Ryan Howard collapsed 30 feet from home plate when a season of high expectations came crashing down on his balky left Achilles tendon. Phillies fans threw white towels onto the field as the Cardinals formed a pile on the right side of the infield at Citizens Bank Park. Here it was, the nightmare scenario, and it was worse than anyone could have imagined.
First, it popped. Then, the numbness overwhelmed. In seconds, it felt like it was on fire.
"The adrenaline," Howard said, "was trying to keep me going."
Howard lay there as the Phillies' season ended Friday night. He wondered if he hit the ball to the outfield, but then he looked up and saw Nick Punto flip the ball to Albert Pujols to seal a 1-0 St. Louis victory in Game 5 of the National League division series. For the second straight year, it was Howard who recorded the final out of the season.
"Actually," Charlie Manuel said, "I don't know what to say."
In a despondent clubhouse, no one did. The Phillies were crushed physically and mentally once again, the weight of everything crashing down in one indelible moment.
For some 25 minutes after the final out, Roy Halladay sat facing his locker. He was still dressed in his full uniform because there was no postgame workout to divert his attention. He had made his final start, threw 126 high-stress pitches and dazzled, only to lose. Chris Carpenter outdueled his close friend in the first 1-0 shutout in a decisive Game 5 or 7 since 1991.
"You just do everything you can," Halladay said.
Howard hobbled around the clubhouse on crutches. He believed he had a torn Achilles that will require surgery, making this worse than taking strike three last season. Although there were plenty of other offenders, Howard will be the image of failure. He was 0 for his final 15 at-bats in this series. It was his final act before a five-year, $125 million contract commences in 2012.
"It sucks," Howard said. "It sucks."
The painful realization is that the Phillies have improved their regular-season win total each year since the 2008 championship, yet each season has ended sooner in October. First it was an admirable defeat in the World Series to the Yankees. Then, an offensive coma befell them in the National League Championship Series against the Giants. And now, it's utter disappointment.
"That's very difficult," Raul Ibanez said.
Each time his offense came to bat Friday, Manuel moved from his trademark spot in the corner of the Phillies dugout to the steps. In the fourth inning, he was halfway up the stairs. By the sixth inning, his right foot rested on the top step. The manager arrived the ballpark at 10:30 a.m., and he, like an entire city, was restless.
Carpenter finished off the season with eight pitches in the ninth inning. Chase Utley drove a ball to the wall in center that was caught. Hunter Pence bounced one to third. Then Howard fell.
"Everything he threw looked the same," Ibanez said. "But he used all of his pitches."
Four minutes after Halladay's first pitch, there was silence. Halladay sauntered behind the mound, bounced the rosin bag off his right hand twice, and merely watched as the Cardinals jumped ahead two batters into the game.
They scored quickly because Halladay yet again stumbled in the first inning. Of his 34 starts this season, the first batter he faced reached 17 times. This time, it was a Rafael Furcal triple. Furcal scored on a Skip Schumaker double. He hit a curveball on the 10th pitch of an epic at-bat in which he fouled off six pitches. Halladay made two mistakes, and that was all.
"It makes me feel a little sick I wasn't able to do more," Pence said.
The list of crimes by the offense is lengthy. Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz were a combined 3 for 36 in the series, creating a veritable black hole at the bottom of the lineup. Pence grounded out in his final seven at-bats of the series.
Jimmy Rollins and Utley were about the only ones with success, but no one was on base ahead of them or clutch enough behind them. An aging offense overshadowed Four Aces and 102 wins.
"The season was a hell of a lot of fun," Manuel said. "I mean everything about it."
But once Howard crumbled to the grass, everyone was left speechless.