SUDDENLY, BUT ever so briefly, it was in their grasp, just as it has always been this year for the Phillies.
For 8 1/3 innings last evening at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies found themselves under the spell of some exceptional Red Sox pitching that included a sterling effort by lefthander Jon Lester. But so what if they were behind by a run in the ninth? Or if Ryan Howard had struck out in his two previous at-bats when he stepped to the plate and looked out at righthanded reliever Ramon Ramirez?
Remember: This is a club that led the National League with 20 come-from-behind wins going into play yesterday.
Could they do it again?
Howard crushed his 19th home run into the rightfield seats to tie the game.
And it was on to extra innings.
But eventually, reality strolled in from the bullpen: Kyle Kendrick.
Just up from Triple A Lehigh Valley to replace injured reliever Scott Eyre, Kendrick had a 1-2-3 12th inning, then loaded the bases on two singles and a walk in the 13th. By the end of the inning, he had given up three runs.
The Phillies got a runner as far as second in bottom of the 13th, but stranded him there.
The final: 5-2, Red Sox.
The pitching line on Kendrick: two innings, four hits, three runs, one walk.
"He started getting the ball up in the 13th," manager Charlie Manuel said. "He is a sinkerball pitcher, and he started elevating the ball. The inning before that, he kept the ball down."
Kendrick agreed and, with a disappointed shrug, said: "I just got some pitches up in the zone and they strung together some hits. But I want to get back as soon as possible and get better results."
Until that unhappy ending, the place to be was Citizens Bank Park, where a capacity crowd of 45,321 showed up for what would the club's 21st sellout this year. Whatever showers had been in the area had cleared. The Phillies had just beaten the Mets twice in New York to finish off a fine road swing, despite the fact that closer Brad Lidge had been placed on the disabled list with a knee injury (and where Eyre also ended up yesterday, with a strained left calf muscle). And the world champions held a four-game lead over the Mets in the NL East.
So the pieces were in place for a sweet homecoming as interleague play resumed against the Red Sox. And things looked even better in the second inning when hot-hitting Raul Ibanez singled, Shane Victorino doubled and Ibanez scored on an infield out by Pedro Feliz. Just like that, the Phils were up, 1-0.
But Lester stopped them cold.
Upon giving up that lone run, he became untouchable. He gave those two hits in the second inning and not another before he was removed after the seventh inning. Until he gave up a walk to Jayson Werth with two outs in the sixth, he had set down 14 consecutive batters - including seven out of eight by strikeout. Overall, he fanned 11 - the third consecutive game in which Lester has struck out 10 or more batters. In doing so, he also trumped a superb pitching performance by Phillies righthander Joe Blanton.
On any other day, Blanton probably would have come away a winner. He pitched seven innings of five-hit ball, and he struck out seven. But he gave up a game-tying solo home run to Kevin Youkilis in the fourth inning and a solo homer to J.D. Drew in the fifth to give the Red Sox a 2-1 lead. He then set down seven of the final eight batters he faced before he was removed for Chan Ho Park after seven innings. He threw 112 pitches.
"Blanton pitched pretty good, but their guy pitched pretty good, too," Manuel said. "We had a chance to win the game."
The Phillies struck out 20 times overall; the Red Sox whiffed 14 times.
It remained 2-1 until the ninth. As a breeze whipped up, Ramirez struck out Werth and then faced Howard. With one swing of his bat, Howard sent a shot into the rightfield seats that sent a roar through the stadium. Ramirez got out the final two outs and the game went into extra innings.
The Phillies nearly won it in the 11th when, with two men on, pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs hit a towering shot just to the right of the rightfield foul pole. With the fans chanting "REPLAY! REPLAY!" Manuel came out to discuss the ruling with first-base umpire Jim Joyce. Manuel asked to have the play reviewed, but his request was denied.
"I asked him, 'Why?' " Manuel said. "I said I wanted it reviewed. He said it was [his] call. He said, 'I stayed on it, Charlie. And it was foul.' "
Dobbs struck out swinging to end the inning. *