Phillies wind their way back to NLCS

DENVER -- The champs have been here before, riding down this same October highway.

They know where it leads. They know each twist in the road. It all seems so familiar. So much of it feels the same.

Except it's not -- because it can't be.

Like the 2008 Phillies before them, the 2009 Phillies are heading for an NLCS date with the Dodgers in October. They know that now, know it after winning a Division Series-sealing game for the ages, the record books and the memory banks Monday -- a dramatic 5-4 win over a Rockies team that got to within one strike of forcing a Game 5 that could have rewritten all their stories.

It was a game the Phillies seemingly had all but won, then a game they'd seemingly let slip into the abyss of all-time tragic Phillies losses. And then, with two outs in the ninth, they arose again to win a game so spectacular that many of the men who played in it ranked it among the greatest they've ever participated in.

"That might be my favorite game ever," said reliever Scott Eyre, who went from limping off the field Sunday night to pitching the ninth inning Monday.

"I'd rank this one at No. 2," said shortstop/philosopher king Jimmy Rollins, "because World Series Game 5, that was No. 1 for me.

"And No. 1½," Rollins said, upon further review of the weather gods' role in those two-part festivities -- remember, Game 5 last year was suspended by rain after 5½ innings and completed two days later.

"So I guess," he said, laughing at the absurdity of it all, "this has to be No. 2½."

But wherever it ranks, it was a win that elevated these Phillies into a more special class of defending champs than even they realized. Here's why:

Of all the National League teams that have won a World Series over the past century-plus, these Phillies are only the fifth, believe it or not, to come back and win a postseason series the following year.

They're the first since the 1995-96 Braves. Before them came the 1975-76 Reds. And before those two, you have to travel back to the baseball stone age -- to the 1921-22 Giants and the 1907-08 Cubs.

And that's all, friends. So when people talk about how hard it is to repeat, you can stop them right there. Repeat? It's hard enough to win one stinking series the next time around.

"A lot of times," Rollins said, "I think you get caught up in repeating and think it's going to happen again. Well, it's not going to just happen again. You've got to go out and do it. Every year has a different story. Every game has a different ending.

"You're in a different position now. People aren't looking at you now as the team that can be good but hasn't done anything yet. They're looking at you as the world champions. And they want to knock you off.

"So I think," he said, "that's why we never use the word 'repeat,' because you get caught up in the fact that it should happen the same way. You think it just should happen, right? Noooooo. You have to make it happen. Every pitch, every at-bat, you have to find a way."

And this was a game that will stand as living proof of how intuitively this group gets that concept.

"We talk about it all the time," said right fielder Jayson Werth, less than an hour after the biggest hit of his life. "One day at a time. One game at a time. One pitch at a time. That's the mentality of this team."

But while they grind out these magical wins in tiny little increments, they also have a special awareness of the meaning of the destination. When you win any World Series, it stamps your career forever. But when you win two, you're no longer just a team that rode a one-time magic carpet. You're a team history never forgets.

"I think we're very driven to win again," said Brad Lidge, after his second postseason save in 24 hours. "I think we really believe we can do it. And I think we also know that if we do … we've forged something pretty cool in this game. We've got a lot of swagger on this team. And these guys don't just want to be known as one-time World Series winners. We want to be in the same sentence as some of the great teams that have ever played."

But their place in that sentence is still eight gargantuan wins away. And as Monday reminded them one more time, even one win this time of year can be a heart attack waiting to happen.

Not that they would have known that for the first two hours they were out there. For 7½ serene innings, the Phillies rode the brilliance of Cliff Lee and two solo homers (by Werth and Shane Victorino) to a 2-1 eighth-inning lead.

But with this team, it's never that easy. It can't be that easy. "Serene" is a word that ought to be expunged from the dictionary of this group.

So of course, the bottom of the eighth would turn into a plot line right out of a Stephen King novel.

Of course, Lee -- strike-throwing machine that he is -- would walk rookie Dexter Fowler on four pitches with one out in the eighth.

And of course, Fowler would then do something you should see only in an Edwin Moses highlight video -- hurdle over Chase Utley to avoid getting tagged out following a Todd Helton chopper to second base.

"That," Rollins would say later, still shaking his head in disbelief, "was crazy."

Then of course, the Phillies' most trusted reliever, Ryan Madson, would arrive and make things crazier.

Of course, Madson would at first seem to get rescued by the No. 1 Web Gem of October 2009 (so far) -- a sprinting, sprawling, grass-eating, temporarily game-saving catch of Troy Tulowitzki's sinking liner by left fielder Ben Francisco, who had just entered this game in a double-switch about three seconds earlier.

And of course, within the next three pitches after that shock wave had finished rolling through Coors Field, Madson would serve up a game-tying pinch single to Jason Giambi, followed by an apparent game-winning two-run double by Yorvit Torrealba.

And so, in mere minutes, everything about this series changed. The Rockies led 4-2. A Game 5 was looming Tuesday, 1,500 miles away in Philadelphia. And it wasn't the champs who owned the momentum anymore.

But we should mention right here that it hasn't been a real fun October for the Great Closers of America. You can ask Joe Nathan. You can ask Jonathan Papelbon. And now you can ask the Rockies' Huston Street.

He's a man who blew just two saves all season, a man who turned the best hitters on earth into a sport full of Alexi Casillas, allowing the hitters who faced him to bat just .194, with a .236 on-base percentage. So there's no one the Rockies would rather have handed the ball to.

But as Street appeared on the mound and Coors Field shook with euphoria, you would never have known, from the scene in the Phillies' dugout, that the champs had just been downgraded to near-critical condition.

"This is a pretty loose team," said Werth. "We're very calm and very loose, all at the same time. So the mood in the dugout was very calm, very professional. We knew what we had to do. We had a job to do in the ninth. … At no time did anybody feel like we were out of the game. We always feel like we're in the game. We just keep grinding it out."

So for the second straight day, Rollins got things rolling in the ninth, this time with a one-out single. But when Victorino forced him at second, the Rockies were one out away. And Utley headed for home plate.

Street took a stroll to the first-base side of the mound. Utley smoothed the dirt in the batter's box. Coors Field felt like an earthquake had just erupted underneath the infield grass.

The Rockies had played a million games just like this one over these last few months. They'd won 17 games in their final at-bat. They'd watched Street nail down every big out. There was no reason to imagine what was about to unfold.

But Utley did what he lives for -- working a six-pitch walk in a pulsating duel that felt as if it lasted half an hour. And that brought Ryan Howard to the plate -- for the at-bat of a lifetime.

If his head was supposed to be pounding, if his heart was supposed to be crashing through his chest, the hulking cleanup man clearly had never gotten that memo.

"There's pressure, I guess, but I don't mind it," Howard said. "I wanted to be in that situation."

He pushed the count to 2-and-1. He stepped out and watched Street tug at his cap. They were surrounded by 49,940 witnesses, every one of them on their feet, stirring nervously. Howard tapped the plate, pointed his bat at Street and dug in.

Street had to throw a strike. But he didn't have to lay in a hit-me fastball, right down the chute. Howard was all over it, pounding a 3-wood to deep right field that seemed to hang in the Colorado ozone forever.

But the baseball sailed over Carlos Gonzalez's head, took a funny carom and died on the warning track. So there was no way two baserunners as fast as Victorino and Utley wouldn't score, right?

Uh, not so fast. Victorino lost track of the ball, missed third base, looked for a moment as if he might trot straight to the dugout and then glanced up to find Gonzalez scrambling for the ball and Utley bearing down on him like a bull rampaging through Pamplona.

So Victorino restarted the engines, touched third, motored toward the plate and scored about a quarter of a second before Utley. Suddenly, this was a tie game. But all anyone in the Phillies' dugout wanted to know was: What the heck was Shane Victorino doing?

"These were his exact words: 'It was an ADD moment,'" Rollins reported. "He said he was trying to look for the ball. I don't know why. …

"But he had to score," Rollins said, "because he didn't want to get beat up."

Five pitches later, it was Werth's turn. Street hung a 2-2 slider. Werth looped it into short right. Howard thundered home. Werth shook a fist toward his dugout. And now it was the Phillies who were three outs away.

And, amazingly, the reliever Charlie Manuel chose to try to get those outs was none other than Eyre, a fellow last seen staggering off the field the night before with a sprained ankle, not to mention a fellow who hadn't even saved a regular-season game since 2004.

Asked how he recovered so fast, Eyre revealed: "I've got some goooooood tape."

He and that tape got them within one out of the finish. Eyre set down Eric Young Jr. and Fowler, sandwiched around a Gonzalez single -- his 10th hit of this series. But when Helton kept the game alive with a bouncer up the middle, Manuel stalked toward the mound and pointed at the distant bullpen.

This was now Brad Lidge's game.

Incredibly, he found himself in exactly the same situation as the night before: Two on. Two out. And Tulowitzki at the plate.

The night before, Lidge had challenged him with fastballs. This time, the reborn closer knew he had to change it up. So he tossed up four straight sliders and ran the count to 2-and-2.

Catcher Carlos Ruiz trotted to the mound. They agreed this was the spot for one final slider. Ruiz raised his glove and whispered through the webbing: "Give me your good one."

Well, Brad Lidge got the message. He rocked. He fired. He broke off one of those invisible, man-eating, see-ya-later sliders right out of his 2008 scrapbook. Tulowitzki started to hack, tried to stop and couldn't. And the Phillies had become the fifth NL team in history to win four straight postseason series.

But that's not all. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, they were only the ninth team in history to win a postseason game in which they found themselves two runs behind and down to their final out.

Only one other defending World Series champ had ever won a postseason game like that -- the 2001 Yankees (twice). But these Phillies are a group that is always looking for a place in that section of the history books.

"We don't play this game," Rollins said, "to walk away in October and say, 'Well, it was a great season. See ya in spring training.' We have something to prove on this team.

"We want to be known as winners. We want that legacy. We want to be known the way everyone knows New York and Boston. That's all you hear about. We're just trying to take a little piece of that."

He knows -- they all know -- there's only one way to do that: Don't win just once. Win again. And these Phillies know exactly how long it's been since any NL team won once and then won again.

"Since '76, right?" said Jimmy Rollins. "The Big Red Machine.

"Hopefully," said the shortstop, at his catch-phrasey best, "they'll be calling us the Little Red Machine."

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