Commentary

Even on their best day, Phillies still find a way to make it interesting

Originally Published: October 1, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- In Philadelphia, it's never easy. That's just how life works, how it's always worked, how it always will. It's been passed down from generation to generation, from Benjamin Franklin to Danny Ozark to Mitch Williams.

So Wednesday afternoon, even on the day the Phillies were winning their first meaningful October baseball game since 1993 -- a 3-1 victory over the Brewers in Game 1 of a fascinating NLDS -- this was how it had to end:

With hearts thumping. With rally towels waving. With 45,000 people riding a roller coaster of the senses -- never sure if they were one pitch away from elation or a massive coronary.

Brad Lidge
Howard Smith/US PresswireBrad Lidge's ninth inning: two hits, one walk, one run, three strikeouts, 35 pitches (19 for strikes).
With eight spectacular, two-hit shutout innings by Cole Hamels receding rapidly into the recesses of an entire city's memory banks. With Brad Lidge, the best closer in baseball this year -- a man who hadn't blown a save during an entire season -- manufacturing more trouble in one inning that Hamels had faced in the previous 2½ hours.

With rain pelting. With winds swirling. With the tying run in scoring position. With a Game 2 meeting with CC Sabathia looking more ominous every second.

And then, just as disaster seemed clearly ready to descend, Lidge reached back for his 35th pitch of a harrowing inning, blew a 93-mile-an-hour scorchball past Corey Hart for a game-ending strikeout and sealed his craziest save of the year.

Not to mention his biggest.

Game 1 in a best-of-five series is always humongous. But when the Game 2 starter is the omnipotent Carsten Charles Sabathia, it's doubly humongous.

And that's where the Phillies found themselves Wednesday. Maybe they haven't gone 26 years between postseason wins like the Brewers. But 15 years is longer than you think. Before Wednesday, the Yankees had piled up 78 postseason victories just since the Phillies' last postseason victory.

So a whole bunch of those people reaching for their blood-pressure medication in the seats had good reason to think that last out would never come. And even those eight other Phillies out there on the field with Lidge were beginning to waver.

"I think he read too much into me saying it wouldn't be the Philly way if things weren't difficult," laughed Jimmy Rollins, after the first postseason win of his lifetime. "I don't think he got the memo when I said, 'I take that back.'"

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Rollins then turned and looked deep into the lenses of the 97 cameras pointed directly at his face.

"Hopefully," the shortstop said, "he'll be watching the news tonight. 'Brad, to all the cameras, it's OK to go 1-2-3.'"

Oh, it's OK, all right. But it wouldn't be very Philadelphian.

In Philadelphia, there's no such thing as a routine postseason victory. Even on a day when the local starting pitcher gives them eight innings of sheer unhittability.

And for eight innings, that's what Cole Hamels was Wednesday -- unhittable.

He didn't allow a hit until Hart (1-for-14 lifetime, with six strikeouts against him) singled with two outs in the fifth -- the longest posteason no-hit bid by any Phillies pitcher since Jim Lonborg went two outs farther in Game 2 of the NLCS in 1976.

"Whenever you get your first hit … in the fifth," said Hart later, "it's usually not a good day."

No kidding. Over eight innings, the Brewers pieced together exactly two hits, three baserunners and one runner in scoring position. Hamels had his best David Copperfield disappearing changeup going. And for the eighth innings he was out there, the Brewers couldn't touch it.

"He had good stuff, man," said Milwaukee leadoff man Mike Cameron, who drew his team's one walk off Hamels. "He had great deception on his pitches. … You try to be patient , but at the same time he has pretty good command of his changeup. I think he got comfortable, and he kind of fed off the energy of the ballpark."

In fact, Hamels said afterward that that's exactly what he was trying not to do. He learned his lesson a year ago, when he uncharacteristically walked four hitters in a painful Game 1 NLDS loss to the Rockies. And this time around, he said, his goal was to ignore that thunder erupting from the seats and stay cool.

"I knew the importance of the game," Hamels said. "And it's something where, because of last year, I learned what it really takes in trying to kind of mellow out, not to have that sort of excitement where you can't really control everything."

[+] EnlargeCole Hamels
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonCole Hamels retired the first 14 batters and allowed two hits, striking out nine.
It wasn't just last year's disappointment that delivered that powerful message. It was also this pitching staff's resident Yoda -- veteran left-handed sage Jamie Moyer.

Moyer said he approached Hamels in the trainer's room this week for a little chat about how to deal with postseason madness.

"I told him, 'It's the playoffs, yes. But you still have to go about it the same,'" Moyer said. "I said, 'Just remember you're the same person. Don't lose sight of why you're here or what you've done to get here.'"

What Hamels did to get here was have himself a season that could easily have elevated him into the Cy Young debate with a little luck and better run support. He finished in the top three in the league in shutouts, opponent batting average and innings pitched -- and in the top six in ERA, strikeouts and quality starts.

But thanks to 10 starts in which he gave up two earned runs fewer and didn't win, all that brilliance translated into just 14 wins. So heading into this series, Hamels found himself lost in the giant shadow of that other left-handed dominator, Sabathia.

On Wednesday, however, it was Cole Hamels' turn to take the October stage. And there's nowhere else he would rather have been. This is a guy who aspires to more, who aspires to greatness, who aspires to take the ball on days like this and pitch masterpieces just like this one. So this game was a giant step in his journey toward acehood.

"This was just another hurdle for him to overcome," Moyer said. "At this age [24], to gain this experience is huge. But not just for him. For everyone in this clubhouse.

"Today was a huge day for us, with him on the mound. For this group of players, most of us were here last year, and remember what it felt like to go 0-3 [against the Rockies]. So to go out today and win that first game -- that's a big victory for this clubhouse, because most of these guys have never won a postseason game."

Last year, Hamels was outdueled by the Rockies' Jeff Francis in Game 1, and his team never recovered. At the time, Rollins said Wednesday, they didn't see that 1-0 hole as a big deal. They soon found out otherwise.

"The next thing we knew, it was 2-0," he said. "And the next thing we knew, we were going home."

Now this is a group with bigger aspirations. So they knew what this one meant. And the man on the mound almost made it easy -- with the help of a couple of Brewers defensive glitches that fueled a three-run third inning.

So after eight innings, the Phillies held a theoretically comfortable 3-0 lead. And Hamels was just three outs away from what would have been the first two-hit complete-game shutout pitched by any pitcher in a postseason Game 1 since Whitey Ford in the 1961 World Series.

But Hamels' pitch count also had reached 101. And the Phillies might need him to come back on short rest for Game 4 on Sunday. So in marched Lidge to start the ninth.

"That's why he's standing down there," manager Charlie Manuel said of his closer. "That's his job, too. And he's been perfect."

Sure has. But it was amazing how fast that perfection -- and those 41 straight saves -- seemed 100 percent irrelevant.

He whiffed Mike Cameron for the first out. But then a Ray Durham single, a Ryan Braun double and a Chase Utley error turned it into a 3-1 nail-chomper.

Lidge did win an epic eight-pitch mano-a-mano with Prince Fielder, punching him out on a full-count fastball for the second out. But a walk to J.J. Hardy and a wild pitch put runners on second and third for Hart.

They dueled to 2 and 2. Lidge took a huge breath and stared at his shoes. Towels waved. Pulses raced. Lidge fired. Hart swung. He missed. And the Phillies' date with CC didn't seem so life-threatening anymore.

Rollins headed straight for Lidge.

"You don't have to make it that interesting," the shortstop said. "What happened to those guys who come out and go 1-2-3?"

"It would be nice … but I've never been that type of pitcher," Lidge replied.

"Well, it's never too late to start," Rollins chuckled.

As you may recall, Lidge has had his share of October adventures. So when he was asked if he was aware that he'd just caused two million heart attacks, he almost sounded guilty.

"I'll have to buy everyone some Bayer [aspirin] and Advil," he quipped, "or whatever eases the heart."

Those hearts will have to gear up for Sabathia in Game 2. But that will just add to the fun.

"I know it's CC, but nobody knows what's going to happen tomorrow," said Moyer, his sage cap back in place. "We'll just have to wait 'til tomorrow and find out."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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