PHILADELPHIA -- It was a clinic, really, in how to pitch in a bandbox. The Philadelphia Phillies, playing in their cozy, home-run friendly ballpark, got their bats on plenty of balls. But they were grounded, like jets in a hurricane. St. Louis Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter produced 16 groundball outs during his masterful 1-0 shutout Friday night, a Game 5 victory that sends the Cardinals, who have crashed this postseason, to the National League Championship Series. How did Carpenter, who only allowed three hits, keep all those balls rolling -- slowly, weakly -- across the Citizens Bank Park infield, as if it were a putting green?
"He was just focused on keeping the ball down," said his catcher, Yadier Molina, in the rowdy St. Louis clubhouse after the game, as champagne burst all around him. "The sinker, the breaking ball, everything."
Carpenter had complete command of his fastball, which allowed him to get ahead of hitters. "When you do that," says Carpenter, "you get those guys, who obviously are a fabulous hitting ballclub" -- as any Philadelphian will attest today, he's being generous --- "you get them in swing mode. If you're aggressive and they know that, if they don't swing, you're going to be 1-2, 0-2 ... they're going to start swinging. And that's when you can start expanding the strike zone and getting the ball down and getting them to swing at stuff you want."
Moments earlier Carpenter's teammates, anticipating his arrival in the clubhouse, huddled together. When he entered, they mobbed him. "60 feet! 60 feet!" they chanted.
Yes, the Cardinals have an ace of their own. Going into Game 5, Roy Halladay got most of the attention. Sure, he has those no-hitters and Cy Youngs and anchored this year's pitching staff, one of the most decorated of all-time. But Carpenter won that Cy Young back in 2005. After missing most of the 2007 and 2008 seasons with arm injuries, he won the Comeback Player of the Year award in 2009.
On the last day of the regular season, he told the Cardinals coaches that they wouldn't need the bullpen. His 8-0 shutout of Houston, plus an Atlanta Braves loss to the Phillies --- might Charlie Manuel regret managing that game as it were the World Series? -- put red-hot St. Louis, 10½ games back in the wild-card race on Aug. 25, into the playoffs.
And on Friday night, he outdueled Halladay (the pair are good friends, from their days with the Toronto Blue Jays). In the first inning, Carpenter's mates spotted him the only run he'd need. Rafael Furcal led off the game with a triple. "Halladay left a cutter down the middle," Furcal says. "As soon as I hit it, I was looking for third."
Skip Schumaker's double down the right-field line drove Furcal home. After the rocky start, Halladay settled in, and in the bottom of the fourth, Carpenter faced his biggest scare. With men on first and third, Raul Ibanez lifted a ball to deep right field. "Did I think he crushed it? No," says Carpenter. "But you don't really know in this ballpark." Carpenter begged the ball to fall short. "I couldn't tell if [right fielder] Lance [Berkman] was trying to deke me out, or if he was actually going to make a play on it." The ball --- and Philly's season, as it turned out --- died at the wall. Berkman caught the third out.
The Phillies went quietly, as Carpenter retired nine of the last 10 batters. (The only player who reached base, Ross Gload, did so on a dropped third strike). The ninth inning was particularly painful. Chase Utley raised the crowd's hopes with a shot to center field, but Utley, who had a fine series, isn't the player he once was. Jon Jay gloved it. Hunter Pence grounded out to third, and the game came down to Ryan Howard.
The drama was fitting, given what transpired in the Bronx on Thursday night. Alex Rodriguez stepped to plate in the bottom of the ninth against Detroit, in a one-run game, and whiffed. Howard, like A-Rod an expensive star drawing the ire of the home fans, hit yet another grounder, this one to second. He crumbled, near home plate, on his futile run to first. The Cardinals whooped it up while Howard, who hit .105 for the series, withered in pain with an apparent Achilles' injury. "How bout them Eagles," said one morbid, sarcastic Phils fan, as headed for the exit. (The Eagles are 1-3).
This one was for the heartland. In baseball, the big-spending coastal elitists have been kicked out of the salon. In the National League, they've been replaced by a keg party. The Cardinals and the Brewers will rekindle memories the 1982 "Suds Series." Break out the Bruce Sutter and Gorman Thomas clips. In the American League the Texas Rangers, owned by hard-throwin' cowboy Nolan Ryan, face off against the Detroit Tigers and the Motor City. The teams with the three highest payrolls --- the Yankees, Phillies, and Red Sox --- are headed home.
The Phillies should be most disappointed. A team that won a franchise-best 102 games couldn't escape the first round. The Four Aces are now a footnote. Before the game, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel tried to loosen things up. He even brought a good luck charm from the 2008 World Series run --- rubber ducks --- back into the clubhouse. "We've got Halladay pitching," Manuel said beforehand. "We're in a good place."
The Cardinals had Carpenter. They're in a better one.