Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS was actually a classic game

By Tim Kelly, Sports Talk Philly editor  

In Philadelphia, Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS has a Lord Voldemort-type feel — it's the game that shall not be named or discussed.

It was the final game in what, for many, was the most magical Phillies season ever. Ryan Howard, who tore his Achilles on the final play of the game, was never the same. Roy Halladay, who started the game after what may have been the best season of his career, was never effective again. And if that wasn't enough, it was the final playoff game in the team's 2007-2011 run of National League dominance that is widely considered to be the most successful five-year period in club history. 

But just after the six-year anniversary of the game, perhaps it's also time to recognize how great of a game it must have been for those not connected to either team to watch. 

First of all, the Cardinals really backed into even making it to Game 5. The Phillies won Game 1 11-6, behind a four-RBI performance from Ryan Howard. A Ben Francisco pinch-hit home run allowed the team take Game 3 of the series 3-2. Had Cliff Lee held an early four-run lead in Game 2, the Phillies would have swept the Cardinals.

That of, course, didn't happen. 

Despite falling down 4-0 early in Game 2, the Cardinals managed to even the series with a 5-4 win that was wedged in between to Phillies wins. In Game 4, eventual playoff hero David Freese had four RBIs, as Roy Oswalt allowed five runs in what turned out to be his final start with the Phillies. 

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And just like that, the Phillies, who had won a franchise-record 102 games, were one game away from being eliminated. 

But as Howard had put it after Game 3, the Phillies' worst-case scenario was that they would be hosting Game 5 with Halladay on the mound. It was hard for Phillies fans to feel overly worried knowing that the era's best pitcher would be taking the ball for them in a win-or-go-home game. 

Baseball is a strange sport, though.

Halladay, who was Clayton Kershaw away from winning his second consecutive Cy Young, faced Rafael Furcal to open the game. While Furcal was a former Rookie of the Year and had made two All-Star teams, he was limited to just 87 games and batted just .231 in 2011. The Cardinals had a lineup full of players that could change the game with one swing – Freese, Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman – Furcal shouldn't have been one of them. But he was. 

Furcal started off the game by working a 2-1 count, before lacing a ball into right-center field for a triple: (5)

With the understanding that he was facing one of the era's best pitchers in Chris Carpenter, Halladay pitched the rest of the inning looking to limit the damage as much as possible. He did give up an RBI double to Skip Shumaker later in the inning, which allowed the Cardinals to take a 1-0 lead. But despite exhausting over 30 pitches in the first inning, he limited the Cardinals to just one run, which was a moral victory, if such a thing exists in a win-or-go-home game. 

Despite throwing over 30 pitches and allowing a run in the first inning, Halladay ended up giving the Phillies about a good of a performance as they could have asked for. He scattered six hits over eight innings of one-run ball, while striking out seven and throwing 126 pitches. Short of throwing an NLDS no-hitter for the second consecutive season, the Phillies couldn't have asked for much more out of Halladay.

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The problem for the Phillies was that while Halladay was nearly flawless in Game 5, Carpenter was flawless in Game 5. While Halladay scattered six hits over eight innings, Carpenter allowed the Phillies to reach base just three times over the course of what turned out to be a complete-game shutout.

That's not to say that the Phillies didn't have any chances.

With Cliff Lee warming up in the bullpen, Howard worked a 3-0 count to start the seventh inning. Rather than take a pitch or two, Howard got the green-light on 3-0. In fairness to him, Carpenter made a mistake pitch right in the zone that Howard very easily could have deposited in the right-field stands, making the decision to give him the green-light look genius. Unfortunately for the Phillies, Howard just missed the pitch, and ended up hitting a fly-ball to Berkman in right field that was probably 50 feet from the warning track: (4)

After the Phillies stranded a runner in the bottom of the eighth, Ryan Madson, in what turned out to be his final appearance for the team, worked a scoreless top half of the ninth. That set up one final tease in the bottom of the ninth.

Chase Utley, who had been limited to just 103 games in the regular season, led off the ninth inning. Down to their final three outs, the crowd at Citizens Bank Park ferociously waved their rally towels as Led Zepplin's "Kashmir" played with Utley walking to the plate. The entire game, there was a feeling that this Phillies team, which was the clear-cut World Series favorite, would find a way to pull the game (and series) out. Even if it took until the ninth inning, this Phillies team wasn't going to be eliminated in the NLDS.

With even non-religious people at Citizens Bank Park praying for some sort of miracle, Utley nearly answered their prayers. The first pitch that he saw from Carpenter, he smoked to the right-center field gap. Jon Jay, who had come in as a defensive replacement, had his whole body turned running towards the Phillies bullpen. Just as it appeared that Utley had smoked a game-tying home run into the Phillies' bullpen, Jay pulled up just in front of the "AutoTrader" advertisement on the wall: (3)

Perhaps in August, Utley would have had a deep home run. Instead, Jay pulled up at the back-half of the warning track and caught the ball, essentially erasing whatever hope fans at Citizens Bank Park were still clinging onto. 

The rest of the inning had a funeral-esque feel to it. Hunter Pence, who had batted just .211 in the series, grounded out to third base for the second out. And then a year a after striking out looking to end the season, Howard grounded out to end the game, rupturing his Achilles as he attempted to run the ball out.

The minds of most in the stadium were just blank, unsure of whether to try to grasp that the most talented Phillies team ever had been eliminated in the NLDS or that Ryan Howard – who was set to begin a five-year/$125 million deal in 2012 – was riving in pain on the ground. Those watching on television didn't need to choose, because as the camera showed trainers talking to Howard on the ground, you could see the Cardinals rushing out of their dugout to embrace Carpenter at first base. 

If you step away from the painful perspective that this game left the city of Philadelphia with, this game had everything that makes most people fall in love with the sport of baseball. 

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The first was the build-up to the game. Beyond being heavy favorites entering the series, the Phillies nearly swept the Cardinals. Even after failing to sweep them, the Phillies, who won 12 more regular season games than the Cardinals, were up 2-1 in the series. And even after failing to put them away in St. Louis, the Phillies returned home with a future Hall of Fame pitcher on the mound. Though the Cardinals are not normally thought of as underdogs, they had that appeal to those not from Philadelphia.  

On top of that, you couldn't have drawn up a much better pitching matchup. Halladay was a two-time Cy Young Award winner, one that narrowly missed winning his third Cy Young in 2011. Carpenter isn't going to be a Hall of Famer like Halladay will, but he was a three-time All-Star and a former Cy Young Award winner himself. And unlike the Halladay-Tim Lincecum NLCS matchup that took place the year before, this matchup lived up to the hype and then some. 

The Phillies, who were the favorite to win the World Series, fell in Game 5, but as pointed out in this article, they didn't do so without the right teases to ensure a classic playoff game. And as much as Phillies fans may not want to admit it, the pain caused by this loss is what makes being on the other side of these type of games so special. 

Oct. 7, 2011 will always be a day that Phillies fans are hesitant to revisit. For the rest of the baseball world, it will always be remembered as one of the most classic games in the history of the division series round of the playoffs. 

Tim Kelly can be reached at [email protected]