Rewriting history, one series at a time
Phillies finish off Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLCS to return to the World Series
PHILADELPHIA -- A long, long time ago, they set out on a journey that has led them to this place.
And not just making history.
They had to wipe away the ghosts of 10,000 losses, of the historic El Foldo of 1964, of all those seasons of hopes and dreams that ended in pain and heartbreak.
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They even had to remind their city just what a beautiful game baseball can be, because it seems like only yesterday that millions of Philadelphians would rather have attended an arena-football game than a Phillies game. And we are not making that up.
But they've done it now, just about done it all. They've busted those ghosts. They've healed those scars. They've lifted their sport to the very top of their city's mountaintop.
And then, on a gorgeous Wednesday night in the third week of October, the 2009 Phillies arrived at a place where no Phillies team before them had ever been.
Just 12 months after winning one World Series, they are heading for another World Series. No Phillies team before them had ever done that. Not a one.
Not the Phillies of Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts. Not the Phillies of Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton. Not the Phillies of Curt Schilling and Lenny Dykstra. And, it goes without saying, sure as heck not the Phillies of Jerry Spradlin or Juan Bell.
This team has separated itself from all of them now. It guaranteed that much with a 10-4 thumping of the Dodgers on Wednesday that finished off the National League Championship Series in five games.
And while this team hasn't finished the mission, hasn't defended yet or repeated yet or ridden the parade floats yet, these Phillies have already accomplished something almost as important:
The metamorphosis of an entire franchise.
"You know, it's not only the franchise that's different now, but the city," said Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth, standing in the middle of a still-pulsating baseball field, an hour after the final out. "It's the fans. Everything. It's all different now.
We don't know, of course, how long it's going to last. Heck, it may not even last for one more series -- not with the Yankees or the Angels waiting for them in the World Series next week. But no matter how that World Series turns out, these Phillies already have done something historic and remarkable:
Before last October, this team had won only four postseason series in the history of the franchise. And now it's won five series in a row.
It wasn't so long ago that this franchise had played in two World Series in its first 97 seasons of existence. And now it's about to play in its second World Series in 12 months.
No National League team had ever won 16 times in any stretch of 20 postseason games -- and only the Yankees have ever done that in the American League. But now this Phillies team has done exactly that over the last two Octobers.
Only two other National League teams in the division-play era -- the 1975-76 Reds and 1995-96 Braves -- had ever won one World Series and then gone back to another. Only four National League teams had done that in the last half-century -- those two, plus the 1965-66 Dodgers and 1967-68 Cardinals. But now it's time to add this Phillies team to that list.
Their closer, Brad Lidge, played on a World Series team in Houston just four years ago -- and watched that same team fade to just two games over .500 the next year. So he knows what can happen The Next Year, and how easy it is for it to happen.
"But there's just something different about these guys," he said. "It's really hard to explain, other than it's the talent. And the belief. When they keep coming back over and over, it's not luck. They really have the talent, and they really believe this is how it's supposed to be."
It was hard to remember, as he spoke those words, that the Phillies had actually come from behind in this game, too. But four hours earlier, Cole Hamels had served up a first-inning home run to Andre Ethier. And it was Dodgers 1, Phillies 0, heading for the bottom of the first.
But not for long. Five days earlier, the Phillies had made Dodgers starter Vicente Padilla look like Orel Hershiser reincarnate. But the rematch was 2,500 miles away in Philadelphia, Padilla's not-so-favorite former hometown. It wasn't his kind of place on this night, either.
"Let's just say," said Werth, "we were very confident we were going to get him, and we were going to get him early."
Uh, bingo. In the bottom of the first, with two outs and nobody on, Padilla walked Chase Utley on five pitches. And then, as 46,214 Philadelphians showered Ryan Howard with, uh, affection, he walked on four pitches.
So he promptly went 3-and-0 on Werth, threw a couple of strikes, and then laid a fastball right down Broad Street. Oops.
Werth cocked that bat, recoiled and mashed it over the right-field scoreboard for a three-run homer. And as he circled the bases, his stadium trembling, he knew this was one orbit that was not going to fade into the repository of a thousand other home run trots in his lifetime.
"You know, that was a pretty cool moment," he said, "because this place got really loud. You could feel it. It was electric. It was running through you. You're pumped up. You're flying around the bases, and the fans are right there with you. It was a pretty special moment."
It was also a game-turning moment. A Pedro Feliz bomb made it 4-2 in the second. Two fourth-inning runs finished Padilla and made it 6-2. And a town that knew exactly what a trip to the World Series smelled like could clearly sniff that scent again.
Except there was a slight hitch in the plotline: Last year's October hero, Hamels, couldn't get them there. He'd already given up two home runs in the first two innings. And then, in the fifth, he allowed No. 3, to pinch-hitter Orlando Hudson -- the first postseason pinch homer by a Dodger since Kirk Gibson's legendary blast off Dennis Eckersley in 1988.
When Rafael Furcal followed Hudson's blast by rifling a double to left, Charlie Manuel decided he'd run out of rope, even for the reigning World Series MVP. And Hamels was about to join Ralph Terry (Game 5 of the 1961 World Series) as the only starting pitchers in history to get hooked with a three-run lead in a clinching postseason game before they'd gone enough innings to qualify for a win.
But this inning would get even stickier. J.A. Happ marched in and promptly walked Ronnie Belliard. And so here it came -- the at-bat of the night: Manny Ramirez, out of the shower and heading for home plate to face the third Phillies pitcher du jour, Chad Durbin.
Manny tapped the dirt with his bat once, then twice. All around him, admiring Phillies fans chanted, "Take a shower, take a shower." Durbin heaved a breath and went at him.
The count went to 0-and-2. Then 2-and-2. Then Durbin jammed Manny with a fastball. Ramirez dribbled it toward the mound, where Durbin scooped it up and threw him out. And this game, for all intents and purposes, was over.
"That was a huge at-bat," Durbin would say later, the Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut still dripping from his hair. "The momentum was on their side. And if he puts a ball up the gap or hits the ball out of the park, it changes everything."
But that isn't how this duel turned out. And from there, the Phillies' offense did the rest. Shane Victorino made it 8-3 with a two-run homer in the sixth. Werth inflated that lead to 9-3 with a monstrous seventh-inning rocket that made him the Phillies' all-time postseason home run leader (with seven) and the second man in history (along with Steve Garvey) to hit two homers in an NLCS clincher.
"It never gets old," Lidge said. "No way. The whole night, I just sat down there, hoping things would work out and I'd get an opportunity to do that again."
But that, of course, is what his whole team has been waiting for. Since last October, when the parade floats stopped rolling. Since the second week of February, when these Phillies began the journey all over again under the Florida palm trees. Since Sept. 30, the night they clinched the NL East for the third straight year. It's been all about getting the opportunity to do it all again.
They were always focused on this night, on this moment, on the quest to put themselves four wins away from joining just the Big Red Machine and the 1921-22 Giants as the only NL teams in the last 100 years to win two World Series in a row.
These Phillies know how many championship teams talked that talk The Next Year through all those no-repeat decades. But with this group, it was more than just talk.
"Maybe some teams have success, and they forget how hard it is to get there," said Jimmy Rollins, the longest-tenured Phillie of them all. "Maybe they feel like what happened last year is supposed to happen again. Nuh-uh. You're supposed to make it happen again. But to do that, you're going to be tested."
And this team, for the second straight October, has been acing one test after another. With this champagne bath, it has now become the first team in the history of the National League to win five straight postseason series and never trail in games at any point in any of them.
"It's been pretty cool to see the staying power of these guys," said injured pitcher Jamie Moyer. "It would have been really easy, after winning the World Series, to come in this spring and set the cruise control and say, 'Hey, we've already won. So we'll go play and whatever happens, happens.' But this team never did that. You always go through ups and downs in any year. But with this team, the attitude was always, 'We're going to win. And whatever happens, we're going to find a way to win.'"
For years, for decades, the Phillies teams that came before them never thought that way. For years, for decades, the fans that had to watch those teams had zero faith they would ever again see a group of players who ever felt that way.
But now, whether they win another World Series or not, these men have changed everything -- everything -- about baseball in the town they play in.
"We've gone from being doubters to being contenders, on both sides of the ball -- fans and team," said Werth, nontendered by the Dodgers less than three years ago, and now the No. 5 hitter on the best team in the National League. "It's been awesome to be a part of."
But the journey of the 2009 Phillies isn't over. And these men are well aware of that, too. Just because the mission may have been successful doesn't mean it's been accomplished.
"It's hard to say where that mission ends," Werth said. "Maybe when my career is over, I might be able to answer that. Or maybe, when I'm not a Phillie any more, I might be able to answer that. But not right now.
"Right now," said Jayson Werth, "we've still got four more games to win."
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.
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