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Friday, October 16, 2009
Updated: October 17, 8:01 AM ET
When Pedro's away, Dodgers play

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- He watched the final out of his magical 1999-revisited afternoon settle into the glove of Shane Victorino. Then the great Pedro Martinez turned and headed for the dugout, his special day in the October sunshine etched into the history books.

For seven astonishing shutout innings Friday, this had been his day, his show. For seven astonishing innings, he was a man able to make four different pitches go dancing with the stars.

And across the field, as the Los Angeles Dodgers watched Martinez's Phillies teammates line up for a procession of grateful hugs and high fives, these men who'd just been carved up for seven two-hit innings by this guy had one unanimous reaction:

PHEW.

Asked later whether he felt a profound sense of relief to see Pedro turn this game over to his bullpen buddies with just a slim 1-0 lead, Dodgers manager Joe Torre could only shake his head and sum it up in three words:

"You have to."

We'll never know how Game 2 of the National League Championship Series might have turned out if Martinez weren't 37 years old. We'll never know what might have been if 87 pitches, on a sun-scorched afternoon, hadn't been all his manager thought he had in him.

All we know is what happened next. And the moment Pedro's day was done, a pivotal October baseball game turned before our eyes. And the Dodgers' season turned right along with it.

After spending the first two hours of their day going 2-for-20 against Martinez, the Dodgers rose from the dead to beat the Phillies 2-1 and even this NLCS at one win apiece.

And here, in case you're wondering, is what that means:

Ten previous times since the LCS went to best-of-seven, a team had lost the first two games at home. Those teams went 0-10 in those series. And that ain't good.

But when the home team splits those first two games, it's officially alive and well. That has happened 26 previous times -- and those teams have gone 16-10 in those series. So do that math: 0-and-10 versus 16-and-10. Get the picture?

"It makes a huge difference," Dodgers catcher Brad Ausmus said after his team's 45th comeback win of the year. "When you're 1-and-1, that's a whole lot better than 0-and-2, when you're about to be the visiting team for the next three games in a row, in a stadium that has the most boisterous home crowd of any stadium in the major leagues."

You never know exactly how much any crowd, any stadium, alters the course of baseball events. But on this day, those 56,000 occupants of Dodger Stadium never sounded louder or more intimidating. And the whole vibe in a jam-packed ballpark seemed to change.

Pedro Martinez
Pedro Martinez permitted only two singles over seven shutout innings at Dodger Stadium.

As the bottom of the eighth dawned, Thursday's bullpen hero, Chan Ho Park, jogged in to relieve Martinez. Meanwhile, as Park began to throw, "Don't Stop Believin'" crashed through the stadium P.A. system, at a decibel level that must have knocked bricks off a few chimneys in Santa Barbara.

Kobe Bryant, in the seats alongside Frank McCourt and Tommy Lasorda, formed an "L.A." sign with his hands on the Diamond Vision, to raucous cheers. Then cult-hero actor/musician Jameson Moss lurched into his now-famous rev-it-up lip-sync act, as the half-century-old ballpark rattled with energy.

And six outs from digging a canyon for themselves that's a whole lot deeper than Topanga, the Dodgers geared up to do what they always do -- play their butts off till the 27th out.

"It's unbelievable how many times this team has done this," said Ausmus, a member of the 2005 Astros team that made just as magical a run to the World Series. "This team doesn't ever give up. In fact, the concentration level almost seems to increase as the game goes on. Some teams might get down a few runs after five or six innings and go through the motions. Not this team. They play until the other team beats them or until they come back and win."

Nine previous times this year, counting the postseason, the Dodgers had trailed heading into the eighth inning and found a way to win. No. 10 was coming right up.

"We've been doing it all year, it seems like," Dodgers catcher Russell Martin said. "We're relentless. We never give up. We go out and play 27 outs, and whatever happens happens."

But what happened on this day defined the narrow difference between October glory and October heartbreak. Some days, you win with thunder. Some days, you win with walk-off homers soaring through the L.A. haze.

And then there are days like this one, when every star in the sky seems to line up and allow it all to happen -- one bounce, one break, one perfect spin of the baseball at a time.

Game-Changing Play No. 1: Casey Blake leads off the eighth with a bouncer to third base. It looks like a routine out. But Phillies third baseman Pedro Feliz is guarding the line, then can't pick up the ball through the afternoon shadows. It ticks off his glove for a single. Asked later whether the shadows had been a factor, Feliz says: "The shadow was there, but I don't like to make an excuse. He hit it over there. I couldn't get it."

Game-Changing Play No. 2: Ronnie Belliard tries to bunt pinch-runner Juan Pierre over -- and pushes the bunt just past charging Park into the Bermuda Triangle between the mound and first base. Belliard sprints down the line, applauding himself. Everybody's safe. First and second.

Game-Changing Play No. 3: Martin fails to get another bunt down, then bounces a ball to third base that's a double-play ball 999 times out of every 1,000. But not this time. Chase Utley, less than 20 hours removed from throwing away a double-play relay the night before, sends this throw sailing off toward Chula Vista. It clangs off the dugout railing. And Pierre sprints home, clapping his way across the plate.

"When I hit it," Martin would say afterward, "all I could say was, 'Dang it … double play.' But I got lucky. We got lucky."

It's a funny thing, but down the hall, in the other clubhouse, that same word came out of the mouth of the pitcher who threw the pitch -- except in a whole different tone of voice.

"We just didn't get enough luck," Park said softly. "Three ground balls."

An inch here, an inch there, a zig here, a zag there, and this inning's over. But the Phillies couldn't blame this entire mess on luck -- because their All-Star second baseman should have made this play.

Torre theorized later that Belliard's hard takeout slide had caused Utley to rush. But the replay didn't indicate anything of the sort. And Utley wasn't in a mood to rationalize.

"It was a good throw [from Feliz]," he said. "I had plenty of time to turn it. I just didn't make a good throw."

Out of nowhere, Utley's throwing has turned into an issue in the past couple of weeks. He made only four throwing errors all season. But he has made two in two games in this series, and he looked uncharacteristically shaky just making routine throws to first base.

"He can correct that," said his manager, Charlie Manuel. "Chase is better than that. … But at the same time, I've got a lot of faith in him. He's the one guy in the world that will work on it and correct it. It's Chase Utley. Sometimes, that's just the way the game goes."

But whatever is going on inside Utley, this was the kind of error that can live on in highlight -- or lowlight -- videos for a century. And if the Phillies don't go on to win this series, this was a moment of ugliness that Utley's town will take a long time to forget.

From there, the Dodgers just rode the wave, as Manuel launched into his always-harrowing daily game of Bullpen Roulette. Lefthander Scott Eyre served up a pinch single to ex-Phillies bopper Jim Thome. Suddenly slumping right-hander Ryan Madson issued a five-pitch walk to Rafael Furcal. Bases loaded.

Madson did reach back next to strike out Matt Kemp for the second out. But Manuel then hopped out of the dugout one more time and waved for left-hander J.A. Happ to face Andre Ethier.

On one hand, it was the move to make. Ethier, after all, hit .302 against right-handers this year and .194 against left-handers. On the other hand, Happ has been a starter almost his entire career. And when asked about the last time he was brought into a game with the bases loaded before he found himself in the middle of this fun little adventure, Happ replied: "Well, not recently."

"But it was exciting," he said. "I felt fine about it. … I was ready. No excuses."

Kobe Bryant
The crowd was loud in L.A. for Game 2, and those making the noise included a familiar face -- Kobe Bryant.

Happ powered three straight fastballs up there and burst ahead in the count, 1-and-2. But plate ump Bruce Dreckman decided his next pitch, a diving changeup, was just outside. Then a fastball at the shins ran the count full. And Ethier stepped out of the box and took a long, deep breath.

The shadows had creeped across the mound. "It had to be tough to see," Torre said. "He laid off, it looked like, some tough pitches away. And at 3-and-2, it's tough, when your mentality is swing, swing, swing, to take a pitch."

But Ethier reminded the world he came up through the system of the Oakland A's, where "work the count" is a more familiar refrain than "three strikes, you're out."

"So you've got to compose yourself right there," he said, "and relax, and realize what the task is here -- to score that guy from third in any way possible."

Turned out that way was merely to step back in and watch a four-seam fastball sail inches low. And the Dodgers had just grabbed their first lead of the day -- in about the most improbable way imaginable.

Happ faced 15 hitters with the bases loaded this season -- and didn't walk any of them. And only five previous times in postseason history had a team taken the lead in the eighth inning or later on a bases-loaded walk.

This was the first of those walks to come on a 3-2 count since Steve Avery walked Wade Boggs in the 10th inning of the unforgettable fourth game of the 1996 World Series -- aka "The Jim Leyritz Game." So needless to say, this was one October plot line you sure don't see every darned day.

But it worked for the Dodgers. Closer Jonathan Broxton did the rest, zipping through a 1-2-3 ninth. So the Dodgers were back in this series. And their clubhouse rocked with life after this amazing comeback.

"We've done this before," said Ethier, whose six walk-off hits this year led the major leagues. "But this was one of those games where, even at the end, the game's done, and you can still feel a few little shakes of emotion still going."

"When you get wins like this," Thome said, "you try to cherish them and build off them. You try to keep that kind of feeling as long as you can. And when you win like this, you take them however you get them."

Maybe this was the springboard to the Dodgers' first World Series journey since the days of Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershiser. Maybe the Phillies will head home and remember how champions are supposed to play. But whatever, we have ourselves a series going. And nobody should have expected anything less.

"This game just shows how close these teams are and how close the game is," Madson said. "They always say the game is a matter of inches. And it is. Our teams are closely matched. So we never thought this would be a blowout series. It's going to come down to a pitch or two every game. And that's the way it's supposed to be.

"Sometimes you win the battle. And sometimes you don't."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.