Commentary

Rockies make all the right moves

Colorado evens series by beating Phils in game dominated by strategy

Originally Published: October 8, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- It was the kind of October baseball game only Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and the late, great Bobby Fischer could have truly appreciated.

It wasn't just a baseball game. It was one part chess match, one part October classic and one part very crazy episode of "Dancing With The Starters."

To tell you the Rockies won this madcap, 3-hour-and-41-minute adventure 5-4 doesn't begin to describe it. To tell you they've evened their National League Division Series with the Phillies at a win apiece, as they head for the Arctic Circle -- sorry, we mean Denver -- for the weekend, doesn't remotely set this scene.

Nah, to truly capture this one, you need to click on the box score to this epic, peruse all the names you find and try your best to comprehend what just happened.

The two managers in this game, Charlie "Checkmate" Manuel and Jim "Grandmaster" Tracy, might not quite have run this little October ballgame as if their hair follicles were on fire. But their brain cells sure were smoking.

They used 37 players. They hauled out 13 pitchers -- 11 of them just to get the last 24 outs.

And although Manuel certainly didn't win the chess game, he at least did something no manager had done in any postseason game in 32 years:

No, he didn't run through his entire starting rotation -- but just barely. And no, he didn't ever attempt to bring in Steve Carlton or Curt Schilling -- although they might have been next.

But Manuel did use five -- right you are, five -- pitchers in one game who had made at least five starts for him in the regular season. (And that doesn't even count trotting a sixth starter, Cliff Lee, out there as a pinch runner in the ninth.)

And no manager had used that many multitime starters in any postseason game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, since Game 5 of the 1977 American League Championship Series, when Whitey Herzog did it trying to steer the Kansas City Royals into their first World Series.

So this was quite the spectacle, all right.

You'd never see a nine-inning ballgame like that in April or May or even July, you understand. But in October --"Hey, that's what makes the game great," said one of those Phillies starters-turned-relievers, Joe Blanton. "The chess match within the game."

"Yeah, it was the beauty of October," teammate Jimmy Rollins said with a laugh. "Or something like that."

Before we start delving into the "something like that" aspects of this tussle, however, we need to put in perspective just how important this win was for the Rockies.

They could have been one ninth-inning wave of the bat by Shane Victorino from going down in this series, two games to zilch. And let's just say that's not good.

In the wild-card era, 35 teams have fallen behind two games to zilch in a division series. Only four of them came back to win. And no National League team has done it.

But when the road team manages a split of Games 1 and 2 on the other club's real estate, it's a whole different story. Since 1998, when the format of this round was changed to 2-2-1, 19 road teams have headed home at a win apiece -- and 12 of the 19 won the series.

"So this will make that flight home a lot easier," the Rockies' Ryan Spilborghs said, "when we hit that turbulence over Colorado."

The Rockies, after all, are official experts in the art of hitting turbulence -- and not just at 30,000 feet.

When you've been 12 games under .500 and 15½ games out of first place in June, what's the big deal about one more bumpy ride? And what, for that matter, was the big deal about being down in a best-of-five series, one game to nada, when the whole world thought you already had been mathematically eliminated about four months earlier?

[+] EnlargeCole Hamels
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesCole Hamels had an interesting day Thursday -- he suffered a rare October loss, then hastily headed to the hospital where his wife was in labor.

"You know, it's all relative," Spilborghs philosophized. "You can look at it any way you want, but this team was doubted a lot. And the type of guys we have in here are competitive guys by nature. And the reason why our chemistry is so good is that the guys in here compete."

And those competitive instincts came in real handy Thursday. All Colorado had to do in this game was go out, in this fix, and beat the reigning World Series MVP, Cole Hamels. But that practically turned out to be the easy part of the Rockies' day.

They had a 1-0 lead three hitters into the game. They were three runs up after a two-run fourth-inning homer by Yorvit Torrealba, a man who hadn't gotten to practice his home run trot since May 6. And by the fifth inning, the Rockies had scored as many runs off Hamels (four) as the Brewers, Dodgers and Rays scored off him in the first 28 innings he pitched last October.

But it was right about then that this game began to veer toward utter lunacy.

You knew it wasn't going to be your normal day at the yard when, just minutes after Hamels left the game, it was announced that he also had left the stadium -- because his wife, Heidi, had just gone into labor while he was pitching.

Ah, but little did the Phillies know their manager was about to go into labor himself. Uh, kind of.

The first man to stomp out of Manuel's bullpen in the entire postseason was, of course, a man who had made zero relief appearances this year, led his team in innings pitched and, in fact, hadn't pitched in relief in any kind of game since the 2006 ALDS. Of course.

That was Blanton, who figured he hadn't spent the past two days hanging out in the local bullpen because it gave him a better view of the Planet Hoagie stand.

"Hey, it's October," Blanton said. "That's when you pull out all the stops."

And Manuel did, all right. But what made this maneuver even more fascinating is that Blanton generally was presumed to be the Phillies' likely starting pitcher in Game 3. And as a matter of fact, Manuel said afterward, he still might be.

"I'll be ready for whatever," Blanton said. "I'm not going to expect to be in the bullpen. I'm not going to expect to start. I'm just going to wait to hear what's up. It doesn't matter to me. I'll be ready to roll."

Now, once Blanton entered the fray, that seemed to bump left-hander J.A. Happ into the clubhouse leader in the Most Likely to Start Game 3 Derby. But … not for long. When Blanton worked his way into a first-and-third, no-out mess in the seventh inning, out of that 'pen trotted -- who else? -- Happ to relieve him.

And if there was any thought on Manuel's part that Happ could still start Game 3 -- which there was, by the way -- that thought was rendered defunct four pitches later. That's when Colorado's Seth Smith smoked a line drive off Happ's left leg, just below the knee, and finished his day. If not his series.

"I would rather it not have hit him," Smith said later, "so I'd have gotten a base hit up the middle and an RBI. And I'd have rather it not have hit him so he didn't get hurt. But he ran after the ball and he was walking around afterward. So hopefully, he's not hurt too bad."

Well, stay tuned on that. X-rays were negative, but Happ has a nasty bone bruise. So it's tough to tell whether his next appearance will be next week, in the next series (if there is one) or next March underneath a palm tree.

But before the Phillies could start figuring that out, they had to get themselves through that inning -- and the bases happened to be loaded with nobody out. So pitching coach Rich Dubee and Manuel started frantically trying to signal to the bullpen which reliever they wanted next.

Spilborghs You can look at it any way you want, but this team was doubted a lot. And the type of guys we have in here are competitive guys by nature. And the reason why our chemistry is so good is that the guys in here compete.

-- Colorado Rockies' Ryan Spilborghs

But that didn't go so well, either. So Dubee literally wound up forming a giant "E" with his hands, kinda like the bullpen version of "YMCA," until reliever Scott Eyre figured out they meant him.

"We still had two lefties down there," Brad Lidge said, "so he spelled out an 'E' -- I think. At least that's what I made of it. So I think we got the right guy up."

Heck, who knew at that point? Eyre did a spectacular job of finishing out the seventh. Then Brett Myers -- who once upon a time was the Opening Day starter for his team this year -- started the eighth. Then it was time for rookie left-hander Antonio Bastardo, another rotation alumnus who made five starts for the Phillies in midseason, to wander in for the second relief appearance of his big league life.

In a nice, relaxing, low-pressure spot, too: With the bases loaded in a two-run game. And the Rockies' favorite pinch-hit hero, Jason Giambi (9 for his past 20 in the pinch) at the dish.

Six days earlier, Bastardo was hanging out in the Instructional League. Next thing he knew, he was in the big leagues, where his manager had just decided he was the perfect man to rescue the defending champs from a bases-loaded disaster. In October. And, amazingly, Bastardo stoked himself up and struck Giambi out.

Seriously.

"Sheez," Lidge said, "it's not supposed to be quite that easy."

No kidding. We should mention here, by the way, that Lidge was one of three Phillies bullpen occupants who didn't pitch -- possibly because he's a real reliever for a living. And by the end of this day, one thing was clear:

The manager of the Phillies seems to enjoy seeing his starting pitchers pitch a lot more than he appears to enjoy seeing his actual relief pitchers pitch.

And what that tells us is that Manuel is inclined to spend this October playing one long, dangerous game of bullpen roulette.

Oh, there's certainly the potential that he can pull that off well enough to get the Phillies to another parade float. But there's also the potential he is going to make about seven bullpen moves this month that will get him second-guessed for about the next 20 years. Not that anything like that would ever happen in Philadelphia.

So after approximately 47 consecutive questions about his Game 2 pitching decisions, Manuel finally announced to the assembled press corps: "You can write whatever you want to write, and you can voice your opinion and everything. But yeah, [this juggling act] can be done. And sometimes, those are chances you have to take. That's part of the game. Funny game. That's how you've got to play it sometimes.

"I was making moves out there," he said, "that if I could have picked some other things to do, I would have probably did it. But that's how I did it."

Yeah, that's how he did it, all right. And the incredible part is, it almost worked.

Eventually, the Phillies -- down four runs at one point -- would get that lead down to a run twice. Eventually, they would even get the tying and winning runs on base in the ninth. Eventually, Rockies closer Huston Street would wriggle his way out of that little predicament via a Victorino semi-liner to second base, as a packed ballpark perched on the verge of explosion.

"I have to admit," Spilborghs said, "I didn't really feel my heart beat the entire game until there were two outs, first and second and Victorino hitting. Then I started getting nervous."

But Street survived. And the Rockies survived. And now it's a whole different series. Especially considering the scene shifts to the Rocky Mountains, where the Game 3 forecast is for temperatures in the 30s and snowflakes filling the Colorado sky.

Asked whether he had any helpful weather tips for the defending champs as they head for that winter wonderland, Spilborghs chuckled uproariously.

"Yeah," he said. "Hopefully, they'll bring a lot of short-sleeve shirts."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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