Commentary

Phillies' sixth-inning homers sink Lowe, Dodgers in Game 1

Originally Published: October 9, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Not even submarines sink like a Derek Lowe sinkerball.

It's more than a pitch. It's a subterranean robot.

And for five innings Thursday night, that Derek Lowe sinkerball was doing exactly what it's designed to do to offenses like the Phillies' -- squishing defenseless blades of grass all over the infield at Citizens Bank Park.

So as the bottom of the sixth arrived in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, not even the Psychics Hotline could have predicted the turn of events that was about to lead the Phillies to an improbable 3-2 win over Lowe and the Dodgers.

One minute, the Phillies didn't look like a team that could get a ball airborne with a tennis racket. The next, two stunning home runs were floating through the electrified October night, those rally towels were swirling, and the look on Derek Lowe's face said it all.

Loosely translated, you could describe that look this way: "This park is a joke."

He'd just watched a game-tying, two-run, Chase Utley home run come down in the third row of the right-field lower deck. He'd just watched what turned out to be a game-winning homer by Pat Burrell return to earth in the second row of the left-field lower deck.

And nobody had to get out a site map to explain to Derek Lowe -- or anyone in a Dodgers uniform -- that if they had been playing baseball in L.A. instead of Philadelphia, those mighty blows would not have been home runs on anybody's scorecard.

But as that noted wise man, Manny Ramirez, observed sagely afterward: "No -- but we're not in L.A."

[+] EnlargeDerek Lowe
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesFor five innings, Derek Lowe was a ground-ball machine. He left the game after Pat Burrell's tie-breaking solo homer in the sixth inning.
Right he was, of course. And it would also be 100 percent right to mention that this wasn't exactly the first time crazy things had happened to pitchers like Derek Lowe in the Phillies' cozy little home park. But maybe not this crazy. After all, consider the big picture here:

  • Heading into the sixth, 11 of Lowe's 13 non-strikeout outs had been ground-ball outs -- and the only member of the Phillies' lineup who had made an out in the air was leadoff man Jimmy Rollins, who had made two of them (popup to first, fly ball to left).
  • Also heading into the sixth, Lowe had given up only two home runs to the previous 286 hitters he'd faced -- a span that included 12 starts over the past eight weeks.
  • And the two guys who were about to homer off him, Utley and Burrell, had faced him a combined 44 times in their respective careers -- and never hit any homers.

But in October, past history often seems about as relevant to current events as the French-Indian War. So an hour later, Lowe found himself standing at his locker, talking about his first loss to the Phillies since 2001, and doing his best not to blame the ballpark, its architects or anyone else responsible for this loss -- except himself.

NLCS: Dodgers vs. Phillies

Complete coverage of the Dodgers-Phillies matchup.
Series page
Scouting: Dodgers Insider | Phillies Insider
"It's a hitter's park, but that doesn't mean you can't pitch a good game," said Lowe, the man who, until those home runs, had been the hottest starting pitcher still standing in this postseason (7-1, 1.41 ERA in his previous 11 starts). "You know, hindsight in this game will make you not sleep at night. You're thinking, 'Why did I throw that pitch? Why didn't I try something else?' …

"This," said Derek Lowe, "was a what-if game."

OK, so let's ask that question right along with him.

What if his shortstop, Rafael Furcal, hadn't tried to rush his throw to first on the Shane Victorino chopper that started the fateful bottom of the sixth?

Furcal would later say the ball had just "slipped out of my hand." And Lowe would later absolve his shortstop of all culpability. But Phillies manager Charlie Manuel had a different view.

"I thought maybe when Furcal threw the ball away at first base," Manuel said, "I felt like that was kind of a turn for us."

And what if, on the other hand, Ramirez's 409-foot laser beam to center field in the first inning had been hit just a few feet higher -- and clanked off, say, the flag pole for a two-run homer instead of clattering off the grate above the 409 sign for an RBI double?

[+] EnlargePat Burrell
James Lang-US PresswirePat Burrell's sixth-inning homer was his third of the postseason.
"You know what? I've never seen a ball hit that fence," Victorino said. "In the three, four years I've been here, I have never, ever seen that. Usually, when a ball gets hit out there, either it goes up into the seats or it hits the wall and kicks off funny and the center fielder is doing a dance trying to chase it down. But I've never seen that."

Well, whatever happened, Ramirez wound up getting stranded at third base. And the Dodgers did, after all, lose by just one run.

But the biggest what-if of all is what would have happened if this game had merely been played 3,000 miles to the west? We'll never know the answer to that one, though. And Lowe didn't even want to know.

All he knew was that one pitch after the Furcal error, he laid a first-pitch fastball in there to Utley, waist-high. And even though Utley is clearly bothered by a much-rumored hip injury and hit just .133 in the NLDS, he was a man with a plan on this pitch.

"I know better than that," Lowe said, bludgeoning himself. "They had just gotten a guy to second base. And the crowd was into it. And I pretty much knew he was going to swing at the first pitch. And I should know better. I left a ball out over the plate and, well, there you go."

Yeah, there it went, all right. And Lowe's hard-earned 2-0 lead had officially disappeared. Then, nine pitches after that, Lowe elevated another sinker on a 3-and-1 count. Burrell pummeled it into the towel rack in left. And this game had U-turned -- for good.

"Same [mistake] with Burrell's ball," Lowe muttered. "It's 3-and-1. And in this park, walks will kill you. So it was the same kind of pitch. Just left it out over the plate and …"

And kaboom. In what seemed like about 45 seconds, he'd gone from being in total control of what was shaping up to be his fifth consecutive postseason win (dating back to the 2004 Red Sox) to a disaster he'd never seen coming.

Then here came Joe Torre, stalking toward the mound. And Chan Ho Park was trotting out of the bullpen. And the 45,839 occupants of his favorite ballpark were working on a serious case of mass laryngitis. Whew. How had it all changed on him so fast?

"Things happen quick in this game of baseball," said Victorino. "A lot of times, in any sport, momentum shifts sometimes off a simple mistake, or a big home run, or a big pitch. In this case, that Furcal error just swayed it a little bit our way. And then Chase came up with the big home run. And you could feel it in the air."

But what, exactly, were they feeling? On one hand, this game still exposed the Phillies' biggest areas of vulnerabilities. They scored just three runs. They scored in only one inning (for the fourth time in five postseason games). And they scored only via the home run (which has accounted for 12 of their 18 October runs so far). But they didn't seem too devastated by any of that.

"A win is a win is a win," laughed hitting coach Milt Thompson. "The object is to score more runs than the other team."

On the other hand, the Phillies did find a way to beat a pitcher who was 5-0, with a 0.85 ERA, against them in his previous seven starts. And their heretofore missing-in-action middle of the order generated all three runs (after hitting a combined .184 in the LDS). And above all, the Phillies again did what they've been doing best for four weeks now -- finding some way, somehow, to scramble from behind and win.

"I've seen this so many times," said closer Brad Lidge, who spun off a 1-2-3 ninth in his first NLCS appearance since his meltdown in The Albert Pujols Game. "We can be down, five or six runs, and mentally, I'm thinking what do I have to do to get ready [for a save opportunity] when we come back and take the lead, because we've done it so many times."

The Phillies seem like the underdog in this series. Yet they're now 4-1 in this postseason, and 17-4 in their past 21 games. And you know that Aug. 30 date when the Dodgers turned on the jets to go 22-9? The Phillies actually have an even better record since then (23-9).

And the really terrifying thing for the rest of the October field is: The more they rise up to win games like this, the more dangerous they look.

"Confidence," said Jimmy Rollins. "It's confidence. We all look for the big moment. There's no doubt about that. We're not afraid of it. We all want to join the party."

Well, the party was raging in South Philadelphia on this night, thanks to a couple of hanging sinkers and a ballpark where hanging sinkers go to die. But somehow, this felt like more than that -- even to the losing pitcher.

"That," said Derek Lowe, "is a real good team over there."

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