LAST FRIDAY night Philadelphia Phillies closer Brad Lidge unleashed a vicious slider past an overmatched Nomar Garciaparra, the final strike in an 8--5 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, and a loud roar went up in South Philly, one that seemed to echo across the last 25 years. Not since 1983 has the city thrown a championship parade down Broad Street for one of its four major sports teams, but when the Phillies took a 2--0 lead in the National League Championship Series, as fireworks lit up the sky above the redbrick stadium, a postgame celebration began that suggested that Philly's notoriously cynical fans were embracing the possibility that this is the year! Swarms of delirious supporters—it's impossible to overstate how frighteningly loud Citizens Bank Park has become—still waving their white towels, spilled onto Pattison Avenue chanting, "Beat L.A.!" Phillies postgame radio show hosts were already taking calls on who the more favorable World Series opponent would be. "Bring on the Devils—or the Devil Rays, whatever they are!" a caller screamed.
Inside the ballpark, however, it was Philadelphia shortstop Jimmy Rollins, better known for his blustery preseason proclamations, who was suddenly offering himself as the city's voice of postseason reason. As he dressed at his locker for his team's overnight cross-country trip to Los Angeles, Rollins, the Phillies' second-longest-tenured player, said with a smile, "Everyone should just remember: Nothing comes easy in Philly."
Nothing has come easy for the Dodgers, either. Los Angeles and Philadelphia, two proud franchises that began this October having not won a postseason series since 1988 and 1993, respectively, are eager to forsake their recent history. Just ask Rollins, or look at the fortune-cookie message L.A. slugger Manny Ramirez had taped to his locker at Dodger Stadium last weekend: DON'T LOOK BACK. ALWAYS LOOK AHEAD.
And, sure enough, just as the Phillies looked as if they were going to waltz to their first World Series since '93, the Dodgers added a little blood-boiling drama to the series when they came out swinging in Game 3 on Sunday night at Dodger Stadium. Tiger Woods and the rest of the fashionably late L.A. crowd had barely taken their seats before L.A. was off to a 5--0 first-inning lead. At least the record throng of 56,800 was fully engaged for the night's main event: In the top of the third inning both benches and bullpens cleared after L.A. starter Hiroki Kuroda fired a fastball over Phillies centerfielder Shane Victorino's head, a transparent attempt at retaliation for Philadelphia's Brett Myers's throwing behind Ramirez in Game 2. Both teams eventually chilled, and the Dodgers coasted to a 7--2 win.
Perhaps as big a surprise as the Dodgers' first-round sweep of the Chicago Cubs has been the Phillies' evolution into a team built for October. The architect of this transformation is 71-year-old general manager Pat Gillick, who has led four organizations (Toronto, Baltimore, Seattle and now Philadelphia) to the League Championship Series as G.M. (His Blue Jays won world championships in 1992 and '93.) Renowned in baseball circles for his photographic memory (old friends call him Segap Wolley, or Yellow Pages backward), a master at finding valuable complementary players at cut-rate prices, Gillick arrived in Philly in the winter of 2005 and quickly dismantled the core of a team that had just won 88 games and finished second in the division. Less than a month into his tenure he dealt popular first baseman Jim Thome. He dumped—for nothing in return, really—the team's highest-paid player, rightfielder Bobby Abreu, at the 2006 trade deadline, then proclaimed that the Phillies wouldn't be serious championship contenders until '08. As expected, Phillies fans began lighting up the forums on firepatgillick.com.
Last season the Phillies won 89 games and their first division title in 14 years, but as Gillick would concede, the team's first-place finish was in large part a fluke, made possible by the historic collapse of the New York Mets, who squandered a seven-game lead in 17 games. This year the Phillies won 92 games, had the third-best run differential in the major leagues (+119) and, as Gillick says, "turned into a team built for the playoffs over the course of the season. In spring training we were a team that was going to win with big offense—an offense that likes to score a lot of runs in one inning but then forget about it. By the end of the season we were a team that could win with pitching."
That was apparent in the Division Series, when the Phillies steamrollered the Milwaukee Brewers in four games even as Philadelphia's two big boppers, first baseman Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley, went 4 for 26 with two extra-base hits. But bullpens rule in October, and this Philly team has prevailed because of its blue-light-special relief corps, a group of journeymen and castoffs—Gillick's favorite kind of players. Over the last 16 months Gillick acquired lefty specialist J.C. Romero, who in an eight-month span had been discarded by the Los Angeles Angels and the Boston Red Sox; righty Chad Durbin, who is pitching for his fifth organization in five years; and lefty Scott Eyre, who was dumped by the Cubs in August. Gillick also gambled on Lidge, penciling him in as his team's closer in the off-season even though the Houston Astros, who dealt him to Philly in November, had lost faith in the righthander. All were integral parts of a relief staff that was first in the league in ERA and second in fewest home runs allowed. Says Romero, "We all came here with a lot to prove."
In the first two games of the NLCS, both of them tight, Durbin, Romero, Lidge (who nailed down the 3--2 Game 1 win with a perfect ninth) and righthander Ryan Madson combined for six scoreless innings. Though the Dodgers had the league's second-lowest relief ERA this season, the Phillies believe they have the clear edge if the series becomes a battle of the bullpens. "That staff doesn't get enough credit," says Brewers pitching coach Mike Maddux. "You can see how good they are from looking at the numbers, but it's even more impressive [because] they pitch in a ballpark that's basically a bandbox. You're not talking about a team playing in L.A., San Francisco or San Diego."
Gillick plans to retire after this season (his lieutenant, Ruben Amaro, is expected to succeed him), and this Phillies team, in what deserves to be recognized as a Hall of Fame career, could be his masterstroke. Last weekend he and the city of Philadelphia could taste a World Series berth. But as the team's trip out West would remind them, and as their brash shortstop would warn: In baseball, and especially in Philly, nothing in October comes easy.