<
>

Phillies can kick back and relax after winning NL East

PHILADELPHIA -- The 45,177 red-clad, towel-waving zanies at Citizens Bank Park on Saturday yelled themselves hoarse in support of the hometown Phillies. But their emotional investment was nothing compared to the ups and downs pitcher Cole Hamels endured.

If the Phillies lost, Hamels knew he would be pitching Sunday afternoon against Washington with the season potentially on the line. With a Philadelphia victory, Hamels knew he could take a breath, rest up and look forward to Game 1 of the National League Division Series against either Milwaukee or Los Angeles on Wednesday.

Pulses quickened and the adrenaline flowed like a river during a stressful top of the ninth, but the Phillies hung on and beat the Nationals 4-3 to clinch their second straight National League East title. And now Hamels can kick back in the dugout and watch teammate Kyle Kendrick start a meaningless 162nd game while the Brewers and Mets compete for the wild card.

Hamels' biggest challenge Sunday might be nursing a heck of a champagne hangover. He'll have some company in that respect.

"I told my wife this morning, 'I do not want to pitch tomorrow,'" Hamels said. "Then I joked around about it all during batting practice. I kept telling guys, 'I'm not pitching tomorrow.'

"My heart started beating a little bit faster at the end knowing I might have to prepare for a game of that significance. I'm glad I don't have to do that.''

While the Phillies are known for banging the ball around in their bandbox of a home park, they've got a balanced starting rotation, one of the game's deepest bullpens and a strong and reliable defense up the middle. All three of those elements came into play in the division clincher.

Jamie Moyer, a marvel at age 45, gave the Phillies six effective innings to raise his record to 16-7. The Phillies handed closer Brad Lidge a 4-2 lead in the top of the ninth. But Lidge, who entered the game with 40 saves in 40 opportunities, nearly blew the game, his perfect conversion rate and Hamels' chance for a day off in an action-packed half inning.

With one out and the bases loaded, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman hit a shot that appeared to be ticketed for center field. But shortstop Jimmy Rollins made a diving stop, flipped the ball to second baseman Chase Utley while on the ground and watched Utley turn a double play to end the game as the crowd went berserk.

Games like this usually end with the infielders and outfielders mobbing the pitcher's mound. This one ended with Lidge, left fielder Pat Burrell and half the Philadelphia team mobbing the shortstop.

"He did a lot of screaming,'' Rollins said of Lidge. "He was like, 'Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!' That's all I remember. I had one ear in his chest and the other ear in Chase's chest, so I just closed my eyes and hoped I didn't get poked in the eye.''

Rollins, who is listed at 5-foot-8, was asked if he might have failed to snag the ball if he stood, say, 5-foot-6.

"If I'm 6-1, I probably don't even have to dive,'' Rollins said. "Like I've always said, 'I'm short, but I'm a lot closer to ground balls.' That's a situation where I guess I was a little closer to the ground than say, a Derek Jeter, who wouldn't need to dive there. It adds a little more drama, but that's Philadelphia. You can't get anything done in this city without drama.''

Last year the Phillies made up seven games on the fading Mets in the final 2½ weeks to win the division, only to get swept by Colorado in the first round of the playoffs. They're confident they'll make a deeper run this season because of Lidge, the starting pitching and the presence of so many "red light'' players in the order -- guys who embrace the opportunity to perform on the big stage.

Nobody did it better in September than first baseman Ryan Howard, who has 11 homers, 32 RBIs and an .851 slugging percentage this month and has crept up on -- and possibly caught and passed -- St. Louis' Albert Pujols in the MVP race.

"You think about it like a race, and September is the homestretch, and you get to the homestretch and try to kick it in a little bit and finish up strong,'' Howard said.

Still, it's Rollins, the reigning National League MVP, who gives this team its energy and motivational fuel. When he's not hitting balls into the corner and digging for extra bases, Rollins is tormenting opponents with stolen bases or terrific defensive plays. An inning before his play on Zimmerman, he made a superb running catch in short center field on a Lastings Milledge blooper.

Amid the postgame celebration, it was like a Jimmy Rollins testimonial in the Phillies' clubhouse. Ruben Amaro, Philadelphia's assistant general manager, called Rollins the best defensive shortstop in the National League. And Mike Arbuckle, the Phillies' other assistant general manager, raved about Rollins' ability to make big plays in pivotal spots.

"He can rise to the occasion, and he's shown it time and again,'' Arbuckle said. "Some guys have that knack. They've got it in them. Jimmy is just one of those guys that when the spotlight is there, he responds.''

The spotlight will shine considerably brighter starting Wednesday, and Rollins and his teammates are planning to stick around and enjoy the atmosphere a little longer than they did during their 2007 postseason cameo.

"Hopefully we can build off what we did and go further this year,'' Moyer said. "I'm hoping guys now understand what it's like to get into the playoffs and play baseball where every pitch means something, every at-bat means something and every defensive play means something.''

The Phillies know, all right. The only issue now is sitting around and waiting to see which team they'll play. As Cole Hamels can attest, there are worse ways to spend a Sunday.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.