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Friday, April 1, 2011
Simply put, Phillies found a way to win

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- They spent eight innings doing their best to turn Opening Day euphoria into panic on the Broad Street Subway.

They fell four runs down to a pitcher they'd once booted out of their very own door. They forgot to score a run while Cy Young was on the mound. The middle-inning underbelly of their bullpen turned a one-run game into a four-run game. And let's just say all this wasn't exactly unfolding in the middle of a meteorological paradise.

But then an amazing thing happened Friday, on Opening Day in Philadelphia: The Phillies found a way.

They pulled a six-hit, three-run, ninth-inning miracle out of their blue caps. A rookie pinch-hitter thumped a walkoff single into the howling breeze. And somehow, an Opening Day disaster in the making had turned into Phillies 5, Astros 4.

Phillies celebrate
The Phillies scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to defeat the Astros on Friday.

"There's no better momentum, going into Day 2," said reliever Ryan Madson, "than that."

On Day 2, another ace (Mr. Clifton P. Lee) will take the ball. And that is the formula the 2011 Phillies have built their season around. But as their spring injuries have mushroomed and the worries about their lineup questions have mounted, their suddenly nervous fan base has had a tough time keeping its cold-beverage mugs half full.

So maybe you can hazard a wild guess about the mood of the populace along about the middle of the seventh inning Friday -- at a time when the Phillies' offense had mustered precisely two hits off their old pal, Brett Myers … and Roy Halladay was long gone … and the score on the giant video board in left read: Astros 4, Phillies 0.

"We had a couple of fans jumping on us right on top of our dugout," said Jimmy Rollins afterward. "It was kind of comical. He said something about American Legion ball and how his team would have done better than that. I don't know. Maybe it inspired us."

When you play in Philadelphia, of course, you can get a lot of practice trying to use encouraging words just like that for inspiration. So who knows what that little pep talk from The People had to do with what transpired Friday.

But in the big picture, it isn't that rally that matters, or that 1-and-0 record that matters, or even the lowering of 2 million fans' blood pressure that matters.

What mattered to this team was that it found a way.

It found a way because that's the M.O. this group has learned to embrace these past four years. The Phillies put 18 different players on the disabled list last season -- and found a way to win 97 games. Now they have Chase Utley on the disabled list, and Jayson Werth working 130 miles down I-95, and their closer (Brad Lidge) talking as though he might not be back until July -- and yet they know the drill. They are still going to find a way.

"That's the belief," Rollins said. "You know, we want to be 100 percent healthy, everybody in their right role right now. But that's not the case. And for the last, I would say, four or five seasons, we've had somebody go down for some significant time, but found a way to win. So whoever takes that role at that moment knows what's expected. They know what this team is supposed to do. And they kind of have that mindset. Now years ago, that wouldn't have been the case."

Years ago, when Rollins arrived in town, this was no baseball nirvana he was joining. The seats were just about as empty as the trophy cases. And all he heard, season after frustrating season, was that he was playing for a team that didn't know how to win.

But four straight first-place finishes have changed all that. So nowadays, when the outside world starts picking apart all his team's nicks, all the dents, all the missing faces, all the things that could go wrong, the men who play the games become more determined than ever to tune out the noise.

And find a way.

So there they were Friday, with Wilson Valdez playing second and Ben Francisco playing right and a mish-mash of a lineup on the field. But the players around them have reached the point where they expect even the most mysterious names on the lineup card to maintain the winning aura they've spent the past four years constructing.

"That's why we have 25 guys on a team," Madson said. "Not five. And not nine. It's 25. And we're all playing for each other. That's really what it amounts to -- to show each other that we're here for each other and to win. That's our one goal."

Now it's not as though the first eight innings of this game never happened. It's not as though the 2011 Phillies don't have potentially serious issues in their bullpen. And it's not as though there aren't legitimate questions about an offense that scored 120 fewer runs last year than it scored in 2007 -- and is now trying to replace its No. 3 and No. 5 hitters (Utley and Werth).

But there are other ways to score without hitting 220 home runs a year. And this is a team that is probably going to have to embrace all of them.

"However we get runs home is how we get runs home," said Ryan Howard, who contributed two singles and a sacrifice fly to the offensive buffet line. "It doesn't really matter. Last year, we had to figure out a different way, because we didn't hit a whole lot of home runs, or as many as we were supposed to, I guess. But we found ways to win ball games. And that's what we've got to do here."

So in the crazy ninth inning, that's exactly what they did. Somehow.

Over the first eight innings, they had sent 29 hitters marching to home plate against Myers and reliever Wilton Lopez -- and gotten four hits.

Then, in the ninth, in marched Astros closer Brandon Lyon. He faced seven Phillies -- and six of them got hits. Try pulling that off on your Xbox 360 sometime. It ain't easy.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was only the seventh game since 2000 in which a team got that many hits (or more) in the ninth inning after getting that few hits (or fewer) over the first eight. And Lyon became just the third pitcher in the live-ball era to allow that many hits in a third of an inning (or less) on Opening Day -- and the first to do it in a save situation.

So this was, officially, one of those rallies no one could possibly have seen coming. But it happened, said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, because: "We played 27 outs. And we stayed in the game. And we played the game completely out. And we didn't panic. And we didn't quit."

Charlie Manuel We played 27 outs. And we stayed in the game. And we played the game completely out. And we didn't panic. And we didn't quit.

-- Phillies manager Charlie Manuel
on his team's Opening Day win

And it didn't hurt that two of the centerpiece players of this team's golden era, Rollins and Howard, were the first two hitters in the ninth. And as Howard nonchalantly phrased it later, "We've been there before."

So as Rollins was about to head for the plate to lead off the ninth, Howard told him: "Just get on base for me, and I'll take it from there." Whereupon Rollins bounced a single through the right side, and the parade of singles was on.

Howard ground his way through a precarious seven-pitch at-bat, then roped the second single of the inning into center field. And the first two men were on.

Then came yet more little ball that you won't find in the Charlie Manuel Guide to Game-Winning Ninth-Inning Rallies. After a Raul Ibanez pop-up, Rollins took off for third, flopped in with what he assumed would be the front end of a double steal, then picked himself up and found Howard still planted on first.

Rollins looked across the diamond, shook his head and flashed his best what's-up-with-that look. But Howard, who stole precisely one base all last year, returned that look with a try-letting-me-know-you're-going-next-time look of his own.

"How 'bout giving me a memo or something next time," Howard chuckled later.

"OK, I'll get him," Rollins retorted. "I'll take care of him. I know he wants that stolen base, too. … But it worked out, right? It all worked out."

Yeah, it all worked out, all right, just the way they planned it in spring training. Francisco stroked an RBI single, and it was 4-3. Carlos Ruiz and Valdez thumped the fourth and fifth singles of the inning, and it was 4-4.

And then up stepped rookie outfielder John Mayberry Jr., a one-time No. 1 pick in Texas who was finally living out his first Opening Day on a big-league roster, at age 27.

Mayberry worked the count to 2-and-2, then stepped out and tapped his spikes. He dug back in. The p.a. pumped. The ballpark rattled. Mayberry rocked in the box, eyed a hanging cutter floating his way and uncoiled.

The baseball floated toward center. Astros center fielder Michael Bourn backpedaled, spun and watched it fly over his head. Mayberry pumped his fist. If he could have written a script for his first Opening Day, he said, after the first big-league walkoff hit of his life, "this was the script I'd have written."

Bedlam erupted around him. And the Phillies had found a way.

It was their first walkoff win in an opener since 1974 (when Mike Schmidt did the honors with a game-ending homer off a Mets reliever named Tug McGraw). And it was just the third time in franchise history they'd won on Opening Day after trailing by four runs or more. But don't go looking for YouTube highlights of the other two -- since they happened in 1905 and 1895.

So however they did it in Game 1, we wouldn't advise they try doing it that way again in Game 2. But don't tell THIS team that.

"If you can do it once, you can do it 100 times," Madson said. "And that's our goal."

And if not, they'll just have to try to find a way.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest 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.

Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst