In Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Cardinals, the Phillies could trace their victory back to one at-bat in the sixth inning, when Ryan Howard waited out Cards' starter Kyle Lohse in lengthy at-bat before finally depositing his pitch into the right field stands to give the Phillies the lead, and eventually the win.
Similarly, after St. Louis' Game 2 victory, the Phils can trace their success back to one at-bat. This time, it came in the fourth inning, and unlike Howard's, it did not give them the lead.
After two innings of work against Cardinals' starter Chris Carpenter, the Phillies had a 4-0 lead, and were poised to take a 2-0 lead in the series behind ace No. 2 Cliff Lee, who had the task of shutting down the St. Louis. Not an easy task, by any means, but with slugger Matt Holliday out of the lineup and Albert Pujols ailing, it made for a much easier situation than usual.
Lee cruised through the first three innings of the game with his usual array of pitches, and even went as far as to strand a pair of lead off runners in that span, just for good measure. But it was in the top of the fourth that it all began to unravel for the lefty, and it was all because of one at bat.
With Lance Berkman in the box to lead off the fourth, Lee went to work and quickly put the switch-hitter in an 0-2 hole, which is about as good a situation that a pitcher can ever find himself in. That didn't really matter, because after Berkman fouled off the first 0-2 offering, Lee proceeded to throw four straight balls to put Berkman on base, which started a chain reaction that ended with the Cardinals putting three runs on the board in the inning.
Following Berkman's walk, the Cardinals saw four of their next hitters reach base, culminating in a rally that put them to within one run of the Phillies. Ultimately, they rallied to tie it in the sixth, took the lead in the seventh, and never looked back. All that because of one at-bat.
It is entirely possible that, even if Lee did retire Berkman, that the Cardinals score three runs anyway, because there is no guarantee that the inning plays itself out the same way. The next four batters could have all homered, or they could have all struck out, there is no way to know how the rest of the inning would have gone. The point is, with a commanding lead in a pivotal playoff game, it is the pitcher's responsibility to attack the hitters and keep the free passes to an absolute minimum -- especially to the first batter in the inning.
Issuing a walk is one of the worst possible things a pitcher can do, because it completely takes the defense out of it and the batter isn't put in a position where he is forced to put the ball into play. It is especially egregious when the first batter of the inning is the one who takes advantage of this brand of pitching charity.
Now, to be fair to Lee, home plate ump Jerry Meals' strike zone wasn't what most would refer to as “consistent,” but there is very little defense for putting a hitter in an 0-2 count before throwing four straight balls to start what would be a momentum-shifting rally. It certainly isn't what we've all come to expect from Lee in the playoffs, but that one misstep changed the entire complexion of the game.
With Game 3 on deck for Tuesday night in St. Louis, it's all the Phillies can do to hope that that leadoff walk doesn't snowball into some more momentum for the Cardinals.