PHILADELPHIA -- The clock struck midnight in the Phillies' clubhouse, and on cue, Ryan Howard slowly untied his cleats and removed his uniform for the final time this season.
He had not budged from the chair in front of his locker for nearly 20 minutes following Saturday's 3-2 loss to the Giants in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series at Citizens Bank Park. His hands had been clasped behind his head. He carried a look of disappointment and disbelief as he stared into the distance. The loss had clinched the NL pennant for the Giants and ended the season for the Phillies, who finished the regular season with the best record in baseball for the first time in their 128-year history.
Howard had plenty on his mind.
He struck out looking on a 3-2 cutter from Giants closer Brian Wilson to make the final out in the ninth inning with the tying run on second base.
"I was thinking about the pitch," Howard said. "There were a lot of things that were going on. Our season was over. It's kind of a sucky way to end the game, a sucky way to end the year, you know, being that guy. But I'll have to try and take that and use it as motivation and come back next year."
"I can't say what I want to say," he said.
Howard finished the postseason with no RBIs, a statistic that symbolized this team's unfilled postseason run. The Phils simply could not come up with enough big hits in big moments, especially in Game 6, when they went just 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position.
"Yeah, it's humbling," Howard said about being held without a RBI. "It's a little disappointing and a little embarrassing. I'm not going to lie. I've just got to do better next year."
The Phillies should be contenders in 2011. They return Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels in the rotation. Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson are expected to anchor the bullpen. Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Raul Ibanez, Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz are expected back in the lineup, too.
Jayson Werth, who should be one of the top free agents on the market, is not.
But the Phils left the clubhouse Saturday not thinking about the future, only of the painful reality of the present. They could have become the first NL team since the 1942-44 St. Louis Cardinals to play in three consecutive World Series. Had they won their second World Series championship in three years, there would have been talk about a NL dynasty.
"I think shocked is pretty appropriate," Lidge said. "I just don't think any of us saw this happening. I felt like we had the best team in baseball this year. It doesn't always work out. Unfortunately, we just caught a team that seems to be doing everything right. They got the last hook in there. We just didn't get our best game out there tonight. So shocked is a good word."
Giants third baseman Juan Uribe hit a first-pitch cutter from Madson for a solo home run to right field to give the NL West champs the one-run lead in the eighth.
It seemed like the ball hung forever in the sky. It kept carrying and sailing toward the right-field wall. Werth kept pursuing.
He looked up.
"It was shocking for me," Madson said.
Madson took the loss, but he did not deserve it. The Phillies hit .178 (8-for-45) with runners in scoring position in the NLCS. They missed countless opportunities in a series where the Phils lost three games by one run.
The Phillies had runners on first and second with one out in the eighth, getting a pair of singles against Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum, who appeared in relief. But Wilson entered and Ruiz hit a line drive to first baseman Aubrey Huff, who caught the ball and threw to second base to double off Victorino to end the inning.
Philadelphia had runners on first and second with two outs in the ninth when Howard struck out looking.
"I thought the pitch was down," Howard said. "[Home-plate umpire Tom Hallion] kind of paused before he made the call. It's kind of a tough way to end the season and win the game. You can't go back. You can't reverse it. You have to live with it."
The game started with such promise. Oswalt and Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez stood in stark contrast from one another early.
Everybody had wondered how Oswalt might respond following a bullpen session and one inning of relief work Wednesday in Game 4 at AT&T Park, but he showed no signs of a hangover. Twenty-five of his first 28 pitches were strikes as he allowed just one earned run in six innings.
Most one-run games in one NLCS
Atl. in 6
Atl. in 7
Cin. in 6
NYM in 6
S.F. in 6
Hou. in 6
S.F. in 5
Phi. in 6
Since LCS switched to best-of-seven format in 1985
Sanchez, however, was wild. He walked Polanco on four pitches with one out in the first. Polanco moved to second on a wild pitch and scored on Utley's double to right field. It was Utley's first RBI of the series. Howard singled to left field to put runners at the corners, and Werth's sacrifice fly to left field scored Utley to make it 2-0.
Phils fans were loud in the first, perhaps the loudest they had been this season. They chanted "San-chez! San-chez!" before every pitch. They roared after every walk and every hit. Sanchez threw 24 pitches in the first inning, and just 11 were strikes.
But the Giants scored two runs in the third to tie the game and silence the crowd. The second run came on Polanco's error when he tried to make a tough throw to first with two outs. He probably should have held onto the ball.
The crowd picked up again in the bottom of the third when Sanchez walked Polanco and hit Utley with a pitch in the middle of his back. Utley picked up the ball and underhanded it toward the mound as he jogged to first. Sanchez did not like that and yelled at Utley, who had reached first base. Utley leaned in and said a few things back to Sanchez. Benches cleared. No punches were thrown, but the Giants pulled Sanchez from the game for left-hander Jeremy Affeldt.
The Phillies had a great opportunity in front of them. They had runners on first and second with no outs, Sanchez out of the game and an energized crowd behind them.
And they did nothing with it. Howard struck out, Werth flied out and Victorino grounded out to end the inning. The Phils also left the bases loaded in the fifth and wasted Ibanez's leadoff double in the sixth.
Philadelphia started the game 2-for-2 with runners in scoring position, but was hitless in its final nine at-bats with runners in scoring position.
"We know that that lineup over there probably was licking their chops a little bit, because they got a starter out who's really pretty tough to hit," Affeldt said. "They had a pretty good scenario, but our bullpen's been so good all year."
One timely hit here or there and the Phillies have the lead.
"We couldn't get the big hit," manager Charlie Manuel said.
The big hit never came and the Giants celebrated on their home field.
"It's hard to accept," right-hander Chad Durbin said. "It'll probably take a couple days, to be honest with you. Probably the start of the World Series will help it sink in that we're not there. You have to think that this team was capable of doing anything."
They were. It just didn't happen.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.