AFTER A TOUGH loss, venerable knuckleballer Charlie Hough could be found in front of his locker, alternately dragging on a cigarette and a beer, dispensing perspective with a casual been-there, done-that air. Such as: "Every baseball game is important, but no one game is that important."

With all due respect to Hough's sagacity, the game your Philadelphia Phillies will play tonight at Citizens Bank Park against the St. Louis Cardinals to decide which team advances in the postseason tournament is that important.

In fact, not to be melodramatic and fully understanding that a billion people in China don't give a damn, it might just be the single most important game the Phils have played since they first hung up an Open For Business sign and opened the gates in 1883.

Sure, that night in October 1980 when police horses lined up on the Veterans Stadium warning track and Tug McGraw leaped high into the South Philadelphia chill was big. It ended more than a century of false starts and unsatisfactory endings. But that was only Game 6. Even if they'd come up empty, they still had another chance.

Ditto Game 5, Part 2 in 2008, when Brad Lidge fell to his knees and spoke to the heavens and another parade rolled down Broad Street and millions celebrated their World F. Champions.

There have been crushing disappointments along the way, games in which the Phillies were the second half of the win-or-go-home parlay.

But it's all relative, isn't it? Never has a season started with such lofty expectations. As bitter as being upset by the Giants in the NLCS was, that was soon washed away by the wave of euphoria that swept the region when prodigal lefthander Cliff Lee returned as the latest free agent to choose this team, this town. And that he snubbed haughty New York at the same time made it all the more delicious. He likes us! He really likes us!

It only stands to reason, then, that the fallout that would result from a first-round dismissal would be just as unprecedented.

The inevitable conclusion is that what will transpire on that neatly manicured lawn near the intersection of Broad and Pattison tonight has the potential to impact this franchise more than any single game in its long and colorful history.

A win, and the pressure is off, at least temporarily.

A loss, and . . . what? This is pretty much uncharted territory. For the past few years, the Phillies have been able to rally the fan base with a string of exciting and expensive additions. Roy Halladay. Raul Ibanez. Lee. Roy Oswalt. Lee, the sequel. Hunter Pence.

That has kept the customers happy and hopeful. Being bounced in the division series would use up what's left of the innocent joy that marked the start of this run, before anything less than winning the World Series was considered an abject failure.

Those sorts of grand statements, the kind that help calm troubled waters, may not be possible anymore, though. The Phillies' payroll is already bumping up against the luxury-tax threshold, a glass ceiling they are admittedly reluctant to breach. They also must be hesitant about continuing to strip-mine the farm system to trade for established stars.

And that's a real issue because there are tough decisions to be made this offseason. Jimmy Rollins is a free agent. If not him, who? Ryan Madson is a free agent. If not him, who? Roy Oswalt has a mutual option. What to do about the fourth ace? Cole Hamels is a year away from being able to test the market. Can they tie him up? Placido Polanco has been hurt for much of the last 2 years. Can he be counted on in 2012? Ibanez' contract is up. Does he have a role next year? What about Lidge?

Some moves that may be deemed necessary could be unpopular. If they occur after a third trip to the World Series in 4 years and with another big, shiny trophy to display over the winter, they will take on the sheen of a winning organization doing whatever it takes to retool on the fly.

But if it comes against the backdrop of failing to even make it to the NLCS, of taking yet another step backward from that last championship season, those same transactions will be viewed very differently. The old cries about the Phillies being cheap will resurface, and never mind all the evidence to the contrary. Remember the reaction when Lee was traded to Seattle?

If that disaffection becomes deep enough, attendance will begin to fall. And don't underestimate the addiction this organization has developed for nightly sellouts.

"This is the biggest game of the season that we're going to play," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said before yesterday's workout, and that undersells it.

Given all the unpleasant fallout that could result if champagne is sprayed in the visitors' clubhouse late tonight, this is the most important game the Phillies have ever played.

Even Charlie Hough would have to agree with that.

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