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Sunday, October 26, 2008
Updated: October 27, 1:32 PM ET
Anger, pain washing away as Phillies stand on brink of title

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- They stood there in the ninth inning -- all 45,903 of them. They swirled their rally towels in the October night. They shredded what was left of their vocal cords. They counted down the outs.

Many of these red-shirted souls have waited a generation for this moment to come around again, just once. Many more have spent their whole lives wondering what it would feel like.

One win away.

In Philadelphia, nothing is ever certain. Nothing ever feels safe. Not when your team is the losingest franchise in the history of pro sports. Not when its fabled collapses are far more legendary than its one moment of triumph.

But in Citizens Bank Park, on this perfect autumn Sunday evening, all those usual fears, all that traditional dread, seemed to dissolve into the euphoria of a night millions of Philadelphians are almost completely unfamiliar with.

One win away.

The Phillies hung a 10-2 whomping on that team from Tampa Bay on Sunday in Game 4 of a World Series that could redefine the psyche of an entire city. So the Phillies now lead this Series 3-1 with their ace, Cole Hamels, about to head for the mound Monday with a chance to seal this deal.

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If they were in the script-writing business, this is the script they would write for themselves -- handing the baseball to a guy who has already won four games this October, with a chance to win the World Series in the place they'd most like to win it.

In this town. Their town. A town that no longer looks at them and wonders how they will break all those millions of hearts. Again.

"I went out to throw a bullpen today," said pitcher Brett Myers, a man who has dreamed of this night for seven seasons. "And I heard one of the greatest things I've heard in a long time.

"It's 4:15 in the afternoon. The Eagles are playing across the street. There's 2 minutes left. And I'm hearing Phillies chants. And that's weird, man. I'm used to hearing Eagles chants all these years. So to hear that, it gave me chills. It told me, 'These people are ready to go.'"

Yeah, they couldn't be more ready, in fact. Not after waiting 28 years for their baseball team to get back into this position. Not after waiting 25 years for ANY of their stinking teams, in any sport, to win a championship.

So the love pours out of every corner of this ballpark now. In Philadelphia, of all places. What a concept.

But you don't have to look too far over your shoulder to remember it hasn't always been a lovefest, between this team and this town. These players have heard many, many sounds come wafting out of these seats over the years. And they sure weren't the same sounds they've been hearing through this magical October.

So when they look now into the faces of the people in those seats, they're astonished by what they see.

"It's awesome," third baseman Greg Dobbs said. "You can see the excitement, the intensity, the passion, the anticipation. You can see the sheer joy on people's faces. It's a great thing to see."

Then again, these people haven't seen their baseball team lose in person for a long, long time now. Since Sept. 24, to be exact -- a 10-4 regular-season loss to Atlanta.

Since then, the Phillies have won nine home games in a row. The first three of those wins, against Washington, clinched the NL East in the final weekend of the season. The past six have all come in October, against the Brewers, Dodgers and Rays.

A win Monday would make the Phillies the first team since the '99 Yankees to win a World Series while going undefeated in their home park in the postseason.

Joe Blanton
Joe Blanton did damage at the plate, hitting a solo shot to left field as part of the Phillies' four-homer barrage in Game 4.
But one win away isn't the same thing as no wins away. And there wasn't a voice in that locker room Sunday night that didn't make sure to point that out.

"I've been here before, one win away," said reliever Scott Eyre, a member of a 2002 Giants team that lost Games 6 and 7 to the Angels. "And I really don't want to experience what happened then."

"I'm trying not to look too far ahead because that's a good team we're playing," Myers said. "That team is very capable of winning three straight. They won 97 games this year. ... So yeah, it's exciting. But at the same time, I'm trying to control the excitement, because we still have a job to do. It's not over yet."

Nevertheless, every night, something seems to happen to this team that has no logical business happening. You would have thought the Phillies couldn't possibly top winning Game 1 while going 0-for-13 with men in scoring position. Then you would have thought they couldn't possibly do anything stranger than winning Game 3 on a 60-foot dribbler at 1:47 a.m.

But they might just have pulled off the all-timer in Game 4.

A home run by Joltin' Joe Blanton?

In a World Series game?

C'mon. Who wrote this screenplay? Will Ferrell?

"I just close my eyes and swing hard in case I make contact," Game 4's unlikely home run hero said. "That's really the only thing I can say."

And when, he was asked, did he think it was safe to open those eyes again?

"I think when I went out and had to throw the next warm-up pitch in the next inning," Blanton said.

All right, let's try to assess what exactly happened here. No pitcher -- AL or NL -- had launched a home run in a World Series game in 34 years, since Oakland's Ken Holtzman got to unveil his trot in 1974. Since then, those sweet-swinging pitchers marching toward home plate had gone a scenic 40-for-424 -- which computes to a batting average of .094 if you're calculating along at your cubicle.

Meanwhile, no National League pitcher had hit a World Series homer in four decades -- since Bob Gibson did it way back in 1968. So you had to figure that was going to change one of these Octobers.

But c'mon. Joe Blanton? A guy with two hits in his whole career (in 33 at-bats)? A guy with no home runs at any professional level? A guy who had never even swatted an extra-base hit?

How'd that happen?

"You know, I told him after his first couple of at-bats that he was trying to hit the deep ball," Blanton's buddy, Myers, deadpanned. "So I told him, 'Just try to stay short and sweet, like you do in BP. Try to go back up the middle.' Well, I don't think I got through to him."

Yeah, that's safe to say.

Joe Blanton
Joe Blanton also did some pitching in Game 4, taking good care of the lead handed to him by all those homers -- including the one he hit.
Blanton's thunderous fifth-inning hack was about as short and sweet as an 18-wheeler. Rays reliever Edwin Jackson fed him a 93-mph flameball. And Blanton rocked the house with a massive shot over the flower pots in left-center, as his ballpark shook and his many admirers in uniform almost keeled over.

Uh, wait. Cancel that "almost."

"I fell off my chair in the bullpen," reliever Clay Condrey said. "I mean it. I fell right off my chair."

There are moments in the life of every team that make its players wonder if something is going on that is bigger than themselves. There are always things that happen to teams on this kind of roll that feel as if it's all meant to be.

"You know, I'm beginning to think that that was one of those things -- a special thing that shouldn't have happened, that did," Eyre said.

Oh, a lot of other stuff happened in this game, we should probably add. And most of it was, to be honest, more important stuff than Joe Blanton's homer.

There were two Ryan Howard homers, for one thing -- including a three-run, opposite-field mash in the fourth inning that busted open what had been a tense 2-1 game. Those homers made Howard the first player in history to hit two home runs in a World Series game the same year in which he led the major leagues in homers.

There was also a fourth Phillies homer, by Jayson Werth in the eighth. And that made the Phillies the first team ever to hit four home runs in the same World Series game off four different pitchers.

And there was the other half of Joe Blanton's act -- the half in which he did his day job, his mound job, about as well as it could be done.

He got them all the way to the seventh inning, as all four Phillies starters have done in this World Series, allowing only four hits and two runs. And his seven strikeouts were the fourth-most in history by a pitcher who also hit a World Series homer.

It was almost enough to make you forget that back in July, when the Phillies traded for Joe Blanton, he was viewed by the populace as the not-so-glamorous bargain-bin alternative to the pitchers his new town really wanted -- CC Sabathia and Rich Harden. But the guy from the bargain bin is looking a lot better these days.

The Phillies have gone 12-4 in games he has started, including seven wins in a row. Blanton is now 3-0 in October, with a 3.18 ERA. And on Sunday, he became just the second pitcher in the past 31 years to get traded in midseason and win a World Series game. (The other: Jeff Weaver, for the 2006 Cardinals.)

"He did exactly what we needed him to do," Myers said. "He was awesome [on Sunday]."

What they needed him to do, of course, was get them to the place they will find themselves Monday. One win away.

Myers actually choked up with emotion Sunday as he thought about what this ballpark might look like and feel like with that title so close.

Howard contemplated what loomed just over that horizon and predicted: "This could be the craziest city in the world."

"I think it will be absolutely nuts," Dobbs said. "I think this city could explode the top right off. So you might want to hide. I don't want you to get crushed -- because then, who would write the story?"

Well, how about the man across his own locker room -- the one Phillie old enough to remember what a World Series parade looks like, the one Phillie who grew up right down the road and actually attended that World Series parade in 1980: Jamie Moyer.

"You know," Moyer said, "I think maybe because it took so long, there's a greater appreciation if it does happen. Sometimes, the longer you wait for things, the more you appreciate them."

Well, if that's true, it will be fascinating to see what unfolds in Citizens Bank Park on a Monday night that millions of Philadelphians have awaited for what feels like 98 centuries. Because now they're here. Finally.

One win away.

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.