PHILADELPHIA -- The ball seared through the mist, rising quickly into the black sky as it went, illuminated only by stadium lights and thousands of white rally towels. By the time Ryan Howard's three-run drive found the bushes in center field, the cloth-waving frenzy and accompanying roars reached a crescendo. With each measured step around the bases, the team's September MVP -- and perhaps National League MVP -- glided in stride. "That was a monster, man," manager Charlie Manuel said. "It was fighting the wind."
His teammates found their stride, too. With an 8-4 victory over the Nationals on Friday night, the Phillies eclipsed last year's win total in a season when that was required. They reached 90 wins (90-70) for the first time since 1993, when they won 97. Though the game, and the Shea Stadium event some 90 miles away were still in their respective infancy, the fact that New York trailed and Philadelphia led told an excitable crowd of 44,145 that the playoffs were much, much closer. When the final out of the Mets' loss was recorded, the Phillies guaranteed themselves at least a tie for the division lead. It's so close they can taste it. "Honestly, yeah," said closer Brad Lidge, who secured the ninth inning. "Tonight, the juices were flowing. It's definitely feeling like that. We have a lot of adrenaline. We're so close." While scenarios remain in which the Phillies can still end up watching the postseason, their mission is simple: Win Saturday and a trip to the playoffs is assured. Should the Phillies be winning big, Lidge wants the ball for the ninth. "If it was 100-0 [Saturday], I'd be throwing the ninth inning," Lidge said. "There's no scenario where I'm not going to force myself out there." Lidge had a door to slam on the strength of Howard's bat. The first baseman has surged with a .349 average, 11 homers and 32 RBIs in September. His RBI total set a franchise record for September, besting Gary Matthews' 31 in 1981. Howard's first-inning home run was predictable. Nationals rookie Collin Balester had allowed one-out singles to Jayson Werth and Chase Utley, bringing Howard to the plate. After fouling off the first offering, Howard smacked the next pitch out. So much for Philadelphia's two-game losing streak. "He's locked in, especially down the stretch, when it's so important," Greg Dobbs said. "He's not shying away. He's one of the guys that everyone looks to. He's embracing it and putting us on his back. That's what players do during crunch time." Starter Joe Blanton did his part, too, working six innings and allowing four runs, only one of which was earned. His night got easier with seven runs of support in the first two innings. Forty minutes after the game, two televisions were turned on in the clubhouse. One showed the Mets losing to the Marlins and the other displayed the Brewers roaring past the Cubs. It really doesn't matter what happens in that regard. A Phillies win Saturday will guarantee two playoff games at Citizens Bank Park. A win or Mets loss on Saturday would also allow for Cole Hamels to rest Sunday and throw Game 1 of the NL Division Series. "I like our position, but I'll like it a lot better when we're two up with one to play," Manuel said. "That would be good. That's when I'll crack champagne, dance and sing and everything." The players are ready for that. The hooks above the lockers remain from last season, ready to hang plastic to protect belongings. Clubhouse personnel will likely work through the night to secure that plastic above each locker. Everything will be prepared, just in case. Lidge will be ready, old-school style, and won't plan to protect his eyes with goggles. "[Champagne] burns a little bit," Lidge said. "It's all part of it."
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.