Commentary

This never happens in Philly ... but it is

Originally Published: September 28, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- In Philadelphia, life is not supposed to work like this.

In Philadelphia, it's the home team that's supposed to make its own seven-game lead disappear.

In Philadelphia, it's the home team that's supposed to forget how to win at all the wrong times.

PENNANT PULSE
ESPN.com top NL pennant race stories from Friday night:
• Wojciechowski: Cubs believe
• Stark: Something good in Philly
• Arangure: Wright challenges Mets
• Knisley: D-backs' delayed reaction
• Nelson: Brewers stunned
For more on the pennant races, see Hunt for October.

So in Philadelphia, what they're witnessing now, as life on their sporting planet turns completely upside down, is practically an out-of-city experience.

They know that miracles happen in sports. They have heard about them. They have read about them.

Except they always happen somewhere else. Everywhere else. Or that's how it has always seemed.

In Philadelphia, life is not supposed to work like this.

On Sept. 12, the Phillies were seven games out of first place. With 17 games to play. This isn't normally how teams set the stage for their happiest ending to a season in 14 years.

But 15 days later, that seven-game Mets lead was gone. Vanished. Defunct. In 15 days. How was that possible?

And that brings us to Friday night at shocking, rocking Citizens Bank Park. That brings us to the events that transpired on the glistening green field below and the suddenly friendly out-of-town scoreboard.

Phillies 6, Nationals 0.

Marlins 7, Mets 4.

Do the math. Check those standings. They don't seem real, but they are.

Somehow, when those scores were final, it was the Phillies who led the National League East by a game, with two games left to play.

Somehow, it was the Phillies who were on the verge of pulling off that miracle that was always the specialty of someone else's house.

Somehow, it was the Phillies who had a chance to become one of those teams that people talk about for years, for decades, for centuries.

"I know that," closer Brett Myers said on Friday. "And it gives me chills to think about it. I mean, not to sound like a wimp or anything, but just seeing the fans and the way the town is lighting up, it makes you tear up, man, I mean with happiness. It's just really cool to see this happen."

This was not what Philadelphia looked like, of course, back on April 20, when this team was 4-11, just 15 painful games into such a hopeful season. More specifically, this was not what Philadelphia sounded like back then.

A 4-11 record -- now THAT was a story they were familiar with. That was a story they knew exactly how to respond to. We bet we don't even need to spell that response out for you. Do we? Let's just say it rhymed with "blue." And "zoo."

Cole Hamels
H. Rumph, Jr/AP PhotoCole Hamels was absolutely dominant, striking out 13 batters in eight innings.

"You know what?" Myers said Friday, all these months later. "I understand. We started 4-11. We deserved to get booed. I've said it all year. It's a love-hate relationship with these people. They hate it when you do bad, but they love it when you do well. And I think this year, in this clubhouse, we understood it more. It wasn't that they were booing us because we were a bad team. They were booing us because they weren't happy with what the results were."

Those results could have buried this team, you know. That's the way it usually works. And not just in Philadelphia. That's the way it usually works everywhere.

In the 104 years since the invention of the World Series, only four teams have started a nonstrike season 4-11 or worse and recovered to finish in first place -- the 1914 "Miracle" Braves, the 1951 Bobby Thomson Giants, the 1974 Pirates and the 2000 Giants.

But none of those teams had to do what this team had to do -- not just recover from 4-11, but recover from those all-but-impossible seven-out-with-17-to-play mathematics.

No team in history has ever been seven out with 17 to play and lived to tell about it in October. But one more Phillies win, one more Mets loss or two more of either finishes off that tale -- of the Mets' historic collapse, of the Phillies' historic reincarnation. Shockingly, it could be over by the time the sun sets Saturday.

Asked if his team smells that finish line now, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel replied: "Yeah. Of course we smell it. And we want it. Matter of fact, we might want it bad enough where we've got to take it easy, just relax and just play."

Hey, great plan. But how the heck does a team relax at a time like this?

The town is a giant thunderclap. The rally towels are lighting up the night. The throats are hoarse. The eyes are glazed. Something crazy is happening here -- something that has always happened to someone else. Not to this team. Not in this town.

Just 16 days earlier, this same Phillies team had gotten steamrolled by the Rockies, 12-0, in its home park. Up the turnpike, the Mets had just won for the ninth time in 11 games. The lead was seven. The future didn't exactly seem ripe for fairy tales.

Asked if he could have envisioned this same group being this close to October, barely more than two weeks later, shortstop Jimmy Rollins couldn't resist a laugh.

"Yeah," he said. "For the wild card."

Now, though, the wild card barely seems relevant anymore. Now all those insane tiebreaker scenarios barely seem relevant anymore. If the Phillies win the East, all that stuff is somebody else's problem.

Undoubtedly, much of America is going to view what's happened here as an epic suffocation by the Mets, not a miraculous resuscitation by the Phillies. But these are parallel story lines, each of them monumental on its own merits, each one dependent on the other.

Yeah, the Mets have lost 11 of 15. But the Phillies had to win 12 of 15 to make that matter.

Yeah, the Mets' pitching, defense and psyches have self-destructed. But the bigger story may be the way the Phillies' pieces have somehow magically morphed together -- even pieces that never seemed to fit all year.

All of a sudden, at almost exactly the same time that the Mets' bullpen was unraveling, a Phillies bullpen that lit bonfires for five months finally found a formula that worked -- J.C. Romero to Flash Gordon to Myers.

Half a season ago, Romero was in limbo after getting dumped by the Red Sox. And Gordon and Myers were hurting members of the all-MIA team. So who could have foreseen them turning into the Phillies' version of Stanton-Nelson-Rivera at a time like this?

But here those three are, pitching just about every darned day in September. And of the 13 games this month where all three of them have stomped out of that bullpen, the Phillies have won 11 of them.

I know the past couple of years, we've come close. But -- and I mean no disrespect to the guys who used to play here -- it's just that now, as a unit, we're a better team. Our mentality, the way we go out there and attack the game, is: Just have fun. ... Hey, I know there's pressure, man. But we just take it as, let's just go out there and have fun, and see what we can make of this.

--Phillies reliever Brett Myers

And 16 days earlier, there was no Cole Hamels around to serve as the legit No. 1 starter every team needs at times like this, either. At the time, Hamels had been out for three weeks with a sore elbow. And no one was too sure if he'd be back before 2008.

But there he was Friday night, in his third start back, practically toying with a Washington lineup that had just finished putting up 32 runs in three games at Shea Stadium.

Hamels gave up four hits to the first nine hitters he faced. Of the 21 hitters he pitched to after that, only seven even managed to put a ball in play. Thirteen of the other 14 whiffed.

"If he can keep going out there and pitching like that," Myers said, "there's not going to be anybody who's going to hit him."

Then again, the only way he can keep going out there, period, is if the Phillies tag a happy ending onto this incomprehensible script and find themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

And in Philadelphia, there is normally no reason to think that happy ending is right over the horizon, no matter how idyllic life may look at any given moment. But there's something about this group that doesn't feel like all those other Phillies teams, that doesn't play like all those other Phillies teams.

And maybe that's why this Phillies season might not end like all those other Phillies seasons.

"This is the best team I've been on. I know that," Myers said. "I know the past couple of years, we've come close. But -- and I mean no disrespect to the guys who used to play here -- it's just that now, as a unit, we're a better team. Our mentality, the way we go out there and attack the game, is: Just have fun. There's no pressure. Nobody has to be a hero. We feel like you're going to be a hero if you go out and play relaxed.

"Hey, I know there's pressure, man. But we just take it as, let's just go out there and have fun, and see what we can make of this."

Huh? See what they can make of this? Heck, they can probably barely even comprehend what they have a chance to make of this.

They can make an indelible mark on baseball history, for one thing. But that's not all.

More important, at least for that town they play in, they can make a whole lot of ghosts disappear -- the ghosts of all those seasons that ended just the opposite of this one: the ghosts of 2003. And 2005. And 2006. And, especially, 1964.

In 1964, the Phillies were the team on the wrong end of the Greatest Collapse in History. Now, 43 years later, they are just a win or two away from being the team on the right end of somebody else's Greatest Collapse in History.

In Philadelphia, life is not supposed to work like this. Everybody knows that. But apparently, this team never got that memo.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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