No other team gained ground on the Phillies, and the wild card is within reach - especially with Howard's big bat.
By Claire Smith
For the Inquirer
When the Phillies took the field last night, the upper decks in right field and down the left-field line were sparsely populated.
Citizens Bank Park is not yet the place you absolutely have to be. But as fans started to drift in to fill the lower left-field bleachers with their fannies and the air with their cheers, you couldn't help but imagine the possibilities.
Do things right, the Phillies had to know, and the days of ambiguity might end, in the National League wild-card race in which they hovered one game out of first at the start of play last night. And in the hearts and minds of reticent Philadelphia sports fans.
All it would take was... what?
One more gutsy postseason guarantee by Mike Lieberthal?
One more series victory over a team the Phillies not only have to beat, but should beat?
One more gargantuan, game-winning blow by Ryan Howard during his march toward the still-magical 61-homer mark?
Someone to take charge after a tough loss - like last night's 11-6 pasting by the visiting Chicago Cubs?
A rare clunker from a starter (Jon Lieber, 21/3 innings, five earned runs, two incredibly hard-hit homers by Aramis Ramirez) sent most of the starting nine home without comment, including Lieber.
Makes you wonder about pressure, from within and without.
Still, the Phillies had to know, even in defeat that the signs remain good.
No team closed ground on them, nor do many seem to remain serious threats to their second-place wild-card standing.
Second, the Phillies did not go quietly, especially after Howard was plunked by Cubs starter Sean Marshall in the fourth inning.
That ignited the crowd of 31,101, which included about 4,000 walk-ups. For a time it ignited something within the Phillies, too, who closed within two runs after a pinch-hit grand slam by Jose Hernandez topped a six-run fourth.
It proved to be not enough. As Charlie Manuel reminded during batting practice, "We've got to go out there and take care of our business." Last night that did not happen. Not against a team thriving in the role of spoiler.
The Cubs, after all, took four of six from the wild-card-contending Dodgers and Reds last week. "They've been playing good ball, if I am not mistaken," centerfielder Shane Victorino said.
Still, even after rampaging around the bases, Chicago did not trample the Phillies' shot at October. And that goes a long way, even when you lose by five.
Possibilities buy you time.
Howard alone has the potential to form a one-man brass band down the stretch. That much was clear before the game when the Cubs' dugout, filled with players and coaches and the likes of former Phillies outfielders Garry Maddox and Gary Matthews, marveled at the major-league home-run leader during batting practice.
"Fifty-seven home runs - you've got to give him the MVP just because of that," said Matthews, a coach with the Cubs.
"I was getting a haircut today and they were calling Ryan Howard the black Babe Ruth," said Maddox. "And this was over in Camden, where there hasn't been much outreach.
"But when somebody puts up stats like that, everybody's paying attention."
Even after the big guy went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts, the Phillies are still so counting on that. And still expecting more