PHILADELPHIA -- Charlie Manuel is salty. His right fielder grabs his calf running down the first-base line, the same calf that landed him on the disabled list. When the player, Shane Victorino, is surprised he's not in the lineup the next day, he gives his manager a little nudge, as they say, right under the bus.
"I don't know why I'm not playing," he says. "I'm fine."
Another player, mercury-quick reserve outfielder Michael Bourn has been out for weeks, yet upon his return, Manuel did not use him in a key situation, and thus the walls once more are closing in on the Philadelphia Phillies.
"I saw where he said when he turns the bases that his ankle hurts him," Manuel said of Bourn. "If you were the manager, what would you think?"
Questions are no longer innocent in this town, if ever they were -- and Manuel's skeptical eyes narrow to a mean little slit when he catches even a whiff of insinuation that the Phillies are once again too far from shore to swim home.
In between complete sentences, Manuel waves the white flag of language, muttering despairing fragments such as "Write whatever you want" and "I don't care" in between complete sentences. Jim Salisbury, the veteran Phillies writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, tosses a little levity at the manager.
"Charlie, you seem unusually feisty today."
"That's right. I'm feisty," Manuel said. "I'm trying to win a ballgame."
There's a difference between being nervous and being scared. Nervous can be butterflies. It can be adrenaline. Scared is in a different area. It means you're scared to get it done.
--Phillies manager Charlie Manuel
Don't blame Charlie. You'd be feisty too if it were as hot in your kitchen as it is in his these days, two games out of a playoff spot with 15 games left. Manuel -- a good Southern baseball man who seems to be suffering from the same East Coast condescension that doomed Grady Little in Boston -- is managing without a contract for next season. The cosmetics in these tough towns are as important as words and deeds, and in times of trouble, the common reflex is easy to dismiss Manuel as unsophisticated, as if a rough Philly accent would raise his team's earned-run average.
It is unclear whether he will return to Philadelphia in 2008, and his ballclub is squeezed tight into a pennant race for the sixth time in seven years. The previous five Septembers have not been kind, and on this night, his team -- which leads the league in hitting, runs, hits, total bases, doubles, RBI, walks, slugging and on-base percentage -- had just been pasted 12-0 by the Colorado Rockies, shut out by a kid (Denny Bautista) who entered the game with a 19.06 ERA and a winless pitcher (Mark Redman) with an 11.86 ERA.
They are unquestionably the biggest tease in Philadelphia, if not all of major league baseball. Take a global perspective, and you'll weep: The last major championship in this city was in 1983, when the Philadelphia 76ers won the latter of their two NBA titles. The Eagles have been to two Super Bowls, but haven't won a league championship since 1960. The Phillies have been playing baseball for money since 1883, when they were the Philadelphia Quakers. In 124 years, they have one championship, 1980. The Cubs, Red Sox and White Sox have nothing on this town.
The past few years have been especially tantalizing, each ending in special agony. In 2001, the Phillies were tied with Atlanta for the division lead on Sept. 24, then lost six of nine. They finished two games out. In 2003, they were two games behind the Braves on Sept. 19, only to lose six in a row and seven of eight. In 2004, they muddled along at 65-68 on Sept. 1, then roared to a too-little, too-late 21-8 finish. In 2005, they tasted the wild-card lead on the final weekend and won more games (88) than they had since winning the pennant in 1993, yet Houston took it all away. Last year, they won more games than St. Louis, the team that won the World Series.
None of this, it should be noted, is easy to do. Since the wild card was instituted in 1995, no team has won at least 85 games five years in a row and failed to make the playoffs. The Phillies, in their own special way, are close to making history.
Historically, everybody eventually breaks through. Everybody, that is, but these Phillies. The Giants of the 1960s were tortured by great teams with coal in their stockings. From 1965 to 1969, the Willie Mays Giants finished second five straight years, but three years earlier, they went to the World Series. The Hank Aaron Braves were consistently thwarted at the end by the Dodgers but went to consecutive World Series, winning it all in 1957. Even the Phillies of the 1970s hit the wall with Reds and Dodgers but made the playoffs and finally won the whole thing.
But here's the funny thing: The Phillies haven't reached the mountain, but neither have they -- as most teams do -- regressed and fallen apart after coming close and not making it. The White Sox -- the World Series winners in 2005 and in the hunt every year since 2000 -- are in last place, threatening to lose 90 games.
Jimy Williams, the Phillies' bench coach, offers up his old Toronto Blue Jays as a parallel to these Phillies.
"Yep, there is a similarity. We had some good, good teams there," he said. "We had [Jesse] Barfield, and [Lloyd] Moseby and [Dave] Stieb. We had to climb that hill, too."
But those teams did, like all the rest, make the playoffs in 1985, and after the big climb, win consecutive World Series titles in 1992 and '93, beating the Phillies the latter year when Joe Carter oh, the die-hards know the rest.
For their suffering, the die-hards walk around as if they've eaten paste for breakfast.
The counterman at Pine Street Pizza on 12th and Pine streets in Center City is watching a replay of the second of Matt Holliday's two home runs Tuesday while sloshing a basket of french fries in a fryolator.
"They're the kiss of death," he said of the Phillies. "They get close. They make it interesting. I've been a Phillies fan my whole life. And this is it. Every year. They get close, and then, the kiss of death. All Philadelphia teams, really, are just like this."
Then there is Carol Wagner, a 52-year-old Haverford College horticulturalist who could only be described as a True Believer since her grandfather, Harry Pritchard, loved the Phillies when they played at Baker Bowl at the turn of the 20th century. Why Old Harry would pass along the Phillies' pedigree to his unsuspecting granddaughter must be described as love. From 1918 to 1948, the Phillies finished higher than fifth -- in an eight-team league -- just once, when they went 78-76, 12 games behind, yes, the Cubs.
"It's a Philly thing, like we know they'll narrowly lose it," Wagner said. "And then we say, 'Oh well, we're in Philly.' But we're very dedicated, very loyal, no matter what they do."
Carol is old-school, both in her enthusiasm for baseball and her lineage. No cable, no MLB.TV, no DirecTV Extra Innings package. If the games aren't on free television, she listens to the Phils on the radio.
She has a Richie Allen button, a Phillie Phanatic doll her grandmother gave her 30 years ago that still sits on her bed. She was there for Steve Carlton's 3,000th strikeout and still has the photo she took of him warming up. She owns T-shirts of Chase Utley and Cole Hamels.
She even wears the Philadelphia equivalent of the Scarlet Letter: a Billy Wagner jersey.
"People say to me, 'What are you doing wearing a Wagner jersey,'" she says of one of the least popular recent Phillies. "I tell them, 'That's not a Billy Wagner jersey. That's a Carol Wagner jersey."
Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies' lavish ballpark, is unkind to pitchers -- home run parks are unkind to any team that wants to win a championship -- and quite possibly a central reason why many baseball people believe the Phillies will not win a World Series. Before the shutout, the Phillies were 14th in ERA, runs allowed and earned runs allowed, 15th in bullpen ERA and last in home runs allowed.
The scouts who watch the game more than the standings say confidently that Manuel is doing more than his share. "There's no way this team, with that pitching, should even think about making the playoffs."
After the 12-0 pasting -- which was followed by a 12-4 Phillies win that underscored the all-or-nothing personality of this team -- Manuel was just as salty after the game as before, when he said he knew there were guys on his team who were scared of these high September moments. Phillies fans know the moments well: the crushing home sweep at the hands of eventual pennant-winner Houston in 2005, the series when David Bell's first-inning error led to four runs and doomed them in the opener, or when Wagner couldn't get outs or keep Astros baserunners from stealing at will in a 2-1, ninth-inning loss in the second game, leading up to the heartbreaking finale. In the third game, with Philly leading 6-5 with two out and nobody on in the ninth, Bell committed another error and Wagner gave up a single and a home run to lose 8-6.
Then there was last year, when the Phillies won eight of nine to hold a half-game wild-card lead with a week to go only to lose three of four to lowly Washington.
"There's a difference between being nervous and being scared. Nervous can be butterflies. It can be adrenaline," Manuel said. "Scared is in a different area. It means you're scared to get it done. When Houston got here, or when we didn't execute in Washington. We couldn't pick up the ball. We couldn't get the ball to first. That all comes from a scared thing. It's hard to produce. It's hard to execute. It's hard to do the things we need to get done."
Manuel even veered from the traditional optimism-or-die position most managers must take. After Wednesday's 12-0 pasting, he sounded as unsure as the guy at Pine Street Pizza.
"I think you've got to step up. There's no sense in even sugarcoating. It's kind of like a show-me time," he said. "It's kind of like, 'Let's go; if we have it, let's see it.' That's kind of how I look at it. We've got 17 games left, that's what it it's all come down to. I think that everything has to fall right. And fall right means that we've got to pitch good enough to get there.
"And can we do it? I don't know if we can do it. Like I said, it's time for us to see."
And yet and yet the Phillies are still in it, robustly. They beat the Mets for the fourth straight time Friday night and are still three games out of the wild-card lead.
"It's there," said closer Tom Gordon, who -- by dint of having played in Boston, New York and now Philadelphia -- happens to be a graduate of the holy trinity of Big Bad Baseball cities. "The fans, well, they are different. They let us have it and you can hear it. But we have a chance. All you can ask for is a chance."
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.