Commentary

Phillies defy the odds -- again

Carlos Ruiz and Raul Ibanez deliver big blows, bullpen hangs on

Originally Published: October 15, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- In October, they must burn all the history books. In October, the insane turns sane. In October, "The Twilight Zone" is always on the air.

For your approval, we submit Game 1 of the National League Championship Series as irrefutable proof.

Along the 4-hour-and-2-minute trail that led to Phillies 8, Dodgers 6, on a wild Thursday night at Chavez Ravine, what exactly made sense out there, anyway?

Stuff happened that never happened all year. Home runs flew through the L.A. sky that had no business flying anywhere. The "wrong" bullpen got all the big outs. And the most dominating pitcher all night was a fellow (Chan Ho Park) who hadn't appeared in a game in 29 days.

This is the havoc that baseball in October wreaks. This is why we watch. This is why we care. The script writers take the month off. Then these games take off in every conceivable unimaginable direction, as the rest of us hang on for dear life.

"If you're shocked, I don't know what to tell you," said Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins after his team had won its fifth straight postseason-series opener. "This time of year, great things happen. There's really no reason to be shocked."

And he's right, we guess. His team has spent the last two Octobers winning all sorts of nutty games just like this one. So what was one more for the collection?

You want madness? Hey, we've got madness.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Ruiz
Jeff Gross/Getty Images Carlos Ruiz got the Phillies on the board in a big way in the fifth inning with a three-run homer to left.

The Dodgers' starter was Clayton Kershaw. He threw three wild pitches in one inning. He never did that all year. He also gave up a three-run homer (to Carlos Ruiz). Never did that all year, either.

Equally unfathomable was what happened to the Dodgers' most unhittable left-handed reliever, George Sherrill. He came in to start the eighth inning and walked the first two hitters. He'd never done that. Not this year. Not any year. Then he served up a three-run homer to a left-handed hitter (Raul Ibanez). So how many homers did Sherrill allow to left-handed hitters during the regular season? None, of course.

Oh, and one more thing on Sherrill: He faced 111 hitters in two months after the Dodgers traded for him this July -- and allowed two runs. He then gave up more runs than that in this series within the first three hitters he faced.

Meanwhile, the very first run of this NLCS came on a home run by Dodgers first baseman James Loney. So in one swing in this series, he'd already hit as many LCS homers at Dodger Stadium as he hit during the entire regular season at Dodger Stadium. Of course.

And, finally, there was Chan Ho Park. He hadn't pitched in a major league baseball game in one day shy of a month (since Sept. 16, when he popped a hamstring). He hadn't pitched in any kind of baseball game since late September, when he reinjured that hamstring in an Instructional League game. So naturally, he was the most dominating Phillies reliever of the night -- buzzing through Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp and Casey Blake with the tying run on second in the seventh. Asked if that brilliance surprised him at all, the 36-year-old Park deadpanned: "Yes. Very much. My body's not right. And I'm old, you know?"

But in his own inimitable way, Chan Ho Park epitomized this night. Just about everything that happened seemed to come out of nowhere. And so did he.

Once upon a time, this actually looked like a pitcher's duel -- a starting pitcher's duel -- between two of the most talented young left-handed pitchers on earth, Cole Hamels and Clayton Kershaw.

It was a 1-0 game after four innings and seemed to be living up to every advance billing. And then, naturally, the two starters got exactly six more outs combined.

Kershaw blew up in a five-run fifth, centered around the first home run he'd allowed in Dodger Stadium since April 15 (to Carlos Ruiz). Then Hamels, after being handed a 5-1 lead, teed up a two-run homer to Manny Ramirez. And it was 5-4.

So much for that starting pitcher's duel. From that moment on, the last four innings of this tilt had become an official Battle of the Bullpens.

Which didn't figure to be good news for the team that wound up winning.

The Dodgers were the team with the best bullpen in the National League. The Phillies were the team that came into October without a closer, a healthy left-handed set-up man or even any semblance of late-inning order.

So could there be any doubt what would happen over the next four spine-rattling innings? Of course not. It's October.

From the bottom of the fifth through the last out in the ninth, the Dodgers would bring the tying or winning run to the plate 17 times -- and never once pulled even.

Six different Phillies relievers got hauled into this fray -- and got every big out.

J.A. Happ, on furlough from the rotation, wriggled out of a bases-loaded mess in the sixth.

Ryan Madson, who we could have sworn was regarded as the most trusted reliever on this whole roster, like, 15 minutes ago, gave up two eighth-inning runs -- but still hung onto the lead by winning a two-on, two-out duel with his Manny-ness.

And in the meantime, the Phillies teed off on the heretofore-untouchable Sherrill. How'd that happen?

"If you look at his stats," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel would say of Sherrill later, "it might be the first time we got a hit off him."

Well, not quite. But just about. It's true that Sherrill had pitched against the Phillies three times earlier in the year, when he was with the Orioles, and allowed zero hits. And the only member of the Phillies' starting lineup who had ever gotten a hit off him was Ibanez. And that was a year-and-a-half ago, when they were both hanging out in the American League.

But here came Sherrill to pitch the eighth. And the impossible suddenly became possible.

After Sherrill became a Dodger, opposing cleanup hitters went a ridiculous 1-for-21 (.048) against him. So the first thing he did in this game was -- what else? -- walk Phillies cleanup hitter Ryan Howard.

[+] EnlargeRaul Ibanez
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireRaul Ibanez's three-run shot in the eighth inning gave the Phillies a much-needed four-run cushion.
Another walk to Jayson Werth followed. Then Ibanez -- Sherrill's one-time teammate in Seattle -- lofted a first-pitch curveball barely over the fence in right field. And the Phillies' dugout just about exploded.

"That was a critical moment," said Howard. "A hit like that changes all the momentum in the game. That one put the wind in our sails a little bit."

Sherrill hadn't given up a home run to any of the previous 122 left-handed hitters he'd faced -- dating all the way back to June 14, 2008. But this bomb had just turned a one-run game into an 8-4 game. And ohbytheway, it may also have been the defining wave of the bat in Ibanez's 14-year career.

"The postseason, once it starts, it's like whatever happened before that point is irrelevant," said the 37-year-old Ibanez. "It's done now. It's like a new start. You start over, and obviously there's a lot of intensity in the games and there's a lot of energy. And I think as a player, yeah, you definitely feed off that energy."

So maybe that explains what happened in the bottom of the seventh inning in this game, when Park showed up.

There hadn't been a whole lot of energy for him to feed off for the last month -- since he'd spent most of that time either visiting doctors or throwing bullpens in the Instructional League, in front of about 14 people.

Once he reinjured himself, he decided to concentrate just on getting healthy. So he hadn't pitched in any actual games for weeks. But "mentally," he said, with a chuckle, "I was pitching a doubleheader every day."

Once upon a time, Park was his team's most consistent reliever, a man with a 1.84 ERA in his final 34 appearances. But as the Phillies roared down the stretch, clinched their division and then survived their Ice Age Division Series with the Rockies, he was Mr. Invisible.

And then, on Thursday night, when they desperately needed somebody to save them, he turned more visible than Brett Favre.

[+] EnlargeChan Ho Park
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images Chan Ho Park entered the seventh with the tying run at second and no outs, retiring three batters on 15 pitches.
For Park's first game in a month, this was the low-key situation Manuel brought him into: One-run game. Seventh inning. Tying run on second. Nobody out. And Manny about to hit.

"That's the first guy I faced," Park would mutter an hour-and-a-half later. "Manny. Man on second. No outs."

What fun. The PA system was pounding. Those Dodger rally towels were gyrating. Manny dug his back foot into the dirt and rocked in the batter's box. And Chan Ho Park made sure to peer directly into the glove of his catcher, Ruiz -- and not at the man with the bat in his hands.

"Nobody wants to see The Manny," Park said. "Nobody wants to look at The Manny."

But whatever Park was looking at, it worked. He got The Manny to bounce to third. One out. Then he blew a 96-mile-an-hour, full-count inferno past Kemp for the second out. Then he got Casey Blake to bounce to Chase Utley. Three outs. And as Park strolled casually toward the dugout, his teammates shook their heads in amazement.

"He probably took some good Korean ancient herb something," said Brad Lidge with a laugh. "I guess what I'm saying is, he did a great job getting himself mentally and physically ready to pitch."

But Park admitted later he wasn't feeling as good as he looked: "I'm glad I pitched good, 'cause I didn't feel good," he said.

So what, he was asked, wasn't feeling so good?

"Just because I hadn't faced guys," Park replied. "Maybe I was a little bit nervous. My heart was pumping a little faster. I could hear more noise in there."

Heck, maybe that noise in his chest drowned out the din roaring out of the seats around him. But however he felt, however he did it, "I'm just glad," said Hamels, "he's on our team -- not the Dodgers."

[+] EnlargeBrad Lidge
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images Brad Lidge gave up a leadoff single in the ninth, but a 4-6-3 double play helped him earn the save.
Because Manuel had to rip through all those relief pitchers early, it meant once again that the ninth inning was going to be Brad Lidge time. But nobody on any team's postseason roster is doing a better job of proving how October makes the regular season irrelevant than Lidge is.

Only once in the entire regular season -- from May 28 to June 1 -- did Lidge collect a save in three or more of his team's games in succession. But he's now done that in this postseason -- in Games 3 and 4 of the NLDS, and now Game 1 of this series. Of course he has.

"It's October," Lidge said. "The regular season doesn't mean a whole lot when October rolls around, to be honest. As long as you're lucky enough to be in the postseason, everything kind of clicks over. I feel real good physically right now. And I feel fortunate for that right now. And I think when our whole bullpen is healthy and going on all cylinders, we're the best bullpen. I think we proved that last year."

Well, they were the best bullpen for one night, anyway. And Brad Lidge has suddenly morphed back into a guy who can get the last one or two or three outs in a gigantic October baseball game.

"But you know," said Rollins, "that's what he's supposed to do. That's what's supposed to happen. And if he doesn't close them out, then we'll find another way to win -- because that is what we do."

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