Loyalty to his closer has cost his team wins and that air of late-inning invincibility. His lunch-pail approach to the game, molded by years in the minor leagues and Japan, has his team looking quite haggard over the last 2 weeks of baseball, their lack of energy a hot-iron topic with each lifeless loss, with each reference to 1964.

Charlie Manuel walks through it all with a smile, with ease. He doesn't rant, he doesn't rip. The papers have cut him slack, the radio guys aren't killing him, either, really haven't all summer. Boos? Not many, certainly not like those that used to come from the heart and the belly as he walked to the mound way back when, before Manuel became this town's rainmaker, mystic and mayor, all rolled into one.

"You won't see me panicking," he was saying before the combination of last night's 7-4 victory over the Houston Astros and the Braves' 5-4 loss to Florida shaved the Phillies' magic number to one. "I've been in the game a long time. I love everything about the game. Getting slapped, getting knocked down and losing, and everything like that. That's all part of getting up, and that's all part of doing it, and that's all part of getting a good life in it.

"You've got to be tough; you've got to be mentally tough. That's one thing we've got in common in Philadelphia. They always say that I'm mentally tough. And how tough they are.

"Well then I belong here then."

That's the deal then, forged last October. Manuel can do no wrong, at least not this season. Sure, there were murmurings that he should have abandoned Brad Lidge as his closer long before he did, but even critics admired his loyalty. He probably used Brett Myers too much too soon after he came off the disabled list, but again, people saw the bodies falling, saw the team teetering, and cut him some slack there, too.

Lately there's been talk of wearing out his regulars. Six of the nine who took the field last night had logged more than 150 games this season. Chase Utley, his unofficial team captain, entered the game with a .215 average in September, went 0-for-4, and struck out for the 21st time this month.

He grounded weakly to first in his initial at-bat. Grounded weakly to second with Jimmy Rollins at third and two outs in the third inning. Playing nearly every day in a season in which he rushed back from hip surgery, Utley seems lost.

Put it on the long list of things Manuel has dealt with this season. Pinch-hitting from the left side was supposed to be a strength. With Greg Dobbs hurt for most of the season and Matt Stairs slumping, it wasn't. The bullpen was supposed to be a strength, before Lidge's fastball went AWOL, and a slew of sidelined relievers made Manuel more craps player than manager.

"Most trying year as a manager?" he was asked before last night's game.

"I don't know," he said. "Sitting here ain't that hard. When you think about it, it's kind of cut-and-dried. It's kind of who you've got, and if the guy gets hurt, you get someone else who can play, and that's kind of what happens. You work off of that."

Here's what he was working off of last night.

Jamie Moyer, his 46-year-old long reliever, needed to be helped off the mound after his groin gave out throwing the last pitch of the Astros' seventh inning. With Lidge warming up, Manuel chose to pitch Ryan Madson for both the eighth and ninth.

So who pitches the ninth tonight?

"With who we got in our bullpen?" said the manager. "He's going to pitch."

That's not exactly, "He's my closer."

It could even be interpreted as a dig, had Charlie not spent the previous few minutes extolling Lidge's great numbers against some of Houston's better hitters, and his effectiveness in some of his outings.

If Charlie wasn't . . . Charlie.

In the meeting, Manuel told his men that, "The mountain didn't come to Mohammed, did it? What happened? He had to go to the mountain. He had to take it."

The Phillies finally mustered a push last night. The Braves lost, the Cardinals lost. Everything seemed to change with one game, one win, one night.

Everything but Charlie. Most trying year? Bah.

"I mean, it's not," he said. "Seems like this one went pretty fast."

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