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The end of greatness: Now the Phillies will try to make sense of it all

Of all the acquisitions Citizens Bank Park has witnessed over the previous three years, the one that spoke the loudest was standing high above right field, it's $10 million facade shining into the warm October night. You can't always expect the scoreboard to tell the story, but as another sell-out crowd shuffled away from the Phillies' first decisive postseason game in 30 years, it more than sufficed.

Cardinals 1, Phillies 0.

Repeat the score to anybody who has watched this team over the previous few years, and they can tell you exactly how the details played out. There were a couple of loud outs, long drives by Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez that died at the wall. But, perhaps fittingly, the story of the greatest rotation ever built came to a familiar end. Not enough power, not enough baserunners, not enough runs.

For several minutes after it ended, the second-largest crowd in the stadium's history stood silently at their seats, staring out at the empty field as if they could not bare to leave. Even after Ryan Howard hobbled into the dugout, nearly all of his weight supported by a couple of athletic trainers, the fans remained. They had roared at an ear-splitting volume throughout most of the night. After Roy Halladay allowed a leadoff triple and an RBI double to start the game, the veteran righthander turned his dial up to dominant, blanking the Cardinals for the next seven innings. Unlike Game 2, when an uncharacteristic hush fell over the crowd after the Phillies raced out to a 4-0 lead, Citizens Bank Park seemed to gain energy with each inning that passed. But whatever they were carrying, it wasn't contagious.

Much of the credit should go to St. Louis righthander Chris Carpenter, who last weekend allowed the aforementioned 4-0 lead while pitching on short rest for the first time in his career. Last night, he was dominant, pitching a complete game shutout to extend the Cardinals' improbable run into the National League Championship Series. He located his fastball, mixed in his curve, out-dueled his former teammate and long-time friend.

But none of that will provide solace to the legions of fans who packed the stadium all season as the best rotation in Phillies history, perhaps the best in the history of the sport, paced the Phillies to a club-record 102 wins.

"We just didn't get it done," manager Charlie Manuel said.

For the second season, it ended with the middle of the order. One year after Howard struck out looking to end the NLCS, he grounded out to second and then collapsed to the ground, clutching his left ankle. The first baseman had foot troubles throughout the last month, including a case of bursitis that affected the area around his left Achilles tendon. Afterward, Manuel did not have much in the way of an update, saying only that Howard would be examined by team doctors.

The Phillies can only hope that the eventual diagnosis is less severe than the pain he appeared to be in. The last thing they need heading into the offseason is a question about the ability of their highest-paid player. Short stop Jimmy Rollins will be a free agent, and figures to command significant interest after a solid offensive season and a great division series. The only veteran reliever under contract for next season is Jose Contreras, who is coming off of elbow surgery.

While the Phillies cannot over-react to a five-game stretch that amount to three percent of the regular season, their inconsistent offensive performance stretches back through the last three years, with their selectivity, on base percentage and power dropping with each campaign.

It will be tough to upgrade over Rollins at shortstop, given the lack of quality hitters throughout the league at the position. Raul Ibanez will be a free agent, and there are several options the Phillies could pursue to compete for a job that at the moment is John Mayberry Jr.'s to lose. Carlos Beltran might be too old and too pricey, but Nick Swisher could become a free agent if the Yankees decline his option, and Josh Willingham is scheduled to hit the market. Both are high on base percentage guys who see a lot of pitches, two shortcomings that have plagued the Phillies over the last couple of seasons.

They could also look to third base, where Placido Polanco struggled down the stretch and throughout the division series, hampered by a sports hernia that could require offsesason surgery. Polanco is guaranteed $6.25 million next season, but that should not prevent the Phillies from looking for a hitter to compete for playing time. There are no big names available, at least on the free agent market. Aramis Ramirez could be available, but only if he does not exercise a player option. The Phillies also have spent more than their fair share of money on the line-up. They have $107 million guaranteed to nine players in 2012, and perhaps $25 million or more in pending arbitration raises to Hunter Pence and Cole Hamels. They will make closer a priority. Ryan Madson is sure to command heavy interest and a big contract. In a market saturated with other options, it is very possible that he has played his last game as a Phillie.

But free agency is still a month away, the furthest it has been at the end of a Phillies season since 2007. For now, they will sit back and digest how it all went wrong. It could be as simple as the wrong opponent at the wrong time for a second year in a row, a conclusion that would be harder to stomach given the circumstances that enabled the Cardinals to qualify for the postseason. One loss to the Braves in the Phillies' final series and it could have been Arizona instead of St. Louis. And then? Who knows.

It is a question that re-inforces the fickle nature of baseball's postseason, when an entire season of accomplishment boils down to five games of performance. Once again, the Phillies were narrowly out-performed. And now they must spend an offseason reflecting on the emptiness of 102 wins, staring blankly at the present like last night's sell-out crowd.

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