Sunday, September 30, 2007
Updated: October 1, 8:43 AM ET
Phillies somehow make the impossible happen
By Jayson Stark
PHILADELPHIA -- Every once in a while in sports, stuff happens that just can't happen. Can't. Shouldn't. Doesn't feel like it happened even after it happened.
We think we've just witnessed another insane, improbable example of that phenomenon -- the tale of the 2007 Phillies.
We know they won the NL East on Sunday. We know they beat those cooperative Washington Nationals, 6-1. We saw it happen. Saw the man who threw the final pitch, Brett Myers, fire his glove into the sky. Saw the fireworks erupt above him. Felt the stadium gyrate. Saw the champagne spray.
But even after seeing all that, we found ourselves asking: What just happened?
Didn't the Mets just lead this team by seven games, not even three weeks ago?
Wasn't this a team with a 4.73 staff ERA, a team that gave up 821 runs this year, a team everybody in the entire United States of America knew didn't have enough pitching to win?
Wasn't this a team that -- considering it just finished a season in which it put five starting pitchers, two closers, the incumbent MVP and the guy who seemed destined to become this year's MVP on the disabled list -- needed a trainer's room the size of Fairmount Park?
Wasn't this a team managed by Charlie Manuel, a fellow whose city concluded, about 12 seconds after he came to town, that he couldn't manage a car wash, let alone a division champion?
Wasn't this a team that played in a football town, a town that long ago decided the local baseball team wasn't ever going to win anything in the next 10 or 12 centuries?
So how do we explain what just happened here? How do we explain the most improbable September comeback of all time, happening to this team? How do we explain these miracles of sports, when this stuff that can't happen somehow does?
"I don't know how to explain it," said Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, the man who clearly saw this coming months before anyone else, the man who said back in January that this was The Team To Beat. "I don't know why you feel certain things or why things happen. But I just felt that way. Something came over me. The question was asked. And I just said yes, I feel we're the team to beat. ... And in the end, that's how things happened."
Those things couldn't have happened without a whole lot of self-destruction from those star-crossed front-runners, the Mets, of course. Those things couldn't have happened if the Mets hadn't become the first team in history to make a seven-game lead vaporize in the final 17 games of a season.
But if you go through the great collapses in sports, you'll find one thing in common:
There has always been more than one actor in every one of those shows.
You can't collapse unless there's someone there to catch you. You can't finish second unless someone else roars out of your rearview mirror to finish first.
So while much of the hemisphere will choose to remember what transpired here as a monumental el foldo by the Mets, there will always be another side to this story.
There will always be this Phillies team, a team that went 13-4 down the stretch as those Mets were going 5-12. A team that glued itself closer together as those Mets fell apart. A team that couldn't possibly win -- not logically, not even mathematically -- but did.
Remember, this team led in the standings for precisely one day all season until the moment it started shooting that champagne around the room. The only other National League team in history to do that, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, was the 1951 Bobby Thomson Giants -- another team that had people asking: What just happened?
|Phillies closer Brett Myers celebrates after recording the final out Sunday to secure the NL East title.|
Well, when stuff like this does happen -- this stuff that defies all sense of what's probable, or even possible -- there is always more to it than the names on the scorecard, or the numbers on the stat sheet.
"You know what?" said Manuel on Sunday. "We love to play. If you watch us play, our players really love to play. I've been around a lot of teams. And this team here, as far as chemistry goes, is definitely the best [of any] team I've ever been around.
"And I think who we have and how they play, our chemistry, our atmosphere which comes from the guys on this team, is what definitely made the difference in pulling this off. I think some of the teams I've had before were divided at times. But this team right here is a team that stayed together."
That was never how it used to be, you realize. For years, this was a team whose reputation was the mirror image of the 2007 version. All those teams heard, for years, was that they "didn't know how to win." Or didn't know how to win when they most needed to win. Or something like that.
The GM who put this team together, Pat Gillick, made his share of moves that didn't work. No doubt about that. But he's gotten no credit for the best thing he did -- consciously remaking this club's chemistry, deliberately building around energizers like Rollins, Chase Utley and Aaron Rowand.
"This is a big-game club now," said Myers. "I think we relish these situations, of being in big games when they count. I think we play better when we're relaxed. And I think we felt like we had nothing to lose coming into these last two weeks.
"I don't think anybody in here was pressing, especially compared with the past couple of years when I've been here and we've been so close and came up short. I think there are a lot of guys here who have been through that. And we're just like, we've seen how that is and how that feels, and it's not fun. And we've seen how tense we get -- like, we've gotta win, we've gotta win, we've gotta win. ... And it's just different now."
We'll never be able to measure how much of that difference is a product of the never-ending positive energy that flows out of the local shortstop. But let's just say they're related developments.
On Sunday, Rollins was one of the last Phillies to arrive at the ballpark -- to the point where Manuel gently kidded him beforehand: "Hey, you gonna play today?"
Rollins flashed that smile that almost never leaves his face. Was he going to play? Yeah, right. His team had teed it up for 161 games before this one. The shortstop had started all 161. So "yeah," he laughed. "I'm gonna play."
By the time he reached home plate in the bottom of the first inning, the framework for this outrageous plot was already in place -- right there on the out-of-town scoreboard in front of him, a board that read: "FLA 7, NYM 0."
"That was the first standing O for an out-of-town scoreboard that I've ever heard," said third baseman Greg Dobbs.
But the Phillies still needed to do something about their own end of the scoreboard. And that's all Rollins could think about as he rocked in the batter's box.
"I was trying to figure out, how was I going to get it started," Rollins would say later. "I was thinking about it all last night, and I really couldn't come up with any answers. You know, yesterday, we just kind of came out dry. You know, there was no pressure: If we lose, we still have tomorrow. If we win, we've still got to play tomorrow. But we didn't have that option today. And I was just trying to get things done."
He knew he was only 2-for-14 lifetime against Washington starter Jason Bergmann. So it wasn't as if there was some "Get It Started" button he could push. But he decided to search for one anyhow.
"I came in there and ate like two bites of an omelette," Rollins said. "I didn't have much of an appetite. I just sat there and watched how he pitched, how he pitched, how he works and how he works. And when I got on base, I was going to do whatever it took to score a run."
He got on base with a line-drive single to center, six pitches into the game. Three pitches after that, he was on second with his 40th stolen base of the year. Eight pitches after that, he was on third with steal No. 41. Two pitches after that, he was crossing home plate on a sacrifice fly by Utley.
I've been around a lot of teams. And this team here, as far as chemistry goes, is definitely the best [of any] team I've ever been around. ... I think some of the teams I've had before were divided at times. But this team right here is a team that stayed together.
--Phillies manager Charlie Manuel
"And I think that allowed everybody to relax just a little bit," Rollins said, "and just play baseball the rest of the game."
That wasn't the end of Rollins' MVP highlight reel, though. There was a walk and another run scored (No. 139) in the third inning. And there was the dramatic pinnacle of his day -- an RBI triple in his 716th and final at-bat of the season, a triple that propelled him into the fabled 20-double, 20-triple, 20-homer, 20-steal club, alongside Willie Mays, Curtis Granderson and good old Wildfire Schulte.
It looked and felt like one of those "This Is What MVPs Do" video clips. But Rollins plans to leave the MVP arguments to someone else.
"I don't vote," he said the other day. "I just play. And I play to win."
But what he has always needed most, what all the thumpers in his lineup have always needed most to make that winning possible, wasn't more runs on the scoreboard. It was finding a few pitchers who could keep the other guys' runs off that scoreboard. And as you may have heard, that's been kind of a problem.
The Phillies' 4.73 team ERA is the highest of any NL playoff team in history that didn't play in scenic, altitudinous Denver, Colo. Those 821 runs they allowed are the most by any NL playoff team ever.
But the 820 they gave up over the first 161 games didn't matter a whole lot Sunday. All that mattered was that the guy they handed the ball to in Game 162 was just as determined not to let them lose.
That was 44-year-old Jamie Moyer, a man whose trip to that mound Sunday was poetically perfect for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, Moyer was the only player in uniform who could actually remember the last (and only time) the Phillies won a World Series. He was a 17-year-old kid from nearby Souderton, Pa., back in 1980 -- and blew off school to watch the parade.
"You know, we had a team meeting last year when we were going down the stretch, and I got to speak and share some things," Moyer said. "And I told these guys the last time I was involved with a parade, I was in high school and I skipped school to go watch it. And I said I'd like to go down Broad Street for a parade again some day -- except this time I'd like to be riding in one of those floats."
|Jimmy Rollins is in his eighth full season with the Phillies.|
But Moyer's presence on that mound was fitting for reasons beyond his familiarity with parade floats. He was also the only Phillies starter to make it from start to finish this season without a visit to the disabled list, despite the slight technicality that he was the oldest starting pitcher in the league.
Oh. And one more thing: Even though Jamie Moyer was 550 starts into his career, he'd never, ever pitched a game quite like this one.
"I've pitched the last games of a season before," he said, after spinning off 5 1/3 innings of one-run baseball. "But I've never pitched a game at the end of a season that meant more than this."
Then again, just about no one else has, either. If you exclude seasons where both teams involved in a race this close were going to make the playoffs, this was only the second time in the last 25 seasons that two teams came to the park on the final day of a season in a flat tie for first place.
The only other time: 1993, when the Braves and Giants found themselves in that spot, 103 wins apiece into an epic season. Coincidentally, the man who pitched for the Braves that day was Tom Glavine. Which could have made for a special story. But it turned out that the old-timer with the best story on this day was Jamie Moyer.
He pitched the Phillies into the sixth, on the way to becoming the oldest pitcher in history to win a clinching game. Then he handed it over to the three men who have salvaged the Phillies' bullpen in a remarkable September -- Tom Gordon, J.C. Romero and Myers.
And then it was 4:34 p.m. local time. And Myers was spinning the third strike past Wily Mo Pena that finished off this unimaginable saga -- and unleashed a window-rattling roar that announced to the world that Philadelphia was, officially, a baseball town again.
You wouldn't have thought these people would know how to celebrate after all these years. Heck, since the last time the Phillies played a postseason game (1993), 23 other teams have played at least one playoff series. The Yankees alone have been to the playoffs 13 times in all those years when the Phillies didn't tour October once.
But the tears, the hugs and the 44,000 spinning rally towels told you these folks seemed to remember how this worked. And on the field below them, Myers was hurling his glove toward the clouds above -- and the team that made this possible had a pretty good celebration going itself.
"You know what," Myers would say an hour and a half later. "I don't even know where my glove is now. And you know what else? I don't think I care."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.
I've pitched the last games of a season before. But I've never pitched a game at the end of a season that meant more than this.
--Phillies starter Jamie Moyer