Wednesday August 17th, 2011

PHILADELPHIA -- Roy Halladay doubled for the first time in his career, balked for the second time in the last six seasons, matched a personal best with 14 strikeouts and, most improbably of all, lost a complete game while pitching into the ninth inning with a lead.

The surprising Diamondbacks, winners of seven straight and now leaders in the NL West by 3 1/2 games, rallied in the top of the ninth to beat the Phillies 3-2 on a two-run double by Lyle Overbay, the veteran first baseman who was out of baseball four days ago after being released by the Pirates following a 5-for-44 slump. It was Overbay's first start for his new team and his third hit off Halladay in the game.

"It's a good situation," Overbay said. "I couldn't ask for anything better."

Overbay likened the crowd to a playoff atmosphere -- it was the Phillies' 185th consecutive sellout of Citizens Bank Park -- even though he, like 20 of his teammates on Arizona's active roster, have never played in a postseason game. The Diamondbacks reached the National League Championship Series just four seasons ago, though the roster has been so completely remade that only four players (Justin Upton, Chris Young, Miguel Montero and Micah Owings) remain from that 2007 squad.

But Diamondbacks-Phillies, the NL West and East leaders, is a possible playoff preview. The Phillies, holders of the game's best record at 78-42, are a cinch to finish the regular season with the NL's best record and, with their division rival Braves the likely wild-card recipient, Arizona would square off against Philadelphia in a NL Division Series if the season ended today. And the Diamondbacks are one of only two clubs to have a winning record (3-1) against the Phillies while playing them at least four times this season.

"It's never going to be easy," Arizona manager Kirk Gibson said of playing Philadelphia. "You have to play a good, clean game."

Tuesday's series opener -- played in a swift 2 hours, 37 minutes -- certainly qualified. Halladay is a well-calibrated pitching machine with two Cy Youngs; Josh Collmenter is a rookie who began the year in Triple-A and who has acknowledged that his extreme overhand delivery might be the result of having thrown axes at a tree as a youth in rural Michigan. Any win against Halladay is a noteworthy confidence boost for a club with the NL's fifth-youngest position players and second-youngest pitching staff, though the prospect of facing Cliff Lee on Wednesday night is a reminder of the relentlessness of the Phillies' pitching staff, a significant hurdle the Diamondbacks -- or some other team -- will have to overcome in October.

More troubling than the ninth-inning loss for the Phillies -- after winning 13 of your last 15 games, such a hiccup is allowed -- was Tuesday afternoon's news that Cole Hamels, one of the Phillies' three All-Star aces this year, would miss a start with shoulder inflammation. An MRI revealed no structural damage, and Hamels said he expects to miss only one start, but there's a dwindling amount of leeway left in the season in case the injury lingers.

The Phillies have pitching to spare, of course. They won the 2008 World Series with only Hamels as a bona fide No. 1-caliber starter and now boast Halladay, Lee and Roy Oswalt alongside Hamels, the '08 World Series MVP, making any playoff series a formidable challenge for any opponent.

The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, with 40 games to go could be the surprise entrant to this year's playoff field. They lost at least 92 games each of the last two seasons and were 15-22 on May 13. But they rallied to win 18 of their next 22 games and are now on their second seven-game winning streak of the season.

"That winning streak at the end of the May helped, and we got rolling," said right fielder Justin Upton, who started Arizona's ninth-inning rally with a leadoff single. "That definitely gave us a confidence boost, but we were also confident coming out of spring training."

Tuesday night was Arizona's major-league-leading 35th come-from-behind victory and, Collmenter said, a "true testament to everything we've embodied as a team." The Diamondbacks trotted out a starting lineup with three players (Overbay, Collmenter and third baseman Sean Burroughs) who weren't on their Opening Day roster and with a fourth, second baseman Ryan Roberts, who was only in the majors because of an injury.

The first meeting this season between these two clubs came in late April, back when Arizona was foundering in fourth place and on a four-game losing streak, yet the Diamondbacks still managed to win two of three games against the Phillies at home.

The winners in those two starts are their surprising 1-2 combo of Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, who used similar aggressiveness in the strike zone as Collmenter did Tuesday. Kennedy threw a masterpiece, spinning a three-hit, 10-strikeout complete-game shutout; Hudson's encore wasn't as strong, though he logged a quality start of three runs in six innings without walking anyone and throwing strikes with 72 of his 110 pitches.

No one will confuse Arizona's rotation with Philadelphia's -- the D-backs have allowed 531 runs compared to the Phillies' 394 -- but their offensive firepower has been slightly superior, 559 runs to 530. But it's that improved pitching staff that gives the Diamondbacks a realistic shot at the postseason. New general manager Kevin Towers has assembled a pitching staff that has sliced two runs off its bullpen's ERA and one run off its starters' ERA. Arizona is the only NL club not to lose a game in which it led at the conclusion of the eighth inning.

After the game, as the Diamondbacks showered, dressed and spoke to the media, the broadcast of Giants-Braves -- the current runners-up in the NL West and East -- played on clubhouse televisions. The players weren't glued to the screens, but there interest was clear, especially after Atlanta's Martin Prado singled home the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning to deliver a blow to Arizona's nemesis, eliciting a small cheer from the Diamondbacks in the room.

There are 40 games left to play and long odds of beating a powerhouse like Philadelphia, but it's looking more and more likely Arizona will at least get the chance.

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