Phillies take punch, then fight back

PHILADELPHIA -- This was their time.

A time they were built for. A time they've waited 12 interminable months for, since a 2010 postseason that forgot to follow the script they'd written for themselves.

Yes, this was their time, all right. For a Phillies team that was assembled for these moments, for these next four weeks, for these postseason baseball games that will define their legacy, this was it. This was October. It was here. Finally.

Where it's leading them, no one knows. Maybe their roar-from-behind, 11-6 thumping of the Cardinals on Saturday, in Game 1 of a National League Division Series, will be the beginning of something memorable. Then again, maybe it won't.

Who knows? Maybe in 20 years, they'll all look back on this day -- on Ryan Howard's ballpark-rattling second-deck homer, on Roy Halladay's ability to forget a stunning three-run first-inning gopherball ever happened -- as some sort of life-changing experience. Then again, maybe not.

But for a team that was constructed specifically to play these games, and to win a World Series, it was almost a relief, in some ways, that the time to begin trying to fulfill that mission had finally arrived.

"It seems like it takes a long time to get to this moment," said Phillies left fielder Raul Ibanez, on a day that started out all wrong for his team and ended just right. "But once you get to this moment, you know this was what we were built for, and this is where we expected to be. So you cherish it. It's special. And you realize how special a moment it is, and you don't take anything for granted, and you try to make great things happen."

Only nine men remain now who played for the Phillies in the 2008 World Series. Halladay wasn't one of them. Which meant this was his time, too.

So when he headed for the mound Saturday afternoon, with those rally towels spinning and the electric current flowing, he knew just what aces are supposed to do in Game 1 of any postseason.

And it sure wasn't what he then went out and did.

He has given up home runs before. He has been scored on in the first inning before. But what he has just about never done was this:

Serve up a mammoth three-run space shot to Lance Berkman, four batters into the game, that grazed off the second-deck auxiliary scoreboard in deep right field, gave the Cardinals a shocking three-run lead and vacuumed every ounce of energy out of an entire stadium.

Before we go on here, before we talk about the crazy road this game traveled from there, let's try to make sense of that.

Before that ball left Berkman's bat, Halladay hadn't allowed a three-run home run -- any time, any place, any inning -- since Aug. 21, 2008, when Hideki Matsui did it. That was three years, 40 days and 108 starts ago (counting the postseason).

And Halladay hadn't allowed a three-run FIRST-INNING homer in over five years, since Mike Lowell did those honors way back on Aug. 31, 2006.

And that shot was the only three-run bomb Halladay had ever given up in his career ... until this one.

So by the time he finally got through the inning and stomped off toward the dugout, you could see the inferno in his eyes from the fourth deck. And if there was one piece of advice you wanted to give to Halladay's teammates at that moment, it was this:

Run. Run fast. Run for cover. Stay as far away from that man as possible.

"He was kind of like a Rocky movie," laughed his manager, Charlie Manuel. "He got mad after he gave up the homer. That ticked him off, and he hung in there, and he got going."

Yeah, it's safe to say he got going, all right. But only after he and his catcher, Carlos Ruiz, reached the dugout, and pitching coach Rich Dubee was standing there to offer six words of encouragement: "That's the only runs they get."

Little did he know how literally the ace would take that advice. Good listener.

Halladay would give up one more single, to Skip Schumaker, to lead off the second inning. And that was that. He would face 21 more hitters on this day. Not one of them would reach base. Not one. Ridiculous.

Even in his Game 1 division series no-hitter last October, the guy never mowed through 21 hitters in a row. (Fourteen in a row was as perfect as it got in that game.) But then, who DOES mow through 21 hitters in a row in a postseason game?

Well, it did happen once before, according to Elias Sports Bureau, and that was in 1956. The man who did it was named Don Larsen. And you know what happened that day.

What happened on this day was slightly different, you might say. What happened on this day wasn't going to be a chapter in anybody's history book. But if Halladay keeps doing these Don Larsen impressions every October, his team won't complain.

What he did on this day made everything that happened afterward possible. Made the five-run rally in the sixth and the three-run rally in the seventh and the Howard home run that shook the night, in the middle of it all, so meaningful.

None of it would have been possible if Roy Halladay hadn't turned his day into a Rocky movie. Somewhere, Talia Shire is weeping.

Asked later just how "mad" he was after that home run, Halladay wasn't about to describe all the furniture he felt like breaking.

"Yeah," he deadpanned. "I was upset."

But many years ago, with the help of a great sports psychology mind named Harvey Dorfman, he learned he wasn't going to be allowed to sneak up into the scoreboard control room and wipe those runs off the board. So all that mattered at that point was taking control of the rest of his life -- or the next 2½ hours of it, anyway.

"You know, you have your moment of frustration and you've got to move on," Halladay said. "You really do. You can't dwell on it. And you can't do anything to get it back. I felt like, at that point, the frustration was out, and I've just got to go out and pitch."

This is only his second trip to the postseason. But he knows that Game 1's matter. And he couldn't be more correct. In the history of the NLDS, 29 of the 32 teams that won Game 1 went on to win the series. And in the recent postseason history of his own team, you can find the same theme at work.

This is the Phillies' fifth straight year of playing baseball in October. Over the first four postseasons, they won Game 1 seven times -- and won six of those series. They lost Game 1 twice -- and lost both of those series. So they understand what the urgency of these games is all about.

But just as Halladay will never forget Cody Ross, who mugged him for two homers in Game 1 of last year's NLCS, Howard will never be allowed to forget last October, either.

Howard marched up to the plate 38 times in last year's postseason. He never hit a home run. He never drove in a run. And he's been hearing about it for the 12 months since.

So Saturday was his time, too. And in the sixth inning of this game, as he found himself rocking in the batter's box, dueling Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse, Ryan Howard's moment of redemption finally arrived.

For five innings, Lohse had been in total control of this game, allowing just two hits and one unearned run. But then Jimmy Rollins slithered a 48-hop leadoff single through the middle to kick off the sixth. And Hunter Pence bounced a one-out single into center. And here came Howard.

Suddenly, another sold-out house had revived from its five-inning coma. Everywhere you looked, there were towels gyrating, and 46,000 people were standing. And the big man had worked the count full.

He barely fouled off one changeup, then got a piece of another. He tapped the plate once, then twice. He pointed his bat at the man on the mound and waited. And here it came -- one more changeup, floating right down the middle of Pattison Avenue.

Howard smoked it deep into the Philadelphia night, over the AT&T sign hanging from the second deck in deep right-center. It was Phillies 4, Cardinals 3. And this game was never going to be the same.

"That," said Halladay, "was the game right there. One big swing [by Berkman] put them ahead. And one big swing for us gave it back to us. And we were able to add on from there."

The Phillies added two more runs just moments later, on an Ibanez homer, and piled on three more in the seventh and two in the eighth. One minute, they were mustering no offense at all. The next, 13 of 21 hitters they sent to the plate reached base.

But it was Howard's wave of the bat that had turned that avalanche loose. And when he was reminded again afterward of what happened a year ago this time, he was ready.

"I left last year in the past," he said. "You can't bring what happened last year into this year. So for me, it was a fresh start."

Well, that's what Game 1 of every October is intended to be -- a fresh start. But especially for this team -- a team that has been told it needs to conquer this October, or else. So this was it. This was their time.

"No doubt about it," Ibanez said. "This is what we play for."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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