MIAMI - Last year, it was the perfect equation. Cole Hamels in the first seven innings. Ryan Madson in the eighth. Brad Lidge in the ninth. The result was a Phillies victory, and at the end of October, it was a World Series title.
Last night, once again, it was not so.
Hamels allowed four runs in seven innings, Madson allowed a key run in the eighth that cut the Phillies' lead to one run, and Lidge blew his 11th save of the season, allowing a leadoff double to Ross Gload and two-out RBI singles to Jorge Cantu and Brett Carroll.
The result was a 7-6 loss that kept the Phillies' magic number at five and fanned the Marlins' slim hopes at the division title.
It also renewed questions about the Phillies' ability to close out ballgames, most of which have centered around Lidge, but lately have come to include Madson as well.
But with Brett Myers, who spent most of 2007 as a closer, sidelined with a sore shoulder, there aren't many answers.
"Him and Madson, that's what we've got in the back end of the bullpen right now," manager Charlie Manuel said. "He's struggling. At the same time, it's hard for us to close a game out. It's tough. It's kind of what we've got. I mean, I've got confidence in him. I keep running him out there. Hopefully he does the job. I pull like hell for him every time he goes out there, believe me."
Hamels was not as dominant as his previous five outings, when he allowed just six runs in 37 2/3 innings. But backed by four RBI from Ryan Howard, who hit a two-run homer in the seventh that gave the Phillies a 6-3 lead, Hamels was solid enough to deliver a 6-4 lead to Madson in the eighth inning.
There, things unraveled.
After a 45-minute rain delay in the middle of the eighth, Madson allowed an RBI single to Cody Ross that trimmed the deficit to one run.
Then, in the ninth, Lidge once again found himself snakebitten.
The struggling closer had entered the night having converted three straight save opportunities since being pulled with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth against Washington on Sept. 8. But he had allowed runs in each of those three saves, and last night, there was no margin for error.
Gload led off with a double, then advanced to third on a flyout by Chris Coghlan. Lidge then struck out John Baker looking at a borderline slider, prompting an argument from Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez, who was ejected.
But Cantu rendered the decision moot, singling home Gload and setting up Carroll's game-winning hit.
"It's frustrating," said a downtrodden Lidge, who finished the night with a 7.48 ERA. "I'm disappointed. They hit the ball tonight and did a good job. Hopefully tomorrow I'll get a chance to get something started again."
The Phillies' magic number remained at five, with the Braves' win over the Mets. They fell to 88-63, spoiling a strong effort by the three of the biggest bats in the lineup. Raul Ibanez, Howard and Chase Utley combined to reach base seven times, drive in five runs and score four. On a night when Hamels wasn't solid but not perfect, the heart of order came close to rendering it moot.
Howard drove in four runs, two on a two-out double in the third inning and two on his one-out homer in the seventh inning. Ibanez hit his 33rd home run of the year in the sixth inning. Utley didn't get a hit, but got hit by a pitch, drew a walk and ended up scoring two runs.
Together, with the exception an RBI single by Hamels in the sixth, they were the Phillies' offense.
Hamels retired nine of the first 10 batters he faced, but ran into a rough patch after allowing a double to Cameron Maybin to start the fourth inning. Maybin ultimately scored, and the Marlins took a 3-2 lead in the fifth inning on a solo home run by Ross and an RBI single by Coghlan. But Ibanez tied the game in the bottom of the sixth with his home run, and Pedro Feliz doubled and later scored on the single by Hamels.
But once again, the game ended with a late meltdown.
Heading into a four-game series in Milwaukee, the Braves are in second place, 6 1/2 back, while the Marlins are seven back in third place.
"The bottom line is, when you're winning going into the ninth, you have to win the game," Manuel said. "The big thing is we're not closing the game out. When you're leading going into the eighth and ninth, you're supposed to win a high percentage of those. I don't know exactly what the percentage is, but it's . . . damn high."
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.