— LOS ANGELES - The Philadelphia Phillies are the National League champions — and the Los Angeles Dodgers certainly aren't.
Not with their three-error top of the fifth inning, repeated failures to deliver the needed big hit, and disappearance of regular-season ace Chad Billingsley.
Not in a series when they gave away late-inning leads, and fell behind early and couldn't catch up. Not in a series when you could make the argument that pitching-change decisions contributed to the pivotal Game 4 loss.
Take away Manny Ramirez, who had eight hits and set a postseason RBI record, and there was next-to-nothing appealing about the Dodgers in this anti-climactic NLCS.
The team that streaked into the postseason and looked like world-beaters in upsetting the Chicago Cubs in the division series reverted back to the one that struggled to win 84 regular-season games in baseball's weakest division. It wasn't a pretty sight.
The television camera shot into the dugout at the start of the bottom of the fifth — with a dejected Rafael Furcal sitting alone — pretty much told it all. That was shortly after his three errors — including two on one play — led to two unearned runs off reliever Greg Maddux, effectively putting to rest any chance of a comeback.
James Loney fired another ball wildly in the inning, but wasn't charged with an error — not that it mattered except to earn more negative style points. The Dodgers never overcame a deficit of more than four runs all season — and they sure weren't going to do so on this night.
“It got a little ugly there in the middle, with the defense, but they never stopped plugging away," was all manager Joe Torre could say afterward.
A little ugly?
Billingsley couldn't step up for the second time in this series. The tone for the entire game was set with the game's very first batter, as Jimmy Rollins' eight-pitch at-bat ended with a home run.
In the top of the third, Billingsley got himself in trouble with two walks, then gave up back-to-back RBI hits to Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell. And then Billingsley was gone after 2.2 innings — with the disastrous NLCS line of five innings pitched, 10 earned runs allowed, and no Phillies hitter thrown at in response to Russell Martin getting hit and Ramirez seeing one go behind him in Game 2.
And if you think ace status is a big burden for a 24-year-old to carry, the Phillies' Cole Hamels — also 24, and picked in the same draft as Billingsley — didn't seem to have any problems.
In fact, Hamels — the NLCS Most Valuable Player — has emerged as a postseason difference maker, going 3-0 with only four runs allowed in 22 innings over three starts, pushing his full-season record to 17-10 and his ERA under 3.00.
The Dodgers had a chance to tie it at one in the bottom of the second, when they put two on with one out. But Hamels got Blake DeWitt to hit into a 3-6-3, inning-ending double play to kill that rally.
Much the same situation presented itself in the bottom of the fifth — when by this time, the Dodgers faced a 5-0 deficit. And believe it or not, DeWitt hit into another double play.
And finally, Hamels — after Phillies manager Charlie Manuel visited the mound but didn't make a change — sent away Jeff Kent complaining about a called-third strike in what likely was the last at-bat of his career.
“We kept skidding,'' Torre said. “We kept spinning our wheels. We couldn't get to where we wanted to go.''
This Game 5 loss was on a dispirited bunch of players who didn't appear to want to endure another cross-country flight back to Philadelphia. But Torre's Game 4 pitching decisions left plenty of room for questioning — even if he wouldn't admit it after the fact.
But Derek Lowe said he was ready to pitch the sixth inning after only 70-plus pitches, and wouldn't you want your veteran horse on the mound, rather than a 20-year-old rookie left-hander who calls the manager, 'Mr. Torre'?
It took Clayton Kershaw, Chan Ho Park and Joe Beimel to get through that inning, leaving Hong-Chi Kuo as the lone remaining lefty. And after a quick and brilliant top of the seventh, Kuo was yanked after Ryan Howard's leadoff single in the top of the eighth that barely made it through the infield.
You know what happened after that: Shane Victorino's two-run homer off Cory Wade to tie it, and Matt Stairs' two-run homer to win it off closer Jonathan Broxton to seal a pivotal 7-5 victory.
Still, two days later, Torre stuck to his line that he wouldn't want anything to be different except the results.
So now the Dodgers face a winter of upheaval. Yes, they do have a quality core group of young stars, and this experience will serve them well.
As Torre said, “this feels like the worst day of their lives, but I guarantee you, when they face this again, they will call this up, learn from it and move on. They did a lot of learning this year.''
But there are the pending free agencies of Ramirez, Lowe and Furcal. There are the up-in-the-air injury statuses of Takashi Saito, Brad Penny and Jason Schmidt. And the unknown futures of displaced veterans Juan Pierre, Nomar Garciaparra and Andruw Jones, plus the likely retirement of Kent.
If this was the best the National League had to put in the Phillies' way, Manuel's team better be anticipating a whole new level of competition next week, when it will run into the American League champions.