After Troy Tulowitzki's lazy fly ball lofted off the bat and hovered in the airspace above left field before landing safely in the waiting glove of Ben Francisco for the final out of last night's -- or, more accurately, this morning's -- I stared out at the field for a moment to process what had just happened.
"Holy (expletive)," I said to nobody in particular. "He did it."
I then proceeded to flush out that sentiment in 800 or so words. At the time, I was talking about Brad Lidge, who walked two batters in the ninth inning but always seemed in control of his eighth consecutive postseason save. But I could have been talking about any of a number of heros who willed the Phillies to a 6-5 victory that sets up the potential clincher today.
I could have been talking about Jimmy Rollins, who had two hits in his first 13 at-bats this series but singled up the middle off of Rockies closer Huston Street to lead off the ninth inning and set up the game-winning run.
I could have been talking about Chase Utley, who went 3-for-4 with a home run and moved the winning run to third on a play in typical Utley fashion, legging out an infield single on weak ground ball that, replays later showed, bounced off his leg.
I could have been talking about Ryan Madson, who inherited men on first and third with no out in the third inning, jogging in from the bullpen to replace the injured Scott Eyre without having warmed up, then limited the damage to a game-tying sacrifice fly.
I could have been talking about Chad Durbin, who had warmed up what feels like 100 times this series before finally getting his chance in the eighth inning, when he retired the Rockies in order to move the game to the ninth.
But most of all, I could have been talking about Charlie Manuel, who orchestrated one of the more improbable Phillies victories of the season, taking a situation that should have spelled doom for his squad and conjuring up the type of magic it takes to win in the postseason.
I want to focus on Manuel this morning, mostly because of a series of text messages I exchanged with my buddy Jared, a die-hard Yankees fan who had work at 8 a.m. this morning yet could not drag himself away from the television set last night as the Phillies and Rockies waged an epic battle in what felt like a do-or-die Game 3.
"We were second guessing him all night," he wrote.
To which I responded, "I was too."
Which is why it is time to take a break and highlight at strength of Manuel's that seemed to get lost in last year's title run. In 2008, Charlie the people person took center stage. As the Phillies cruised to their first World Series title in 28 years, Manuel was lauded for his ability to manage a clubhouse, to keep a roster full of stars playing as a team, to overcome adversity (the death of his mother) and keep his players in the mind-set it takes to win. The glowing reviews of his interpersonal prowess were both accurate and timely, but they also served as back-handed complements of sorts, their collective implication holding that his folksy understanding of the human element of the game diminished his perceived lack of baseball acumen.
But while Manuel may never find himself the subject of a Buzz Bissinger book, he has proven throughout this season that he has strong beliefs in the various strategies necessary to win a baseball game. And, much more than that, he does not allow the perceptions of the public or his professional peers to divert him from that course.
In short, Charlie Manuel has balls.
When the pitcher's spot in the line-up arrived in the sixth inning with one out and runners on first and second in a game the Phillies led 5-4, convention screamed for a pinch-hitter. Left-handed slugger Matt Stairs was still available on the bench. So too were Miguel Cairo and Ben Francisco, along with back-up catcher Paul Bako. But Manuel elected to let Joe Blanton hit, a decision that resulted in a strikeout on three straight failed bunt attempts. The Phillies failed to push another run home, and their lead remained at one. Might Stairs have driven home what would prove to be a cruicial insurance run? Or even create a comfortable margin with a home run? Perhaps. But Manuel looked at his bullpen and at the Rockies line-up and decided he needed Blanton to face the three right-handed hitters due up at the bottom of Colorado's order. Blanton retired two of those three batters, then gave way to Scott Eyre, who retired one of the top pinch-hitters in the game in Seth Smith to end the inning.
When Eyre left the game with runners on first and third and no out in the seventh, convention screamed for righthander Chad Durbin, who was already warm in the bullpen. But Manuel called on Madson, eliminating the possibility of the right-handed set-up man/closer pitching the eighth and ninth innings. Might Durbin have succeeded? Perhaps. But Manuel looked at the dangerous Todd Helton waiting on deck, and at the equally dangerous Troy Tulowitzki waiting behind him, and decided he needed the reliever with the biggest arm and the best chance to strand runners. Escape the seventh and perhaps Madson could pitch the eighth. Or, if worse came to worse, Durbin could take the mound with a clean inning. Madson struck out Helton, allowed a sacrifice fly to Tulowitzki that tied the game, then retired Yorvit Torrealba to make the best out of a bad situation. Durbin, meanwhile, shut down the Rockies in order in the eighth.
Ah, yes. And Lidge. Manuel's decision to call on the embattled closer in the ninth inning might be portrayed as yet another indication of his legendary stubborness, of his unfailing belief in his star players. But in reality, it was simply his best available option. In a perfect world, Madson would have been out there on the mound trying to protect a one-run lead. But on a night where starting pitcher J.A. Happ lasted just three innings and an already-thin bullpen was stretched tissue-thin, Lidge was the only option. And then you think back over the past couple of months, and Manuel's daily proclamations of faith in his closer, and how even when it became obvious that Madson was his guy in the ninth inning of a tight game, he continued to pump up Lidge, and profess a willingness to throw him back into the fire, all the while opening himself up to the ridicule of a fan base and media assembly who wanted nothing more than to hear him stand behind a microphone and lay his team's late-game failings at the feet of a closer who finished the regular season with 11 blown saves and a 7.21 ERA.
But Manuel is more than willing to play the part of the down-home dummy if it takes the emphasis off of his players and gives his team a better chance to win in the future. Because even in Lidge's darkest moments during an abysmal season, Manuel realized that there was a good chance he would reach a point in the postseason where he needed the veteran righthander to believe in himself, and believe that his manager and teammates believed in him. And last night was that moment.
There is no getting around the fact that Charlie Manuel's biggest strength as a manager is his ability to manage the his subordinates. But never doubt that he is also a tactician. And while you may disagree with his plan -- Might J.A. Happ have lasted longer than three innings if he had remained on a starter's routine throughout the postseason rather than pitching in relief? Might he have hit Stairs against Matt Belisle with runners on first and third in the fourth rather than Greg Dobbs? -- you have to admit one thing: For the second straight year, the Phillies are one win away from the National League Championship Series, despite the shortcomings of the closer and ace lefthander who got them there in 2008, despite the fact that two of their top relievers are injured and off the NLDS roster, despite the fact that his notoriously fickle line-up played Game 3 in record cold.
Last night, Manuel did it.