Phillies' season sails past them

PHILADELPHIA -- Ryan Howard sat in front of his locker, his hands clutched behind his head, staring into space, wishing for the one thing the season would no longer give him: another game.

Howard did not spend many of those quiet moments after the game in front of his locker replaying the final pitch, a Brian Wilson slider that tucked into the bottom part of the zone for a strikeout with the bases loaded that ended Game 6, a 3-2 win for San Francisco that sent the Giants to the World Series. Ryan thought at the time, and every moment afterward, that he shouldn't have swung.

In the back of Howard's mind, he thought Wilson might throw him a fastball, but he didn't expect it. All year, teams had stopped throwing the Phillies fastballs in fastball counts, a result of enhanced scouting -- and the byproduct of years of offensive success. At some point, opposing teams would finally figure out how to pitch the Phillies, and it appeared that this year, when Philadelphia went through several offensive ruts, they finally did.

So realistically, Howard knew that Wilson likely would throw a breaking ball. When it came, Howard was not surprised. He simply didn't think it was a strike. So he didn't swing.

There were no regrets.

"I thought it was down," Howard said. "[Plate umpire Tom Hallion] paused before he made the call. It's a tough way to end the season. If you're going to call it, don't hesitate. I thought it was ball four. I was about to head to first base. I haven't seen [a replay]. I was there. I saw it firsthand."

It's always an uncomfortable feeling entering a losing clubhouse that is still trying to process the feelings of a lost season, a final game. Normally, Howard is one of the last players to come to his locker after a game. But not after this game. Howard could not get up from his chair while still in uniform. He sat in a daze for what seemed like an eternity but was actually about 20 minutes. In that time, he was consoled by Philadelphia media relations people, then by veteran Raul Ibanez.

This was no proper way to end a series, the team's biggest slugger with the bat on his shoulder, but, in a sense, it was the most fitting. The Phillies, a team constructed to be a force offensively, were just 8-for-45 with runners in scoring position in the NLCS. Howard, although he had a .400 OBP for the series, struck out in 12 of his 22 at-bats and didn't have a single RBI against the Giants. Only one Phillie slugged higher than .500 (Jayson Werth). Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins combined for just two extra-base hits.

"You can look back at all the opportunities, and we just didn't get it done," Rollins said.

Just to show the fickle nature of the game, Philadelphia reliever Ryan Madson's cutter that had been so vital to Philadelphia's Game 5 win was one cause for Philadelphia's loss in Game 6.

In Game 5, Madson, while warming up, felt that the cutter darted out of his hand. He used the pitch to strike out the side in the eighth. But on Saturday, Madson warmed up in the bullpen and noted that the magic was gone.

"It was normal," Madson said dejectedly. "It wasn't like the last game. Last game, it was more explosive."

With two outs in the eighth, Madson threw a cutter down and away to Juan Uribe, who smacked it over the right-field wall for the deciding run. Off the bat, Howard said he wasn't sure whether the ball had enough carry to go out, but he knew that Uribe was a strong guy and that Citizens Bank Park, a blessing most of the time for the Phillies, could be a curse this time.

"It was shocking to me," Madson said.

But there were too many other mishandled moments to simply blame the loss on Madson. There was the time in the third inning when the Phillies knocked starter Jonathan Sanchez out of the game by putting the first two men on base with no outs. But Philadelphia did not even do as much as advance the runners. There was the bases-loaded opportunity in the fifth when Shane Victorino grounded out to the pitcher. There was the time in the eighth when Carlos Ruiz lined to third base with one out and Victorino was doubled up at second base to end the inning.

"When you look back as a player, it eats you up inside," Victorino said of being doubled up. "Should I have stopped? Maybe. But at the end of the day, I was trying to score."

Although they are likely to contend again next year, there are numerous questions about the Phillies. Will the team bring back free agent Werth? Can outfielder Raul Ibanez be a productive player at 39 years old next year? Can Rollins' continued decline be stopped?

This offseason, Rollins said he would try to find an exercise routine that could help him be more flexible and that would keep his body aligned.

"I was thinking about yoga," Rollins said. "But I don't know if I'm going to give in to that. But age starts catching up."

Although the Phillies return most every important player, except perhaps Werth, Philadelphia need only look at its rivals, the New York Mets, to see how quickly things can change. The Mets, despite returning a strong core the next season, never recovered after outfielder Carlos Beltran took a called strike three with the bases loaded in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, an eerily similar finish to what befell Howard and the Phillies on Saturday.

Next season, Howard, Rollins and Utley will be 31, 32 and 32, respectively, ages when many players start to decline. This year, all three missed significant time to injury. Perhaps more than ever, Philadelphia will rely on its pitching staff of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.

Victorino said that if someone had approached him at the beginning of the season and told him the Phillies would be a light-hitting, pitching-oriented team, "I would have [bet] you my paycheck" that they would be wrong.

At some point this past offseason, Victorino said he finally got over making the final out of the World Series against the Yankees. Several friends and his brother often joked with him about it, and that helped him forget. Victorino is sure that Howard, too, will quickly forget about the strikeout. In fact, he said, it might be easier for Howard because the out came in the NLCS and not the World Series.

But on Saturday night, Howard still anguished. After he finished dressing, Howard went around the clubhouse saying goodbye to several teammates who likely would not be his teammates next year. After the final goodbye, Howard headed past the door and disappeared.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.