Commentary

Phillies walk off into history

Rollins' double with two outs in ninth gives Phillies win, 3-1 NLCS lead over Dodgers

Originally Published: October 19, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The magic is in the moment.

The frozen moment when a baseball soars through the night and your mind begins to understand what's unfolding before your eyeballs.

It all happens so fast in this sport. One instant, you are watching a team down to its final out, about to dig itself a mess of trouble. The next, the baseball flies off the bat, and the whole universe changes.

This is where the defending World Series champions, the Phillies, found themselves as the giant center-field clock ticked toward midnight ET on what was about to become a Monday night they would never forget.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Rollins
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesJimmy Rollins' double in the bottom of the ninth ended a dramatic night in Philadelphia with a 5-4 Phillies win.

One more out, and they were going to be tied with the Dodgers, at two wins apiece, in the 2009 NLCS.

One more out, and they were going to guarantee themselves a coast-to-coast plane flight they didn't want to take.

One more out, and their dreams of heading back to the parade floats were going to be in a serious state of muck.

And then it happened.

Jonathan Broxton's theoretically unhittable smokeball came roaring toward home plate at 98.8 miles per hour. Jimmy Rollins' bat flashed.

And as that bat met that baseball, everything you thought you knew about this National League Championship Series was about to become instantly defunct.

It all changed the moment that baseball began floating toward that patch of grass in distant right-center field where no one in a Dodgers cap was going to catch it.

It all changed as the two most unlikely track stars in town, Eric Bruntlett and Carlos Ruiz, began pumping around the bases.

It all changed as Rollins sprinted around first, stomped on the second-base bag and shook his fist till the mob scene engulfed him.

It all unfolded in a matter of seconds. But once the meaning of it all sank in, you began to realize what you'd just witnessed:

Namely, an October baseball game that is going to be talked about for the rest of our lifetimes.

Try to understand what just happened here. You can count the postseason baseball games that resemble what happened at Citizens Bank Park on this indelible Monday with two fingers. And those two fingers would be used to count games that can best be described with one word: "LEGENDARY."

It was Jimmy Rollins' heart-thumping two-run double with two outs in the ninth that turned defeat into triumph, turned a 4-3 loss into Phillies 5, Dodgers 4. But now let's do our best to put that game-winning hit into historical perspective.

There have been 1,251 postseason games in baseball history. Only two others -- two -- ever ended this way, with a walk-off extra-base hit by a team that was one out away from losing.

One was The Kirk Gibson Game -- Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, Gibson homering off Dennis Eckersley, Jack Buck warbling: "I don't believe what I just saw."

The other was The Bill Bevens Game -- Game 4 of the 1947 World Series, when Yankees pitcher Bill Bevens got within one out of the first no-hitter in World Series history, and then lost it all. Lost his win. Lost his place in immortality. Lost it on a two-run double by Cookie Lavagetto with two outs in the ninth.

And now here we are, still talking about it today, more than six decades later. Why? Because the October dots connect it with this game. OK, now get the picture? This wasn't just another walk-off win that unfolded in South Philadelphia on Monday. This was history.

And you'd be hard-pressed to find a ballplayer in this solar system who would rather be heading for home plate with a chance to make that kind of history than Jimmy Rollins.

2009 MLB Playoffs

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"He likes the moment," said his manager, Charlie Manuel. "He wants to be there, and he can control his adrenaline, and he can handle the moment. Those are the things that are very important when you get in the postseason. … Jimmy Rollins -- he thrives. The bigger the stage, the better he likes to play."

If you looked at Rollins' numbers in this particular postseason before he arrived in that batter's box in the ninth inning, however, you might have a tough time believing those words.

Heading into that at-bat, the shortstop was 3-for-18 (.167) in this series, 8-for-37 (.216) over this whole postseason. And normally, let's just say nobody would write any Mr. October poetry about a guy like that.

But look closer. Look at WHEN Jimmy Rollins got those hits. He now has batted six times in the ninth inning this October -- and gone 4-for-6 (.667). So he's 4-for-31 (.129) in innings one through eight -- but a .667 hitter in the most important inning of the night.

Now, however, let's look closer still. In his five at-bats against two of the best closers in the National League -- Colorado's Huston Street and Broxton -- in this postseason, he has hit .800 (4-for 5). And three of those hits were right in the middle of magical game-winning eruptions -- including this one. Think that's a coincidence? Yeah, sure it is.

"He thrives on moments like that," said Rollins' buddy, Shane Victorino. "Everybody wants to be that guy. But he really does thrive in that kind of situation. He's the kind of guy, he can be 0-for-40, and it doesn't matter. … It just shows what kind of player he is."

But he also wasn't the only player in this mind-boggling script. And on this night, the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Non-Hacking Role would go to …

Mr. Matt Stairs, ladies and gentlemen.

Now you NLCS historians know all about Matt Stairs, of course. Last year, in Game 4 of another NLCS, he was the man who shook the universe, much like Jimmy Rollins would shake it a year later.

People in Philadelphia still talk so relentlessly about the game-winning, two-run, 9,000-foot, Game 4 homer that Matt Stairs launched last October, he sometimes feels as if it's still traveling.

And never more than on this night.

Because on this night, one October later, Matt Stairs would meet again with the pitcher who served up that homer -- a fellow named Jonathan Broxton.

Their reunion would come with one out in the ninth inning and nobody on. Stairs was pinch-hitting for Pedro Feliz. Broxton was two outs from his most important October save ever.

Later, Matt Stairs would say he doubted seriously that the memories of that home run were still rattling around Broxton's head. Huh? Really? Us media skeptics weren't so sure of that. But either way, we asked Stairs, were those memories still in HIS head as he dug in to face Broxton again?

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Howard Smith/US PresswireFans at Citizens Bank Park even had a hard time believing what they'd just witnessed.

"Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh," Stairs rope-a-doped, very briefly, before realizing he couldn't fake his way through this one …

"Yeah," he laughed. "Of course."

"As I was standing in that batter's box," he went on, "I had one thing in mind -- and that was going for that Budweiser sign (which hangs from the facing of the second deck in right field). But then again, that doesn't change -- against anybody."

It was quite the scene, watching Stairs dig in. He kicked at the dirt in the box, tapped his spikes, waved his bat, looked straight at the man on the mound. Broxton glared right back from 60 feet away. The vibe in the ballpark was pure electro-shock madness.

Asked what it was like to sit around for 3½ hours and then find himself at home plate, facing a guy who throws rocketballs 100 miles an hour, Stairs answered: "Well, it's not something you want to do every day -- but it's something I enjoy doing."

But Broxton would make sure there would be no reruns of Matt Stairs' home-run trot this October -- by walking him on four pitches. Manuel admitted later he gave Stairs the old green light on 3-and-0. But ball four was so far outside (at 99 mph), even Stairs couldn't take a fly at it.

"I'm just glad he didn't throw me a 3-and-0 fastball [over the plate]," Stairs said, chuckling to himself, "because I was gonna swing as hard as I can and see what happens. I've never turned down a fastball, and I never will. I'll be swinging at fastballs till I'm 50. They might be slow-pitch fastballs, but I'll be swinging at them."

Not this time, though. Stairs trotted down to first base and gave way to a pinch-runner, Bruntlett, as the stadium erupted. It wasn't quite The Walk Heard Round The Cheese Steak Stand. But it was close.

Next, it was Ruiz's turn. Broxton stretched, fired and … ouch … drilled Ruiz right in the elbow. The only good news for the plucky catcher was, at least he got nailed by a quasi-change-up -- at a mere 96 miles an hour.

"Aw, he'll be OK," said always-sympathetic reliever Scott Eyre. "We got ice. …The ice budget here is good. We've got plenty of ice."

What they also had at that point, though, was a big-time October rally in progress. Only twice in his career, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, had Broxton ever hit a batter and walked another in the same inning. But his timing, this time, couldn't have been worse.

He got to within one out of his destination by retiring pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs on a looper to third base. But that just set the stage for history.

As Rollins strolled toward home plate, he knew his body of work against Broxton wasn't real picturesque (1-for-6, counting the postseason, with the only hit coming two years ago). But the shortstop also said: "I wasn't afraid."

"I've faced him a number of times before," Rollins went on. "And that always helps, when you're familiar with the guy, his movement, what his ball is going to do -- and he's pretty much thrown me all fastballs."

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Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesBy the way, no one was hurt in the making of this celebration.

So from first pitch to last, Jimmy Rollins was geared for the fastball, because he knew, in this situation, "he's going to give you his best. If he's going to lose, he's going to lose with his best."

The first smokeball came roaring toward Rollins at 98.1 miles per hour, according to Inside Edge. He fouled it back. Strike one.

The second pitch was even harder -- 98.5 -- but way outside. Rollins took it calmly. Ball one.

Broxton climbed back on the rubber and stared straight down at his feet, visualizing the pitch he was getting ready to fire. Rollins set himself, tapped the plate, rocked in the box. If there was anyone in this ballpark not standing, the only possible explanation was that they'd just passed out.

Now here came one last pitch -- at 98.8 miles per hour. According to data compiled by Inside Edge, it was the hardest pitch anyone had thrown to Jimmy Rollins THIS ENTIRE SEASON.

"It was funny," Rollins recalled of the moment before that pitch left Broxton's hand. "Right before he threw it, I said (to himself), 'Hit a ball in the right-center-field gap . . . right over Broxton's head. That's at least one run.' "

And then it happened … precisely … like … that.

His bat flashed through the zone. The baseball took off toward that exact spot in the gap.

And for an instant, as you watched it, it was almost if it froze in the sky. And then it hit you: The Phillies were going to -- wait a minute, is this really happening? -- win … this … game.

Bruntlett -- whose pinch-running exploits last October led him to score the winning run in two World Series games -- loped home first. "I had the easy job," he said. "Just go out, turn around and don't do anything too stupid."

But right behind him came Ruiz, a man in no danger of being voted the World's Fastest Human, or even one of the World's Fastest 1 Billion Humans. This time, though, he was chugging. He had to chug. There was no alternative but to chug.

"He was motoring," Ryan Howard said. "He knew, man. He knew what he had to do. He had to get going. Fastest I've seen him move since Clearwater, in rookie ball."

Ruiz pounded across home plate. Their ballpark shook with joy. And their teammates were thundering in all directions, not too sure whom to mob -- Bruntlett, Ruiz, Rollins or all of the above.

"I was going to third," Howard reported, "just to try to avoid the rest of humanity. I was the first one there -- and then the first one on the bottom."

"The pile-up and the beat-down … that can be pretty dangerous," said Rollins, "especially when Ryan Howard is the first guy out there. But then I guess he's kind of like a shell at the same time -- a little bit of protection.

"The only thing I didn't want to do," Rollins announced, "was get crushed."

But he appeared to have virtually all of his appendages still attached as he spoke those words. So mission accomplished.

The bigger mission for this team, however, is NOT quite accomplished. It still needs one more win to make it to the World Series, and then four more after that to hop back on the parade floats. And these men understand how hard it will be to collect those five more wins.

But they have this knack -- to write these astounding scripts, to sculpt these October miracles that have become the specialty of their house. So you can't help but wonder how many more they have left in them.

It might not have seemed possible for them to top Game 4 of 2008. But they just might have done it on this night.

"Hey, that was last year," said Matt Stairs. "So we've turned the page.

"But fortunately," he said, "it was a real big page."

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