LOS ANGELES - If any shred of doubt remained about the danger of playing baseball games on paper, Raul Ibanez sent it sailing into the warm, still Southern California night in the eighth inning of the first game of the National League Championship Series.
Up until that point, the Dodgers, who featured the top-rated bullpen in the National League and a lefty specialist who was supposed to spell doom for the middle of the Phillies lineup, were very much where they wanted to be: Down by a run, deep into Charlie Manuel's bullpen, waiting for their moment to pounce.
But as is often the case in this sport, their best-laid plans came unraveled. And it was a rejuvenated veteran leftfielder who did the unraveling.
After the aforementioned lefty, George Sherrill, walked the first two batters he faced in the eighth, Ibanez crushed a first-pitch slider into the seats in rightfield for a three-run homer that proved to be the decisive blow in an 8-6 victory.
In the ninth, a game fraught with peril ended in a fashion similar to the Phillies' four previous Game 1s, with a victory, and with a resurgent Brad Lidge on the mound recording the save.
"It's October," said Lidge, who blew 11 saves and posted a 7.21 ERA during the regular season but has now recorded saves in each of the Phillies' last three postseason wins. "The regular season doesn't mean a whole lot when October rolls around, to be honest. As long as you are lucky enough to get to the postseason, everything kind of clicks over. For me, I feel physically great right now and I feel very fortunate for that. And I think when our bullpen is healthy and going on all cylinders, we're the best one. I mean, we proved it last year. We had a rough season, I had a rough season, but once the postseason rolls around, it's all different."
The biggest hero of the night was Ibanez, who carried his NLDS success into the next round, going 2-for-4 with two runs scored and the decisive home run in the eighth. Following him were Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz, who also starred in the Phillies' four-game series win over the Rockies: In a five-run fifth inning against 21-year-old Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw, Mr. October hit a two-run double and Senor Octubre hit a three-run homer as the Phillies jumped out to a 5-1 lead.
"Chooch has been playing real good," Manuel said. "The last 2 months, he's been hitting good. Tonight, he got ahead in the count. That's what hitting is."
Howard now has eight RBI in the postseason and is the Phillies' all-time leader in that department with 18. Ruiz, meanwhile, has six RBI and is 6-for-16 in five games.
But the biggest story was the way the Phillies' patchwork bullpen once again sealed the victory, willing its way through a perilous 3 2/3-inning stretch that began when lefthander Cole Hamels left the game with runners on first and second in the sixth. Hamels, who in the fifth had allowed a two-run homer to Manny Ramirez and an RBI groundout to Andre Ethier to cut the Phillies lead to 5-4, started the inning by coaxing Casey Blake into a pop out. But he left the game after allowing back-to-back singles to James Loney and Ronnie Belliard, prompting Manuel to call on Chad Durbin.
Durbin retired the only batter he faced, getting Russell Martin to line out to Jayson Werth. With dangerous lefthanded slugger Jim Thome pinch-hitting, Manuel called on lefthander J.A. Happ, who walked Thome on five pitches, but got Rafael Furcal to ground out on a 3-2 fastball to leave the bases loaded and preserve a 5-4 lead.
"We had enough to get by," Manuel said. "We got outs when we had to."
As was the case in his outing in Game 2 of the NLDS, Hamels' final line looked a lot worse than his performance suggested. Unlike Kershaw, he appeared in control for the duration of his outing, with two significant exceptions: a 2-1 fastball that he left over the plate in the second inning, resulting in a leadoff home run by James Loney, and a 2-0 changeup that Ramirez crushed for his two-run homer in the fifth.
On Loney's home run, catcher Carlos Ruiz set up outside, but Hamels left the ball in over the plate. Ramirez, meanwhile, never would have come to the plate in the sixth inning had Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley converted what at first looked to be a routine doubleplay. But after Rollins fielded a one-out grounder by Ethier, he took a few precious seconds to dig the ball out of his glove for the flip to second, after which Utley rushed a throw that sailed over Howard's head at first.
Instead of an inning-ending doubleplay, one run scored and Ramirez came to the plate with a runner on second base. Two pitches later, he blasted a 2-0 changeup into the bleachers in leftfield to cut the Phillies' momentarily comfortable lead to 5-4.
After Antonio Bastardo allowed a double to Ethier to lead-off the seventh, Chan Ho Park retired the next three Dodgers in order, despite making his first appearance since straining his hamstring in mid-September.
Ryan Madson allowed two runs in the eighth, finally getting Manny Ramirez to ground out with runners on first and third to maintain a two-run lead.
That set the stage for Lidge, who allowed a leadoff single to Matt Kemp, got Casey Blake to ground into a doubleplay, walked James Loney, then coaxed Ronnie Belliard into a soft pop-fly that Rollins snagged for the game's final out.
The Phillies recorded their fifth straight Game 1 victory, Lidge recorded his 10th consecutive postseason save, and both teams left viewers with the feeling that the 2009 NLCS will provide every ounce of the entertainment it promised.
"You try to ignore whatever the other team is trying to do and try to focus on your game and what you are trying to do," Ibanez said. "It's definitely important to come in here and win the first game against a very, very tough team."
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.