Saturday September 6th, 2008

For the first time all night, Brett Myers found himself with his back against the wall. But by then the game was over, the second-place Phillies had beaten the first-place Mets, and Myers' stunning stretch of dominance had continued. He stood outside the visitor's clubhouse at Shea Stadium pressed against the wall surrounded by reporters eager to find the answer to a riddle Myers neither knows nor cares to know the answer to: How in the world is this happnening?

"I don't even want to talk about it. I'm tired of talking about it," Myers said after his latest gem, an eight-inning, no run, 10-K outing that led the Phillies to a 3-0 win and moved them to within two games of the Mets in the NL East. "I try not to look at all the small details everybody else looks at."

In Myers' performance Friday night, the beauty was in the details. Only once did he allow two runners to reach base in the same inning -- the first, a mini-rally he quickly snuffed by getting baseball's most prolific run producer the last two months, Carlos Delgado, to ground into an inning-ending double play. Not once did he allow a man to reach third base. And not once did he give the Mets or their fans any sense that they were capable of winning this game and tightening their grip on the NL East.

There were only fleeting moments when the Mets seemed to be victims more of bad fortune -- Ryan Howard barely snaring a line drive by the speedy Jose Reyes that was a sure extra base-hit, leading off in the third, or Ryan Church getting the tip of his glove, but nothing more, on Greg Dobbs' two-run blast that put the Mets away in the seventh. But perhaps the Mets needed to rely on fortune in this game, because Myers was giving them nothing else but a steady diet of fastballs on the black and big-breaking curveballs below the knees.

Not that Myers was particularly impressed with himself. "Tonight," he said. "I did a pretty good job."

Myers' stellar outing was at once shocking and also not at all. In this whirlwind season, he has been good enough to be the Phillies opening-day starter, and bad enough to be demoted to the minor leagues after a miserable stretch in which he won just once in 13 starts, culminating in a disastrous two-inning start against the Rangers on June 27 in Texas, the shortest start of his career. Myers had lost the velocity on his fastball, and more importantly, the confidence that he could succeed at the big league level.

"I couldn't tell you [what changed]," Myers said. "I had to re-learn how to be a starter."

But since returning to the Phillies in early August, he has been far and away the team's best and most dependable starter and -- brace yourselves, Brewers fans -- arguably the best pitcher in the National League. In fact, Myers is 6-1 since his return with a 1.55 ERA, and as the intensity of the moment has increased, so too has his performance. In 31 innings pitched over his last four starts, Myers has yielded only two runs (for a 0.58 ERA), while winning all four games, striking out 35 and walking just six.

"His timing is right on time," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said.

With the decreased speed on his fastball, which topped out in the upper 80s in the late innings on Friday, Myers has had to become, in many ways, an even better pitcher than the highly-touted prospect who struggled to meet the heavy expectations placed on him when he first came to the majors in 2002. Fortunately for him, he has always been blessed with one of the game's filthiest pitches, a 12-to-6 curveball that the Mets' Daniel Murphy (who, with two doubles, was the only Met to have any success against Myers) called "a real hammer. You can't sit on his fastball because you know you can never ignore the curveball."

For his part, Myers has been able to ignore something even more knee-buckling than his Uncle Charlie: the pressure of a pennant race, which is now squarely back on the Mets for the second straight season as they try to avoid a repeat of their epic collapse of 2007.

Afterward, Myers was asked about pitching in the heat of a pennant race. In his answer, the man who has had the journey of a career in this single season may have revealed the secret of his newfound success. "Pressure?" he asked. "What pressure?"

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