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philsss.jpgA few years ago my bosses gave me a Christmas present: a 2001 bottle of Cook’s Collector’s Series Brut California Champagne. I have no idea what any of that means, although apparently it’s technically considered sparkling wine and not actual champagne for some reason. However, in 2001 the Philadelphia Phillies, coming off a series of pathetic years, ran out to an 8-game lead in the National League East in early June. By the end of June the Atlanta Braves had moved ahead of the Phils, and although the Phils kept close the entire season the Braves clinched the division in the last few days of the season.

The Phillies were similarly eliminated from playoff spots late in 2003. In 2005 they were ousted on the final day of the season. In 2006 it was the next-to-last day. The one thing that each of those years has in common is a poor start. Thus, when the Phils started 2007 with a 4-11 record, it was easy enough to write them off. Sure, they kept making runs but then they’d have yet another bullpen implosion, or another lousy start from Freddy Garcia or Adam Eaton, or another questionable managerial move, and it was “that’s the Phillies for you. Same old Phillies.”

Yet, somehow, this year it wasn’t the “same old Phillies.” At the end of August the New York Mets had a chance to put the NL East title to bed for the second year in a row, until they were swept in an amazing 4-game series by the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Again, the Phils faltered. In one infamous game they led the Braves 8-2 until the Braves scored 7 runs in the last 2 innings. By mid-September the Mets had a 7-game lead in the division with just 17 games left, and it seemed that the best the Phils could hope for was a wild card run. Even after the Phils swept a 3-game set at Shea Stadium, they still trailed the Mets by 3 1/2 games with 2 weeks left. The next night at St. Louis, the Phils nearly lost a game they led 11-0. I was apoplectic. On the same night that the Eagles fell to 0-2 with an uninspired performance on Monday Night Football, I was more angry with the Phillies, who actually won.

A funny thing happened, though. The Phillies kept winning, and the Mets kept losing. Suddenly, by Friday night the Phillies not only wiped out the Mets’ 7-game lead but had a one-game lead over the Mets. The Phils had a chance to live up to the words of their shortstop, Jimmy Rollins, who declared the Phils “the team to beat” in the division. Two wins in the final two games would give them the division. But yesterday, after the Mets walloped the Florida Marlins to break an eight-game home losing streak, poor defense allowed Washington to score 3 of their 4 runs in a 4-2 win over the Phils. The Phils and Mets were tied again going into the final game of the season. Suddenly there was the prospect of a one-game tiebreaker playoff for the division, or worse – a Phils loss and Mets win would give New York the title. Would the Phillies possibly rip my heart out again?

Before the Phillies took the field for their game at 1:35, the Marlins put 7 runs on the board in the top of the first at Shea. Florida’s Dontrelle Willis was wild, but the Mets left the bases loaded twice in the first three innings in managing just one run, and fell meekly to the Marlins by an 8-1 score. Meanwhile, the Phils’ Rollins started the first with a single, stole second, stole third, and scored on a Chase Utley sacrifice fly. A Ryan Howard two-run single made it 3-0 in the third. Jamie Moyer, Tom Gordon, J.C. Romero and Brett Myers held off the Nationals, and the Phillies’ 6-1 victory gave them their seventh, and perhaps most astounding, National League East championship. The Phils are in the playoffs for the first time since 1993, and await the winner of the NL wild card. Improbably, San Diego failed to start the almost-guaranteed 2007 Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy, and lost to Milwaukee. Peavy now has to start against Colorado in a one-game showdown tomorrow.

By now you’re probably wondering what all of this had to do with that bottle of champagne. Wonder no more. I drank the whole thing, starting after today's game and continuing during the writing of this post. Woo-hoo!!!!!!! -- Joe Guckin