THE ENDING - the first of several that the Phillies hope to encounter over the next month - transpired as it should have. With a starting pitcher working out of trouble to limit damage. With a former member of the team's rotation jogging out of an injury-riddled bullpen to record three crucial innings of relief. With key triples from the top of the order and key run-producing hits from the middle on down.
And, of course, with champagne bottles spraying their familiar mist over a Phillies clubhouse, where it was difficult to find a player who did not contribute to a 10-3 National League East-clinching win over the Astros last night at Citizens Bank Park.
All eight regulars reached base at least once. Seven of the eight drove in at least one run, led by left fielder Raul Ibanez' three, two of which came on a monstrous seventh-inning home run that reached the second deck in rightfield. The one player who did not finish with an RBI, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, went 2-for-4 with a double, a triple and two runs scored.
But it was the performance of righthander Kyle Kendrick, who lost his spot in the rotation last September and watched the Phillies' title run from the sideline, who both solidified the victory and typified the team's unorthodox run to a club record-tying third straight division title. With top multiple-innings reliever Chan Ho Park recovering from a hamstring strain, the young righthander replaced starter Pedro Martinez in the fifth inning and proceeded to strike out four, while allowing two hits and walking none in three scoreless innings. In doing so, he might have pitched his way onto this year's postseason roster, which would provide yet another ironic twist in a season that has been full of them.
Kendrick, who spent most of the season starting for Triple A Lehigh Valley, has allowed only three earned runs on 11 hits in 12 innings of relief this season, including four scoreless innings of a 9-4 win over the Braves on Sept. 18 after starter J.A. Happ was lifted at the end of the third.
In many ways, the victory that will be attached to his name is emblematic of the Phillies season: somehow, someway.
Last year, it turns out, they had it easy. The bullpen was healthy. The closer was automatic. The rotation in September looked very much as it did in April.
"We've had more injuries, we've had more decisions than we had last year," manager Charlie Manuel said before the game. "We didn't have any injuries hardly at all last year. From Day 1 this year, if you go back and look, we've had injuries all the way through the season."
But somehow, they did not succumb that to the hangover that has wreaked havoc on many recent world champions. Four of the six World Series winners before the Phillies failed to make the playoffs the following season. Of those four, only the 2005 world champion White Sox finished the following season with at least 90 wins.
Last night's victory gave the Phillies 92 victories (with 66 losses), the same total as last season. With four games to play, and with a magic number of two to clinch homefield advantage in the first round over the Cardinals, the regular season is not over.
But Manuel and the rest of his coaching staff can at least begin to focus their full attention on preparing their squad for the best possible postseason position.
There will be questions to answer. Should Martinez, who routinely worked out of trouble and threw 84 pitches while allowing three runs - two on home runs - and six hits in four innings, inhabit a spot in the postseason rotation? Will Brett Myers, who was available to pitch last night, but did not appear in the game, be ready to contribute in the back end of the bullpen? Will Brad Lidge, who recorded the final out of the ninth inning after Scott Eyre took care of the first two, have a role in the bullpen now that he apparently lost his job as closer to Ryan Madson?
For at least one night, those issues were on the back of everyone's mind. Just moments after the Braves' rally against the Marlins fell short, 5-4, giving the Phillies the division title, Lidge got Lance Berkman to ground out to first base on his first pitch. The celebration that ensued on the field was spirited, yet certainly less subdued the past two seasons.
Of course, there is a reason for that.
And the Phillies will begin pursuit of it Wednesday.i