Making your team's last out of the postseason is never a pleasant experience, but it was particularly terrible for Ryan Howard in the Phillies' loss to the Cardinals on Friday night. Recording the game-ending out in a close game is an ignominious distinction that Alex Rodriguez earned, again, on Thursday at Yankee Stadium. It was the second time in two seasons that A-Rod had the displeasure of putting a period at the end of his team's campaign, having been retired by Neftali Feliz to conclude the 2010 ALCS. On Friday night, Howard did the same for the Phillies, also for the second time in two seasons. To make matters, worse Howard appeared to suffer a serious injury while making the out.
The hulking left-handed slugger strode to the plate with the bases clear and two away in the bottom of the ninth inning of the decisive fifth game at Citizens Bank Park. Standing atop the mound was Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, who was looking to close out a complete-game shutout. Howard watched a cut fastball go by for a ball. He swung at the next cutter, missing. He fouled off the next one. After taking a curve from Carpenter to level the count at 2-2, Howard waited for the fifth pitch of his at-bat. Carpenter unfurled another hook. Howard hacked at it, bouncing it between first and second. The large frame of the 6-foot-4 Howard exploded out of the batter's box as best it could. But Nick Punto was positioned perfectly to scoop up the batted ball. Punto tossed the ball to Albert Pujols, who was waving for it as soon as Punto got leather on it. Flip. Catch. Out. Ballgame.
As the Cardinals jubilantly descended on Carpenter, Howard lay sprawled on the first base line. He was grabbing at his left ankle. Trainers rushed out to attend to him, but stunned teammates either shuffled, heads down, back to the clubhouse or watched, glassy-eyed as the Cards celebrated on their home field.
Eventually, Howard was helped to his feet. As he made his way back to the dugout, he did not appear able to put any weight on his left leg. Given that the ball that he put in play bounced meekly up the first-base line, Howard's injury had no affect on the outcome of the game. But what if he'd lined it over Pujols' head at first and into right field? Would his ankle still have given out if he'd come out of the box differently? Surely, the Cardinals would have secured that out even as Howard crumpled to the ground but what a controversial finish that would have been.
Regardless of what could have been, the way that the game actually ended was terrible enough for Howard and his teammates. Limited to just three hits over nine scoreless frames, they left the field as boos rained down from the stands. While many of the boos were likely directed at the visiting players hugging and celebrating on the field, that couldn't have been the last sound that any 102-win team wants to hear after its final game.
Entering the postseason, Howard had been dealing with pain in his left ankle and heel from bursitis. It is unclear if there is any connection between that condition and what happened at the close of the NLDS. After initially being looked at by team trainers, Howard addressed the media.
"I was trying to run and I just felt this pop, and the whole thing went numb like it was on fire," Howard said. "I tried to keep going and went down. It literally felt like I was on a flat tire. I tried to get up, [but I] just couldn't go."