Commentary

No ordinary come-from-behind win for the Phillies

Originally Published: October 13, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- The magic of October is that you can't script it, you can't predict it, you can't even explain it.

So who wrote this script? Who predicted this finish? Who can explain the unbelievable chain of events that have led the Phillies to the brink of their first World Series journey in 15 years?

A game-winning, pinch-hit home run by a 40-year-old guy who hadn't gotten a hit all month?

A game-losing, series-altering gopher ball by a pitcher who hadn't served up a home run in his home ballpark in so long, the Dow has dropped about 5,000 points since then?

A game-tying homer by the biggest villain in town, a fellow who is about as popular in Los Angeles these days as gas prices?

A heart-pumping, four-out save by a closer who hadn't gotten a four-out save since July 26, 2006?

And that, friends, is just the CliffsNotes version of an October baseball game that will rattle around the memory banks for decades.

It was Game 4 of the National League Championship Series -- a rampaging roller-coaster ride of a ballgame that spun your insides around for 3 hours and 44 spine-tingling minutes, until somehow, it wound up Phillies 7, Dodgers 5 late on a pulsating Monday night in southern California.

So let's sum up quickly what all this means: The Phillies now lead this series 3-1 with their best pitcher (Cole Hamels) lined up to pitch Game 5 on Wednesday with two games at home this weekend as their safety valve.

They are one win away from a shot at winning the second World Series in the 126 seasons in franchise history. But on a crazy Monday night in Chavez Ravine, they were five outs away from a very different place.

They were five outs away from a crushing loss, a loss that would have evened this series at two wins apiece, a loss that would have brought all the tragic moments from their star-crossed history showering down on all their heads.

But this is a team that doesn't think that way. This is a team that thinks two-run, eighth-inning deficits are just the perfect launching pad to kick off their latest miracle comeback.

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"This team's amazing," closer Brad Lidge said in a raucous October clubhouse. "I don't care if we're down by 10 runs. If there's two innings left, we just believe that somehow, some way, we're going to catch up. No matter how many runs we're down by, I'm still thinking I'm going to come into the game."

They've now won six games this year when they've trailed by two runs or more in the eighth inning or later. But they'll have a tough time topping this comeback on their all-time degree-of-difficulty list.

By the time L.A.'s least-favorite Phillie, Shane Victorino, headed for home plate in the eighth, his team had already blitzed through the heart of its bullpen, blown out most of its bench, coughed up an early two-run lead and dug a two-run sixth-inning hole on a gruesome Ryan Howard error. Little did the Dodgers know this team had them right where it wanted them, right?

"That's what it's about," Victorino would say later, his heart still thumping with excitement. "It's about 25 guys going out there and never giving up. I mean, look at [Monday night]. I can't even say who was left on the bench. I think [Chris Coste] was our only guy. And who was left in the bullpen -- was it just [Clay] Condrey and [J.A.] Happ? But that's the kind of game it was. It was worrying about what was going on at the moment."

And what was going on at the moment Victorino dug in against reliever Cory Wade was exactly what's been going on for two crazy days now:

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

The man who took on Hiroki Kuroda -- and, by extension, the entire population of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, right down to Barbra Streisand -- on Sunday wouldn't be a good candidate to run for mayor of L.A. right now. And his Flyin' Hawaiian bobble figurine wouldn't figure to be a real hot item, either, come to think of it.

"Yeah, it would," said Victorino's buddy, Jimmy Rollins. "So they could throw it off the top of the ravine."

[+] EnlargeMatt Stairs
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesMatt Stairs hasn't had a hit this month, so naturally he came off the bench and connected on a pinch-hit, two-run shot to lift the Phillies past the Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLCS.
But if Victorino was that beloved before this at-bat, he elevated himself to the Villain of the Century one pitch later.

Wade -- a fellow who hadn't given up a home run to any of the previous 84 hitters he'd faced, dating all the way back to Aug. 28 -- hung a breaking ball. And Victorino sliced it through the California night, toward deep right field. Was it going to drop? Was it going to carry to the track? Was it going to clank off the fence? Was it -- huh? -- somehow flying right over the bullpen gate and tying this game? Yep. Sure was.

"It's funny," said Lidge, one of the few remaining occupants of the Phillies' bullpen, of the moment he saw that baseball heading his way. "I'd actually just told J.A. Happ that Shane was about to hit a double down the line. And Happ about freaked out when that ball was halfway out there. Then it cleared the fence, and we both freaked out. It only missed [catcher] Lou Marson's head by about six inches."

Victorino pumped his fist emotionally on a frantic, pulse-racing trip around the bases. The Phillies' bench looked like Mardi Gras had just busted out. And every decibel of noise seemed to be vacuumed out of shell-shocked Dodger Stadium.

Even up in the clubhouse, where a group of already-used Phillies pitchers were watching on TV, shock was the operative word.

"The crazy thing is," said left-hander Scott Eyre, "is that, honestly, we talked about it in the bullpen. Chad Durbin said, 'Wouldn't it be unbelievable if Shane hit one into the bullpen after what happened the last couple of days?' And wouldn't you know, he did."

As Victorino sprinted around the bases, Rollins said the only thing he could think of was a story Willie Mays told when they were both guests on a "Costas Now" HBO show this summer. He couldn't remember every detail -- just the part about how the fans kept booing Mays, and Mays kept driving in runs until "the announcer came over the loudspeaker and said, 'Please stop booing, 'cause he's killing us.'"

But in reality, it wasn't Shane Victorino's homer that was the killer. All his home run did was downgrade the Dodgers to guarded but stable condition, because even after it landed, this game was only tied. In fact, it was the next home run that kicked the Dodgers over the cliff.

And the next home run came three hitters later, in an even less likely scenario. With two outs and Carlos Ruiz on first, veteran let-it-fly pinch-hitter Matt Stairs popped into the on-deck circle. So even though it was only the eighth inning, Joe Torre waved for his closer, the almost-unhittable Jonathan Broxton.

[+] EnlargeShane Victorino
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonShane Victorino was already a villain after his run-in with Hiroki Kuroda in Game 3. A game-tying homer in Game 4 didn't help his popularity in L.A.
And why wouldn't he? Broxton had faced 16 hitters this October -- and given up a hit to precisely one of them. So while this wasn't quite the same thing as Torre waving for The Great Mariano, it was as close as he could get in the Pacific time zone.

Stairs, meanwhile, wasn't quite Kirk Gibson, staggering toward home plate. But he hadn't exactly been doing much of a Reggie Jackson impression this month, either.

He'd batted precisely two times in this postseason -- the most recent eight days earlier. He had zero hits. And, thanks to a double-play ball, he'd produced more outs (three) than plate appearances (two).

This wasn't his first October rodeo. But in his three career trips to the postseason -- with the '95 Red Sox, the 2000 A's and this year's Phillies -- he was only 1-for-12. His last hit was a double off Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez -- eight years ago.

But this, said Rollins, "is why we brought him here."

Yep. He was in this time and place because the Phillies claimed him on waivers from the Blue Jays and were able to work out a trade on Aug. 30, barely before the postseason-eligibility deadline. So here he was, a man who hadn't played a single game for this team before Sept. 1, about to rewrite Phillies history.

He worked the count to 3-1. So Broxton reached back and did what he had to do: Fire his best 95-mph inferno right down the middle and dare Matt Stairs to hit it.

At his best, Broxton can be so untouchable that "you can get a ball like that a thousand times -- and HIT a ball like that maybe like 10 times," Rollins said. "But [Monday] was that night. He hit it."

Yeah, Stairs hit it, all right. He hit it so high and so far to deep right field that at first, said Howard, "I thought it was going to leave the park and hit the roof." Instead, it "only" came down two-thirds of the way up the right-field pavilion -- a mammoth blast in this park. And as that baseball finally settled into those far-away seats, folks from Chavez Ravine to Cheltenham needed a moment -- or maybe an eternity -- to make sense of what they'd all just witnessed.

You have to go all the way back to Tito Landrum, of the 1983 Orioles, to find a player who hit a game-winning October home run this late in a game after not playing a single game for his team before September.

And you won't find anybody -- anybody EVER -- who hit a postseason home run of this magnitude after playing as few regular-season games for their team as Stairs did for this team (16).

Meanwhile, Broxton hadn't given up a home run -- to anybody, anywhere -- since May 31. That was 217 hitters ago. And he hadn't served up a home run in this park -- his park -- since July 24, 2006.

So how did this happen, exactly? How was this possible, this epic homer by a 40-year-old man who'd been sitting around watching for three hours?

"Hey, have you followed Matt Stairs' career?" laughed reliever J.C. Romero. "Everyone knows what he's capable of doing -- at 20, at 30, at 40. If you throw him a fastball, he can make you look real bad."

And he can do that because he has just one mission in life every time he heads for home plate: "I'm not going to lie," Stairs said. "I try to hit home runs. And that's it."

But of all those home runs he's hit -- all 254 of them -- there has never been one like this one. An October game-winner off one of the best closers in America? At 40 years old? This one, Stairs said, "is definitely the top pinch-hit home run of my career."

Just don't call it a dream come true. Asked if he'd ever dreamed of hitting THIS home run, Stairs thought he'd better remind the world of something important: He's a Canadian.

"Welllllll," he chuckled, "I've probably been dreaming of scoring on a breakaway. In case you didn't know, I'm kind of a big hockey fan."

OK, sorry. This was no Stanley Cup. But it was a stunning October moment, a fittingly Hollywood shocker to decide a remarkable October baseball game.

But even the best scriptwriters in town couldn't have dreamed this one up. Shane Victorino and Matt Stairs hitting the home runs that shook the world?

"Hey, the postseason makes heroes, man," Eyre said. "When you do it in the postseason, everyone knows who you are."

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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