Friday October 22nd, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO -- A pitcher can come to a baseball game armed with great stuff, an airtight game plan and confidence by the barrel loads. Pitching on those precious days with swing-and-miss stuff and rhythm like Coltrane is serendipitous, even somewhat easy when the baseball is made obedient.

What reveals the character of a pitcher, however, is when his stuff is somewhat short, when his body lacks the strength, and when defeat means the end of his team's season. On consecutive October nights and under such duress, two Cy Young Award winners, CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay, confirmed that they are pitchers of extraordinary ethos.

Sabathia, the highest-paid pitcher in the game, took the ball in an elimination game for the New York Yankees on Wednesday and, without his best stuff, survived the harassment of 11 hits to bring the Yankees home for another day of baseball.

The next night, Halladay, the game's third-highest paid pitcher, strained his right groin in the second inning of an elimination game for the Phillies -- already trailing the superb Tim Lincecum and the Giants, 1-0.

Halladay's fastball, which reached 93 mph in the first inning, lost a couple of ticks. His trademark sinker, the pitch that requires proper extension of his stride and getting his body out over his front leg, was no longer a weapon. The moment was Clapton showing up for a concert without a guitar.

What to do? Persevere and find a way to win the darn ball game. Halladay invented new mechanics on the fly to make it through six innings with the season on the line. Doc, heal thyself.

He fluttered curveballs and changeups where normally his sinker and cutter would power their way through lineups. For a guy who threw a no-hitter and a perfect game this year, NLCS Game 5 was the Halladay Signature Game -- not for his stuff, but for his will.

"I knew something was up because they were talking to him during the game," said center fielder Shane Victorino, referring to the training and coaching staffs. "I didn't realize what it was, but when I found out it was like, 'Doc's pitching on one leg? Really?' You could tell by his velocity. It wasn't 93-94, but 89-90. It shows the man we know he is. He wasn't about to come out of the game."

On one good leg, Halladay made it through six innings and 108 pitches, the last one his newfound best friend by necessity, the curveball, on a full count to Juan Uribe with two runners on while holding a 3-2 lead. Uribe swung and missed.

Maybe it wasn't quite Kirk Gibson and the bandaged hamstring or Curt Schilling and the Bloody Sock. But in his own stoic way, Halladay, in this first postseason of his, introduced himself to the national baseball audience by how he performed in a diminished state. Facing elimination and injury, he not only found a way to win, he invented it.

Just how off his game was Halladay? He walked his first batter of the game -- something he had done in only 12 of his 322 career starts (3.7 percent). He walked the leadoff hitter in two of his six innings; he had walked only six of 252 leadoff hitters this year (2.4 percent). He was visited on the mound by the pitching coach, Rich Dubee, only 10 pitches into the game. The Phillies had Jose Contreras warming up in the bullpen in the fifth inning.

No, not by any means was this one of those vintage Halladay evenings.

But here's the thing: The Giants let him off the hook. They had a compromised Halladay out there and nine runners on base in six innings, but only pushed two across home.

The window was open for the Giants to march into the World Series: Lincecum holding a 1-0 lead at home and Halladay with his right groin aching and almost at every turn on the cliff of getting knocking out of the game. But San Francisco let the opportunity slip away.

Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff stepped up to take the blame. It was Huff who badly clanked a grounder that should have been the second out of the third inning with the Phillies tying the game at 1. Instead, his error sent another run in and set up a third run.

"We didn't play the way we've played all year," Huff said. "We didn't play Giants baseball. Mine's the big play. It's all on me tonight. This one's squarely on me."

Halladay was proud of the way he competed and proud that he gave his team another day of baseball. But that bunt in the third inning? "Not so proud," he said, laughing.

It was a key play and another blown umpire call, but it was the Giants who were more at fault than the umpires. Halladay bunted with runners at first and second. The ball went straight down and bounced softly on the plate twice. Upon the second bounce, the ball spun backward a bit and was in foul territory -- behind what you might call the first-base side "roofline" of the pentagon-shaped home plate -- when catcher Buster Posey gloved it. Halladay didn't even bother running because he knew it was foul. But Jeff Nelson, the home plate umpire, signaled fair.

The Giants had a gift-wrapped double play with Halladay just standing there in the batter's box: Posey to third baseman Pablo Sandoval to first baseman Huff.

One problem: Sandoval didn't bother getting all the way back to third in order to touch the bag. When he caught Posey's throw, he reached back with his foot but couldn't find the bag, looking like a loser in a game of Twister. He still had time to get the out on Halladay at first base.

"It's my fault," Sandoval said. "I know I have to get back as quickly as possible."

Asked if he thought it was a foul ball, Sandoval said, "That's what I thought. But whether it's a fair ball or a foul ball I have to get back quickly to third base."

Two batters later -- the error by Huff and a single by Placido Polanco -- the Phillies were ahead 3-1.

Equal time department: Give Phillies manager Charlie Manuel credit for managing with some urgency and waking his team from its flat play in recent days. The Phillies started four runners (three steals and a run-and-hit). Manuel ran lefty specialist J.C. Romero into the game to get Huff in the seventh. And he locked down the game behind Halladay with power arms (Contreras, Ryan Madson, Brad Lidge).

It's becoming increasingly obvious that Manuel can't wait for big innings from his team -- not against these Giants starters. When Jayson Werth homered in the ninth -- one of only a handful of opposite-field homers by a right-handed hitter at AT&T Park -- it snapped a streak of 155 consecutive plate appearances for the Phillies without a home run.

Chase Utley and Ryan Howard still don't have an RBI in the series. Utley keeps rolling over on the steady diet of off-speed pitches that the Giants are feeding him; he has grounded out weakly to the right side six times in five games. And his defense continues to tip-toe toward Knoblauchian. He botched a double play in the first inning when a ball went partially under his glove and made two ugly throws to first, one that went awry and another that was saved by Howard.

Howard, in a bit of remarkably bad timing, has tied the longest streak of his career without an RBI: 10 straight games, dating back to the final two games of the season. He has whiffed nine times in these five games. Odds are that one of them is due to break out with a big hit, if not a big game. It's just that neither of them is squaring up enough pitches lately to encourage such a thought.

Now baseball is inching closer to exactly what it needs most of all: a Game 7 -- or even two of them.

They come around like comets. In the previous 15 years of the wild-card era, there have been only 11 Game 7s: four in the ALCS, four in the NLCS and three in the World Series.

Baseball Game 7s make for the best day in sports, in part because you never know until the last possible moment that you will get one. Every year you know that football is going to give you a Super Bowl. But baseball's ultimate winner-take-all game, Game 7, arrives as an unannounced gift on our doorstep. There is no party planning.

Baseball once went three straight years without a Game 7: 1998-2000. The last Game 7 was the 2008 ALCS, when rookie David Price closed the door on the Red Sox in a 3-1 thriller.

Now we have two possibilities to get there. The Yankees need only to grind down Texas right-hander Colby Lewis, a 12-13 pitcher, and get simply a decent start from Phil Hughes. The Phillies, considering the tepid nature of their offense, need a gem from Roy Oswalt, but he often has delivered such for them. They are 12-1 when he starts.

The last time we had the double-witching hour of two Game 7s in the same year? That would be 2004, when the Red Sox beat the Yankees and the Cardinals beat the Astros.

And should each series this time extend to the ultimate game, the pitchers will be Cliff Lee for Texas, Andy Pettitte for New York, Cole Hamels for Philadelphia and Matt Cain for San Francisco. They are 32-14 combined in the postseason. But none of them ever have pitched a Game 7. History awaits.

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