PHILADELPHIA -- The ultimate ace, it turned out, belonged to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Chris Carpenter tossed a three-hitter to outpitch old pal Roy Halladay in a duel for the ages and St. Louis edged the Philadelphia Phillies 1-0 Friday night in the deciding Game 5 of their NL playoff series.
And that was it.
Heavily favored Philadelphia, which featured four accomplished aces in baseball's best rotation, never broke through against Carpenter. Ryan Howard grounded out to end the game and hurt his leg coming out of the batter's box -- he limped a couple of steps and crumpled to the ground as St. Louis started to celebrate.
"It was some kind of fun," Carpenter said.
"He's a great friend of mine," he said about Halladay, "and like I said, he did a great job tonight also."
Howard has a left Achilles injury and won't know more about the severity of it until he has an MRI.
The Cardinals needed a monumental collapse by Atlanta in the final month and major help from the 102-win Phillies just to reach the playoffs. Now they're heading to Milwaukee for the NL championship series starting Sunday following a stunning upset in which they beat three of Philadelphia's four aces: Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt.
"Actually, I don't know what to say," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "I just got through talking to our team, and basically when I look at it, we played 162 games, and definitely we had the best record in baseball."
"I know that we're capable of going farther in the playoffs. Our goal was to get to the World Series. It's been that way for two years now," he said.
To some, the Phillies seemed destined for the World Series because of their big arms. But in a city where the collapse of 1964 is still never too far from memory, and in a town that has endured more than its share of heartbreaks, jinxes and bad luck, a sure thing is never a sure thing.
Trailing two games to one, the Cardinals began their comeback with a win in Game 4. That night in St. Louis, a squirrel scampered across home plate as Schumaker batted in the middle innings -- if the Cardinals keep winning, their fans will certainly go nuts, thanks to their "Rally Squirrel."
Coincidentally, a squirrel was caught at Citizens Bank Park before Game 5. Not a good omen, apparently, for the Phillies.
Three of the majors' four opening-round matchups went to a deciding Game 5, and all of them were pitching-rich thrillers. Detroit held off the New York Yankees 3-2 on Thursday night, and Milwaukee beat Arizona in 10 innings earlier Friday.
Then, the showdown between Carpenter and Halladay topped them all.
"Roy Halladay is, at this time, probably the best pitcher in the game and we were able to go out and jump ahead, which was huge," Carpenter said.
"I think guys we're just relaxed and having fun," Carpenter said. "We put ourselves into position where everybody was expecting us to have no chance and we just started playing like the team we knew we were. And we were fortunate to get some help back into it with Atlanta losing and we were playing well the rest of that month."
Howard was next, and Carpenter got the big slugger to end a most improbable series win.
Catcher Yadier Molina threw his mask toward the mound, Carpenter turned to the left of first looking for someone to celebrate with before his teammates finally got there, led by Albert Pujols. The congregation settled at second base, as just off to the right, while Howard was carried off the field and into his dugout.
Howard took a called third strike with the tying run on second base to end the Phillies' season last year in the NLCS against San Francisco.
The expectations for Philadelphia were even higher this year after Lee returned. The loss meant the teams with the top two records and payrolls in the majors -- the Phillies and Yankees -- were gone in the first round, even while holding home-field advantage.
"We had a great team this year. We had a great opportunity," Pence said. "When you have a team like this, it's definitely disappointing to not come through."
Carpenter walked none and struck out three in the matchup of Cy Young Award winners who were longtime teammates in Toronto. The aces had already agreed to take a fishing trip together after this season.
Halladay was outstanding, too, but his year is over. Tagged by the first two batters, he allowed six hits overall, striking out seven in eight innings.
It wasn't good enough, and now the Phillies will certainly be considered a disappointment in their own town after failing to win a World Series in an all-or-nothing season. The Phillies cruised to their fifth straight NL East title and were hoping to add to the crown to the one they won in 2008.
But nothing less than a second World Series championship in four years was going to be acceptable this season. Everyone from management to players to fans expected the Phillies to win it all.
A sellout crowd that stood and screamed from the first pitch held their heads in disbelief and silently walked out without even booing.
The pesky Cardinals looked nothing like an underdog. They were the best team in the NL down the stretch.
St. Louis trailed the Braves by 10½ games on Aug. 25, but went 23-8 the rest of the way and earned a wild-card berth after Game 162 when Philadelphia completed a three-game sweep in Atlanta.
The Cardinals scored three runs off Halladay in the first inning of the series opener on Lance Berkman's three-run homer. They got to him again quickly in this one.
Furcal lined a triple to the gap in right-center. He did the same off Lee in Game 2, but was stranded that day.
Not this time.
Schumaker then lined a double to right to put the Cardinals up 1-0, stunning a crowd that expected Halladay to be lights-out.
Pujols followed with a soft liner that second baseman Utley barehanded on one hop and threw out Schumaker at third. After Berkman reached on interference by catcher Carlos Ruiz, Halladay worked out of the jam, needing 33 pitches to get three outs.
Halladay stopped for a brief chat with plate umpire Gary Cederstrom on his way to the dugout. It was a cordial conversation, though Halladay may have expressed displeasure with a few close calls.
Fans in the parking lot before the game talked about trying to unnerve Carpenter the way they famously did to Burt Hooton in Game 3 of the 1977 NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers at old Veterans Stadium.
They made plenty of noise and waved their white-and-red rally towels
Carpenter never flinched.
The Phillies had runners on first and third with two outs in the fourth, but Ibanez flied out to the warning track in right.
Carpenter allowed a one-out single to Utley in the sixth, but Molina threw him out trying to steal second. Carpenter pumped his fist and hollered at Molina, who became the first catcher to nail Utley stealing this season. Utley had been 14 for 14 and 56 for 58, dating to 2009.
Furcal made an outstanding play to rob Ruiz of a hit in the eighth, diving to his left on a grounder up the middle and throwing out the slow-footed catcher.
This "dream matchup," as Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called it, lived up to the hype. Halladay and Carpenter grew up together with the Blue Jays, have remained best buddies and often vacation together.
Halladay overcame a shaky start in Game 1 and pitched eight strong innings in an 11-6 win.
Pitching on three days' rest for the first time in his career, Carpenter struggled last Sunday. He allowed four runs and five hits in three innings in his shortest outing of the season. But the Cardinals rallied from a 4-0 deficit against Lee and beat the Phillies 5-4 to even the series.
Pujols, who can become a free agent after the season, will play at least a few more games in St. Louis. ... Cole Hamels, the Phillies' fourth ace, won Game 3. ... The Phillies hadn't played a decisive postseason game since losing Game 5 of the division series against Montreal in the strike-shortened 1981 season. They had been 3-1 in Game 5s of a series that was tied at 2. ... The Cardinals' last decisive game was in the 2006 NLCS. They beat the New York Mets and went on defeat Detroit in five games in the World Series. ... Molina got his first career postseason stolen base in the fourth inning. ... Schumaker left the game in the fourth because of right oblique tightness. ... This was the 220th straight sellout in Philadelphia, including postseason play.