Cody Ross steps into starring role
Unlikely heroes emerge on the postseason stage, and this one stole the show in Game 1
This is life in the crazy, mixed-up world of baseball in October. The heroes of October aren't necessarily the guys they send over from central casting.
"It seems like that happens every year," the Giants' Aubrey Huff said late Saturday night after Ross' stunning two-homer eruption off Halladay led Lincecum and the Giants to a 4-3 win over the Phillies in Game 1 of the NLCS. "Or it seems like it's happened every year while I've been home watching the postseason for the last nine years, anyway. Somebody always gets the big hit, and it's not always somebody you expect. And tonight it was him."
Not that Lincecum was exactly a minor figure in this October drama, you understand. He did give up two home runs in a game (to Carlos Ruiz and Jayson Werth) for the first time in 2½ months and served up four extra-base hits in a game for just the third time in his past 38 starts.
But The Freak also struck out eight, never let the Giants fall behind and outdueled Halladay on Halladay's own no-hit turf. So in what closer Brian Wilson called "one of the biggest games he's ever pitched in his life," Lincecum came up just as big as he had to.
Afterward, though, he had this important announcement about his new best friend, Cody J. Ross:
"He's the real hero," Lincecum said. "He's the one who put our team in the driver's seat to get this win. You can't say enough about what he did. I was just the guy who tried to hold them down. He's the one who put the runs on the board."
But it wasn't so much that Ross put a couple of runs on that board. It was how he did it -- and whom he did it against.
This was the 322nd start of Roy Halladay's big league career. But it was only the third in which he allowed two home runs to a right-handed hitter. One of those games was just last month, with Milwaukee's Corey Hart doing the trotting. But the other came 11 years ago, when the legendary Benny Agbayani did the honors way back on June 7, 1999.
"Yeah, but that's when Roy threw straight over the top," Ross deadpanned. "So that doesn't count."
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This, on the other hand -- this one counted. And not just as a line in the Roy Halladay trivia books.
These were two home runs that might very well have changed this series. And they came off the bat of a guy who wasn't even supposed to be here -- which is fitting, seeing as how he was hitting eighth in a lineup jam-packed with guys who weren't supposed to be here.
Only two Giants position players who took the field Saturday night were in this team's Opening Day lineup. Only one of them (Huff) was starting in the same position he played in that opener 6½ long months ago.
The composition of the rest of this roster -- other than bound-for-stardom catcher Buster Posey -- is a gigantic hodgepodge of retreads and castoffs and guys picked off somebody else's junk heap. So Ross just fits right in.
He showed up as a waiver-claim special in August after spending most of this season as a Marlin. In fact, Ross was in the Marlins' lineup the night Halladay threw a perfect game back in May. So we know he sure wasn't hitting two home runs off Doc Halladay that night.
"That was one of the most incredible things I've ever been a part of," Ross said of that perfecto after this game. "He was lights-out that day. He didn't make one mistake. And he's a guy who's capable of doing that every time he goes out there. That's how dominating his stuff is. Nothing was different tonight, really. He was just throwing darts. And I was lucky to get a couple of pitches I could get some wood on."
But the true good fortune was the twist of fate that led him to this team in the first place. The Giants didn't claim him on waivers in August because they actually wanted him or needed him. They claimed him just to keep him from getting traded to the team they were chasing at the time, the Padres.
"Once the trading deadline went past [and he was still in Florida], I didn't think I was going anywhere," Ross said. "Then I heard the rumor the Giants claimed me. So I looked at their roster, and I was like, 'They don't need me. I'm sure they're probably just making a strategic move. No way the Marlins won't pull me back.'"
Instead, though, the Marlins just stepped out of the way and let the Giants take him.
"They gave up nothing," Ross quipped. "And they got nothing."
But by Saturday night, Ross was calling that shocking turn of events "the best thing that ever happened to me."
And Lincecum was saying, after Ross had helped deliver the second postseason win of The Freak's career, "I guess some things are just meant to be."
Before Ross strolled to the plate in the third inning, there was every reason to think this game was going to be everything we media hype-a-holics had been hyping it to be for close to a week.
Lincecum had tap-danced through two shutout innings. And Halladay had chewed through the first seven hitters of the night -- running his Octoberfest no-hit streak to 0-for-34, two short of Don Larsen's postseason record of 36 consecutive hitless at-bats.
So as Ross dug in, the 134th straight Citizens Bank Park sellout crowd was in its standard, high-decibel, towel-gyrating frenzy. And the name Johnny Vander Meer was being uttered way too loosely.
But then Halladay reared back and fired a two-seamer that forgot to do its standard cliff dive. Ross lofted it into the seats in left for the first run of the night. And as he rounded the bases, it was almost as if someone had just hit a massive mute button.
"That's a big, big momentum-changer because you've got a guy with that amount of skill on the mound," Wilson said afterward. "And when he gives up a home run right there, in that spot, the whole crowd just got silenced a little bit."
A half-inning later, Ruiz hit a tying homer off Lincecum that restored the rock to the house -- temporarily. But by the top of the fifth, it was Ross' turn to hit again. And this time, he got almost an identical 2-and-0 fastball, in on the hands -- and pounded another home run through the swirling autumn breeze.
The Giants led again, now 2-1. This time, it would be for keeps.
Watching from the best seat in the house -- the on-deck circle -- Lincecum said he told himself: "Now it's up to us."
[Ross] is the real hero. He's the one who put our team in the driver's seat to get this win.” -- Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum
This was the first time in eight October series over the past three years that the Phillies have lost a Game 1. And they've never won a postseason series in their history after losing the opener.
Meanwhile, teams that have won Game 1 of the past 17 National League Championship Series have gone on to win 15 of those 17 series. And in Game 2, the Phillies have to deal with Jonathan Sanchez, the man who has held them to a batting average (.175) that is the lowest of any active starting pitcher against them.
But the Giants aren't just in this position because of the men on the mound. They're three wins away from the World Series because they were able to change lines on the fly all season, and stuff has happened to them that always seems to come shining out of the heavens on teams that win.
Their leadoff man (Andres Torres) is a fellow who was released or allowed to become a minor league free agent six different times. Their No. 3 hitter (Huff) was a guy they signed only because they lost out in the bidding for Adam LaRoche.
Their No. 5 hitter (Burrell) was released by Tampa Bay this year. And their biggest offensive star, in maybe the most high-pressure game they've played since the 2002 World Series, was their No. 8 hitter.
The outfielder they didn't even want.
"It's amazing," Burrell said, "how it all comes together like that."
Ross and Burrell worked out together all this past winter at the Athletes' Performance Institute in Arizona. Then, as spring training was approaching, "He's going to the Marlins," Burrell said. "And I'm going to Tampa Bay. And now here we are."
Yep, here they are, all right. Burrell gave the Giants 18 homers in the final four months. And his two hits Saturday raised his average this postseason to .308.
Ross, meanwhile, had just 73 regular-season at-bats with the Giants, biding his time in an overcrowded outfield. But all of a sudden, naturally, he's turned into their biggest offensive force this October, hitting .353 with three huge home runs.
Not bad for a guy who once wanted to be a (huh?) rodeo clown.
Of course, that was back when Ross was 5 years old and his dad was a rodeo steer wrestler in West Texas. So back then, young Cody wasn't dreaming of hitting two momentous home runs in a huge October baseball game. He was dreaming about running around in clown paint, trying to distract those steers that kept tossing his father through the sky.
Asked which he thought was tougher -- avoiding getting gored by those wild steers or hitting two home runs off Cy Halladay, Ross never flinched.
"Oh, no question about it," he said, laughing. "Hitting two home runs off Roy Halladay. Just getting a hit off Roy Halladay is tougher than what those clowns do."
Eventually, after his family moved to Dallas when he was 8, Ross' rodeo dreams faded. And baseball moved quickly to the top of his what-I-want-to-do-when-I-grow-up list. But 21 years later, after the most magical night of his career, he somehow found himself at his locker, still talking about the rodeo. Who knew?
"So do you have any regrets," someone asked, "that you never became a rodeo clown instead of a baseball player?"
"Nooooooo," said the man who upstaged Tim Lincecum and Roy Halladay on the same October evening. "And especially tonight."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest 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.