Commentary

Big moments coming quickly, without warning, in NLCS

Originally Published: October 13, 2008
By Eric Neel | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- The Phillies and Dodgers have played 27 innings worth of a National League Championship Series now, but only four of those innings have really mattered.

In Game 1, it was the home half of the sixth, when Chase Utley and Pat Burrell each connected on home runs in a span of three hitters and quickly turned a 2-0 Los Angeles lead into a 3-2 Philadelphia win.

In Game 2, the Phillies scored eight runs on nine hits in the second and third, transforming young Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley from savvy stud to shaken greenhorn in the blink of an eye and grabbing this best-of-seven by the throat.

And Sunday night, before the largest crowd in Dodger Stadium history even had a chance to get warmed up, L.A. posted five runs in the first inning, effectively ending the game and seemingly beginning a whole new series.

Lightning strikes. Blinks of an eye. Muhammad Ali right crosses. Boom, you're out. Bam, one club seizes the moment and the other watches it slip away.

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"In a short series, with so much pressure, those moments are very important," said Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal afterward. "It makes a big difference to be able to jump out. Every little thing means so much more."

"Momentum in this game is huge," Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel said. "They came out in the first inning … I would say they took it away from us for the night."

The Dodgers came into Game 3 looking nothing like the team that had swept the Chicago Cubs in the NLDS. They had no answers for Philadelphia's bullpen in Game 1, and they were overmatched by Phillies starter Brett Myers -- as a hitter -- in Game 2. But the first inning Sunday flipped that script.

Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp said it began even before the first pitch.

"I felt it in the clubhouse," he said. "We knew we had to come in hot and swing the bats well, and we knew it was something we could do."

Friday they were feeling frustrated. Now they're feeling confident, now they're talking momentum, now they're looking ahead to staff ace Derek Lowe coming back strong in Game 4 on Monday night at Dodger Stadium.

[+] EnlargeBrett Myers
James Lang/US PresswireWhile trying to understand this NLCS, keep these numbers in mind: Brett Myers, a pitcher, has three hits in one game for the Phillies; the leadoff hitter, Jimmy Rollins, has one hit in three games.
"It was big [what happened in the first] for us," said second baseman Blake DeWitt, whose two-out, bases-loaded double was the big blow in the big inning. "We had good at-bats up and down the lineup [in Game 3]."

Before this series began, Los Angeles manager Joe Torre said he had seen his team perform well in big moments (in Chicago), but he was anxious to see how they would respond to being knocked down in the playoffs. The first inning Sunday night seemed to answer his questions.

"I have a good feeling," he said. "This ballclub has a personality here all during the playoffs. I just felt that we were ready to play ... You win a game and you have that good feeling about yourself and maybe hopefully we've planted a seed of doubt."

Maybe. With two games still to play in front of their Manny-crazed faithful, the Dodgers look poised to even this series, maybe even go back to Philadelphia up three games to two. Maybe.

This series has defied expectations at nearly every turn. Myers has three hits and Jimmy Rollins (1-for-13 with six strikeouts) has only one. Billingsley looked poised and dominant giving up one run to the Cubs and then got tattooed by the Phillies his next time out.

The essential difference between postseason baseball and the long haul of games and series in the regular season is that meaning and mood, perception and perspective, aren't things ground out through sustained effort so much as they are improvised and reconfigured in the light of flash events and dizzying turns. An inning or two, this series reminds us, can turn everything inside out.

The guy who makes predictions about what comes next plays the part of the fool. Trends are illusions. Momentum is a flirting, fleeting thing.

In the Dodgers' clubhouse after L.A.'s 7-2 victory Sunday, Manny Ramirez explained that his team had to keep the pressure on: "We have to play hard, keep firing on these guys for nine innings."

Furcal echoed him, reminding the assembled media that "it's going to be tough and we're going to have to be patient."

That's the attitude he has to take; he and his teammates are fighting to get even and they know the Phillies are a talented, explosive club.

But the way this series is going, don't be surprised if, instead of nine patient innings, all it takes to decide the outcome and write the story of Monday, and of what is to come, is a dramatic one or two.

Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

Eric Neel | email

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Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.