A HINT OF excitement crept into the skipper's voice, the sound that arises when you've hit upon a subject on which he is dying to speak. Charlie Manuel was sitting in his office 3 hours before the second game of the National League Division Series, entertaining questions from a smattering of writers when the conversation turned to his starting lineup for the night's game.
Let me tell you the reason Shane Victorino is hitting second, he said, and why Jayson Werth is hitting sixth. Sure, Werth is struggling, and sure, moving him down might ease some of the pressure. But look at Victorino - look at his success against hard-throwing lefties, at his ability to hit a ball down in the zone, at the two home runs he jacked against Arizona southpaw Randy Johnson in July.
"He's hit three or four off of some lefties," Manuel said, "especially [those] that throw the ball hard down."
Call it a hunch, call it a prophecy, call it plain dumb luck - Manuel's move paid off.
Batting second for the first time since Sept. 8, Victorino hit a grand slam off Brewers ace CC Sabathia with two outs in the second inning, propelling the Phillies to a 5-2 win over Milwaukee and carrying them to the brink of their first National League Championship Series in 15 years.
The Phillies now lead the best-of-five series, 2-0, despite having scored all of their runs in just two innings. Veteran lefthander Jamie Moyer, who led the team with 16 victories in the regular season, will get the start in a potential clinching Game 3 tomorrow night against Brewers righthander Dave Bush.
"I don't ever question what Charlie does," said Victorino, who went 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles in addition to his grand slam. "He's done it all year long. The question has been brought up all year long about me going from [No.] 2 and hitting at 6 and I've never questioned what he does. Obviously, it works. He's not our manager for no reason."
The Phillies have recorded decisive victories in each of the first two games, holding a lead in 15 of the series' 18 innings.
Last night, righthander Brett Myers outdueled Sabathia, allowing just two hits in seven innings after getting off to what could have been a disastrous start.
Two days ago, it was Cole Hamels pitching eight scoreless innings en route to a 3-1 win.
Both games, Brad Lidge got the save. After throwing 35 pitches and allowing one run in Game 1, he escaped after just 12 pitches last night.
But it was Victorino's blast - set into motion by a nine-pitch walk Myers drew to turn over the lineup with two outs in the second - that proved to be the difference.
In many ways, it was a culmination of a strategy the Phillies worked to perfection throughout the early stages of the game. In essence, it boiled down to this: Make CC work. The 6-7, 311-pound lefthander was making his fourth consecutive start on 3 days' rest. In the previous three, he had pitched with the same dominance he has displayed since the Brewers acquired him from the Indians in early-July.
But the Phillies were convinced they could attack Sabathia and chase him from the game far earlier than Milwaukee hoped.
At no point was the plan more brilliantly executed than in Myers' at-bat, which came with two outs and a man on third. The Phillies had just tied the game at 1-1 on an RBI double by Pedro Feliz that scored Werth. When Carlos Ruiz grounded out for the second out of the inning, it looked like the Phillies would have to be content with getting their first run off Sabathia. As expected, Myers quickly fell behind 0-2. But what happened next was a study in the importance of every single playoff pitch.
Myers took a ball, then fouled off a pitch, then took a ball in the dirt. With each pitch, the roar of the crowd grew louder. Foul. Ball in dirt. Foul. Nine pitches later, Myers took ball four, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
"Brett was making CC throw pitches and maybe that was wearing him down," said shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who knew Sabathia when both were growing up in the Oakland area. "He threw a lot of pitches in the last 12 days and when you have a pitcher up there battling, psychologically you can get worn out."
Sabathia seemed at a loss. He walked Rollins to load the bases, then served up a 1-2 slider that Victorino grooved into the leftfield stands. With one swing of the bat, the Phillies scored more runs off Sabathia than any National League team had managed in his previous 17 starts.
Less than two innings later, the mammoth lefty was out of the game, having thrown 98 pitches in just 3 2/3 innings.
"That was our goal, and it was to, one, get his pitch count up," said Victorino, whose grand slam was the first in Phillies postseason history. "And two, to get an early lead off of him."
The Brewers added a run off Myers in the seventh to cut the lead to 5-2. They put two men on base against Ryan Madson in the eighth - one on a fielding error by Rollins - but lefthander J.C. Romero got slugger Prince Fielder to ground out to end the threat. *