- Associated Press - Monday, September 27, 2010

WASHINGTON | The Philadelphia Phillies are the NL East champions for the fourth consecutive year and, fittingly, Roy Halladay helped seal the deal this time with a two-hitter.

Halladay earned his 21st win with his fourth shutout and ninth complete game — all highs in the majors this season — and Jayson Werth drove in four runs, leading the Phillies to a 8-0 victory over the Washington Nationals on Monday night, wrapping up the division with five games left.

“That’s the reason you want to come to a team like this. They know how to do it,” Halladay said, a bottle of bubbly clutched in his hands. “It’s the coolest thing I’ve been a part of. It’s just the start, I think.”

The Phillies had him, catcher Brian Schneider and bench player Mike Sweeney pop the first champagne corks when they went to the clubhouse, because those are the only members of the team who never have been to the postseason.

Halladay (21-10) heads to the playoffs for the first time in his 13th major league season, having played his entire career with the Toronto Blue Jays before being traded to Philadelphia last winter.

Normally stoic on the mound, the former Cy Young winner punched his glove with his pitching hand after striking out a swinging Danny Espinosa for the final out.

“I wanted him out there,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said of letting Halladay go the distance. “I wanted him out there. I felt like he earned it, and he deserved it.”

The final out recorded, Halladay instantly broke into a big smile, and the Phillies gathered in the middle of the diamond for hugs and high-fives. Thousands of red-clad, towel-waving Phillies fans in the announced crowd of 14,309 gave a standing ovation then began their last in a series of “Let’s go, Phillies” cheers.

And Halladay was in the middle of the celebration. His years without a postseason trip were tied for fourth-most among active players; the highest total on that list belongs to Sweeney, whose drought ends in his 16th season.

“It was fun, but it’s only going to get funner,” Halladay said. “Honestly, it didn’t matter who finished it as long as we got it done.”

The Phillies have the league’s best record are assured of home-field advantage throughout the postseason — the NL won the All-Star Game, remember — although it’s still uncertain who they’ll face at home next week in Game 1 of the division series.

“Now we can put this behind us after we celebrate this tonight. We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got a long road,” said Werth, who hit a homer, double and single. “We know where we want to be.”

Completely undisturbed by a light rain that began falling in the third inning, Halladay gave up a single to Wilson Ramos in the third, and another to Adam Dunn in the eighth. But that was it.

The right-hander didn’t walk a batter and struck out six, including one to end each of the first three innings. He faced the minimum 21 batters through seven innings, because Ramos was erased when the next hitter, Alberto Gonzalez, grounded into a 4-6-3 double play.

The Phillies went ahead 1-0 on Werth’s 26th homer, a drive off John Lannan (8-8) in the second inning. Lannan, in his final start of the season for the last-place Nationals, gave up four runs and seven hits in 5 2-3 innings.

Each hit for Philadelphia led to raucous cheers that must have made it feel like a home game for the Phillies. About 35 minutes before the first pitch, a loud roar greeted Halladay as he walked toward the visitors’ bullpen beyond left field, wearing a red warmup jacket to brace against the chill of temperature in the 70s.

The first loud yell of “Let’s go, Phillies!” was heard not much later. And full-throated choruses of that line reverberated through Nationals Park in the sixth inning.

Might as well have been Citizens Bank Park — except a lot emptier in the stands.

“Kind of embarrassing when everyone in the stadium is clapping against you and you’re at home,” Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond said. “It’s not really where you want to be.”

The only moment when Halladay appeared ruffled in the least bit was in the ninth inning — when he was at the plate. Nationals reliever Joe Bisenius threw a pitch that made Halladay duck and tumble in the batter’s box, mussing his jersey with dirt. That prompted an expletive-filled chant from Phillies supporters.

Nothing was going to slow the Phillies on Monday, though, and they improved to 46-17 since July 21, when they trailed Atlanta by seven games. Eight days later, they traded for Roy Oswalt, adding him to Halladay and 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels for as fearsome a threesome of starting pitchers in the majors.

And what a stretch run: Philadelphia is 20-5 in September, its most wins in the season’s final month since compiling 22 in 1983.

Looking to become the first team in 66 years to win three consecutive National League championships, the Phillies started this season strong, before injuries and an inconsistent offense took a toll. Six of Philadelphia’s eight regulars spent time on the disabled list, and nearly all saw their production decline. At one point, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Shane Victorino were absent during a nearly two-week stretch in August.

Unlike previous years, when they counted on a potent offense, the Phillies relied on outstanding pitching in 2010. Led by Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt, the starting rotation dominated, especially in September. Still, it was a much tougher road to the postseason than a year ago, when Philadelphia moved into first place for good on May 30, before eventually losing to the New York Yankees in the World Series.

But the Phillies have done this late-season chase successfully before — and wrapped things up against the Nationals before. In 2007, the Phillies trailed the Mets by seven games with 17 remaining. Taking advantage of New York’s historic collapse, Philadelphia clinched the division on the final day of the regular season by beating Washington, ending a 14-year postseason drought.

In 2008, the Phillies were 3½ games behind the Mets with 17 to play in ‘08. Philadelphia again caught New York in the final week, clinching the NL East on the next-to-last day of the regular season with a victory against Washington. Philadelphia went on to capture its second World Series title.

Now they’re taking aim at another.

“This is what you play for. This is why you’re here. If you’re not here to try to win a championship, you’re here for the wrong reasons. We’ve been through so much this year. We’ve had so many injuries and been able to battle through it,” Howard said. “We feel like we kind of have some unfinished business and have taken the first step.”

NOTES: Philadelphia SS Jimmy Rollins did not start the game because rain on Monday left the outfield grass slick. Rollins pinch-hit on Sunday after sitting out 14 games with a tight right hamstring. … Nationals 3B Ryan Zimmerman probably will miss the rest of the season because of an injured rib muscle on his right side that’s sidelined him since last week.

 

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