down on three straight pitches, finishing the night 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. He is 0-for-8 in the last two games, with five strikeouts and has hit only one ball out of the infield.
''I think I've been a little bit anxious trying to go up and trying to make things happen instead of letting things happen,'' Howard said. ''Right now I'm just kind of jumping, so just try to recognize pitches better.''
Cardinals closer Jason Motte worked a perfect ninth for his second save of the series. Placido Polanco’s soft fly to center field was the game’s final out.
IT'S UP TO THE DOCTOR IN GAME 5
It all comes down to a deciding Game 5 in the NLDS, which will be played Friday night at Citizens Bank Park.
The pitching matchup between the Cardinals and Phillies pits two old friends and former teammates — Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay — against each other.
"I mean, it's a dream matchup, because the two guys are great — you can't ask for anything scripted better than that," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.
Carpenter was teammates with Halladay in the Blue Jays’ minor-league system and then for two seasons (1998-99) in the majors, before Carpenter was designated for assignment after the 2002 season.
"What I respect the most about him is he's an unbelievable professional," Carpenter said of Halladay. "You look back on his career, and I mean, I was in Toronto when he got sent back down to the minors and all these other things.
"And he's just worked himself to become the best, and that's determination from him. That's his attitude, that's his professionalism. I think that we learned a lot about it together."
Halladay allowed a three-run home run to Lance Berkman in Game 1 of the NLDS, but little else as the Phillies rallied for an 11-6 victory. Halladay allowed three runs on three hits in eight innings with eight strikeouts.
''Might be fitting that it goes down to the fifth game,'' Manuel said. ''It's up to us to go get it. It's sitting right there for us. We've got our ace going, and we're at home, and so everything is sitting right there.''