- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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PHILADELPHIA -- If the Phillies find themselves in a playoff game (or 12) next month, Thursday's game will still be swirling around their brains, the way the winds of Hurricane Isabel swirled around their ballpark.
When an $85-million man hits a game-winning home run in a hurricane, it tends to stick in people's brains.
When a routine pop-up blows 100 feet out into right field and then bounces off the glove, and then the wrist, and then the grasping fingers of the first baseman -- for a game-tying double -- it can make hurricane fans out of those who used to root for sunny days and blue skies.
When a team is about to be buried in the standings with a week and a half to go in the season -- and then a hurricane and a larger-than-life superstar come along to rescue them -- they don't forget. They never forget.
"Maybe it was fate," said Jim Thome, after the home run the Phillies brought him to Philadelphia to hit had lifted his team to a 5-4 win over Florida that kept them within a half-game in the scintillating National League wild-card race. "I don't know. But it did happen."
It did, all right. But what happened in a mostly deserted Veterans Stadium on a stormy Thursday afternoon had to be seen to be believed. With every minute, every inning, the skies seemed to grow a little darker. The winds seemed to howl a little louder. The rain seemed to fall a little harder. And it wasn't just the paper bags and popcorn boxes that were twisting in this breeze.
For the Phillies, for the Marlins, this was as pivotal and compelling as regular-season baseball games ever get.
Florida hands the charismatic Dontrelle Willis a 3-0 lead against Phillies ace Kevin Millwood. Then Tomas Perez homers, and Mike Lieberthal lofts a pop-up into Isabel's fateful grasp, and Derrek Lee runs halfway to Camden, and the ball skids off both his hands and drops. And amazingly, it's 3-3 after five innings.
The Marlins take another lead, on a magical two-out, two-strike sixth-inning homer by dazzling rookie Miguel Cabrera. But the Phillies tie it again in the seventh, on a two-out homer by Placido Polanco.
And then comes the bottom of the eighth. Thome against Chad Fox. The sky above an eerie shade of blue-gray emptiness. The 25-mph gales looking as if they might blow the sleeves off both their shirts. The drizzle coming down so hard it stung their faces. And nothing more riding on this duel than a whole season's work.
"That's as intense as it gets right there," said Fox, scooped up off the waiver pile by the Marlins last month after the Red Sox released him. "Big game. Great hitter. That's what you play this game for."
"That's exactly why I wanted the opportunity to come here," said Thome, signed by the Phillies for six years, $85 million last winter -- and apparently intent on earning every cent of it. "To play in games like this."
They both knew what this was and what this meant and why there were worse ways to make a living. Fox can throw a baseball 95 miles an hour. Thome can hit one 95 miles up the expressway. This was their pennant-race moment.
"That's the great thing there," Thome said. "The cat and mouse. The back and forth. As a hitter, that's the fun of it."
But it wasn't quite so much fun when Fox broke off two carnivorous sliders and roared ahead of him, 0-2.
"Those were great pitches," Thome said. "If he throws me another one like that, he probably strikes me out."
"I got to 0-2 there," Fox said, "and I said, 'OK, now I've got three pitches to play with.' And the way he swung at the first two, I figured I could either pop him up or strike him out."
But then Thome fouled off one slider. And then another. And then worked the count to 2 and 2. Then 3 and 2. And then Fox reached back to snap off one more see-ya-later slider. Instead, he made the mistake on which pennant races sometimes turn.
He left this one floating in the middle of the strike zone, and Thome unleashed that bat one final time. He didn't get it all, got it "too much on the end of the bat," he said. And on a normal day, "it's not a home run, I don't think," he said. "That one's on the track."
But this was no normal day. It was a day when Storm Davis should have been somebody's starting pitcher. A day, quipped Florida's Andy Fox, when "David Weathers should have thrown out the first ball." A day when a hurricane blew through the pennant race. And it took this baseball on an unforgettable ride.
It landed in the glove of a paying customer, standing in the first row beyond the lineup of retired Phillies numbers in right-center field. Fox shook his head in a complicated combination of frustration and admiration. Thome pumped a fist. The Phillies were going to win this game, and this crazy wild-card free-for-all was still alive and stomping.
"That was special -- very," Thome said afterward, in a clubhouse full of people, all of them suddenly presidents of his fan club. "We could have been down 2½ games if we'd lost that game, and who knows what would have happened. So that was very meaningful. Of all the home runs, I've hit this year, that was probably the most special."
He has hit 43 of them now -- the most by a lefthanded-hitting Phillie since 1929 (when Chuck Klein also hit 43). Thome has driven in 122 runs now, too. And in the history of the Phillies franchise, only one other player had ever had a season in which he hit 43 homers and drove in at least that many runs -- Klein in 1929 (43 HR, 145 RBI).
But whatever the numbers tell you about Jim Thome and the year he's had, they don't tell you enough. It isn't just how many you hit. It's when you hit them. And Thome understands the meaning of "when" as well as any great hitter alive.
"This guy," said long-time Phillies coach John Vukovich, "just enjoys the moment."
In the Phillies' most important regular-season series in 10 years, Thome homered in all three games. The Game 2 homer was a two-run monster that disappeared down an exit ramp and tied the game. The Game 3 homer merely saved the season.
He hasn't appeared on many MVP radar screens before now, not with the seasons that Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols and Gary Sheffield have had. But the more Thome's teammates watch these cinematic waves of his bat, the more they wonder if the real MVP is playing in Philadelphia, not in San Francisco or St. Louis.
"Without him, there ain't no chance we're in this race," said Todd Pratt. "Pujols has had a great year, but St. Louis ain't going to the playoffs. Atlanta's got five or six All-Stars in their lineup, and Sheffield isn't their MVP anyway. Javy Lopez is. And Barry is Barry. He doesn't have as many RBIs as our guy (86, to Thome's 122), because he doesn't get pitched to. But this guy, Thome, we see this every day. It's unbelievable.
"These last three games put his stamp on the MVP, to me. Those were three huge home runs. I've never seen a guy get three curtain calls three days in a row. But this guy did it. He hit three home runs. And all three meant something."
Thome's presence hung so large over this showdown that Marlins manager Jack McKeon intentionally walked him in the first inning of the series.
"I'd do that with Barry," McKeon said. "And Guerrero. And Thome. That's it."
A year ago this time, Thome's current teammates never believed he'd really be one of them, no matter how many rumors they'd heard. But the lure of playing in these kinds of games -- and enough money to buy his own yacht club -- was enough to draw him to a once-vibrant baseball town. And now he is rebuilding that passion, one magical home run at a time.
A couple of nights ago, after Game 1 of this series, Thome revved his Hummer onto the Interstate heading home, only to find the highway closed by two nasty accidents. He saw a state trooper on the side of the road. So he pulled off into the breakdown lane.
"Hey, I'm not from around here," Thome said. "Can you tell me how to get around this thing?"
The policeman started to give directions and then realized, he was talking to Jim Thome.
"Tell you what," the trooper said. "Why don't you just follow me."
Thome tried to talk him out of it, but this was Jim Thome. So on a night when a four-lane interstate was closed to the general public, it was opened for Jim Thome, as beloved an athlete to be imported into Philadelphia as any since Julius Erving.
But just as Thome pulled over to ask for directions and got more than he bargained for, so has Philadelphia gotten more than it bargained for in him. He has changed the face of the franchise, with his bat and his class and his man-of-the-people earthiness. And now he is trying to drag it all into the postseason almost single-handedly.
"The only expectation I had when I came here was, I was hoping to win right now," he said. "I was given a gift in Cleveland. I was given the gift of playing in October a lot of years. And I came here because I felt we had a chance to go back.
"So I should thank the Phillies for bringing me here and giving me that chance," he said. "And I should thank Cleveland in a lot of ways -- because Cleveland gave me that addiction to October."
But before he can indulge that addiction, he has nine huge games in September to attend to. On this crazy, next-to-last Thursday of the season, even a hurricane blew their way. But by the time the Reds show up this weekend, they'll be on their own.
"You know," Jim Thome said, at his philosophical best, "we can't control a hurricane. But we can control what we do."
And no one has ever looked more in control than the man who said it.
Jason Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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