PHILADELPHIA -- Stuff happens in sports that has no business happening in real life. And on a magical Wednesday in October, in a ballpark jammed with 46,411 euphoric witnesses, the impossible came true one more time.
Maybe some day -- maybe in a month, maybe in a year, maybe in half a century or so -- Roy Halladay will come to understand what he did Wednesday on a baseball field in Philadelphia.
To say he made history doesn't do this justice. To say he pitched the second postseason no-hitter in the history of the sport doesn't begin to describe it. To say he pitched a baseball game that people will talk about for the rest of his life doesn't truly capture the magnitude of it.
Think about this. Think about what this man did.
He headed for the mound Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park to do something he'd waited a lifetime for.
He hadn't merely thought about this, hadn't merely dreamed about this, for just about ever. He'd forced himself to rewrite the story of his whole career.
He asked the only team he'd ever pitched for, the Toronto Blue Jays, to trade him last winter. Asked specifically to be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, for a chance to live out this day.
Left millions of dollars on the table to make it happen. Ground his way through 250 2/3 grueling innings, launched 3,568 max-effort pitches, all for this.
He did it all, just for a chance to walk to the pitcher's mound on an electrifying afternoon in October and push himself to rise to meet a moment that, for the first 12 seasons of his remarkable career, had seemed to be a part of the life of every pitcher in baseball except his.
So think about what happened on this day one more time. How could anyone write this script?
"That," said Phillies closer Brad Lidge, after Halladay's instant no-hit October classic had lifted the Phillies to a 4-0 Game 1 NLDS win over the Reds, "was pretty amazing.
"For him to want this opportunity so bad," Lidge went on, "for him to let us know, 'Hey, I want to be with your team,' and then to bring him over here and do what he did in the regular season, and then doing this in his first [postseason] game, it just seems like this guy is in complete control of his destiny."
Maybe that's what this was, all right -- destiny. It's as sensible an explanation for what happened here as anything. Maybe this man is just so talented, and so driven, that he could almost will this to happen.
But that doesn't mean the rest of us can comprehend it.
There had been 1,264 postseason baseball games before Halladay took the ball in his hands Wednesday. Only one of them turned out remotely like this one -- Don Larsen's storied 1956 World Series perfecto. And more than 50 years later, the black-and-white images of that game, of Yogi Berra jumping into Larsen's arms, still give us chills.
But wait. There's more. Only two other times in the history of the postseason had any pitcher even taken a no-hitter into the eighth inning -- Jim Lonborg (7 2/3 hitless) in the 1967 World Series, and Bill Bevens (8 2/3 hitless) in the 1947 World Series. So even to see a man get so close that it came time to start counting down the outs was a heart-thumping experience.
Of course, Halladay had already thrown one no-hitter himself this season -- a May 29 perfect game in Florida. No pitcher who ever lived had thrown a regular-season no-hitter and a postseason no-hitter in the same season. So you can add that stunning wrinkle to this improbable script.
If he was pitching against the Phillies today, they probably would have done the same thing we did.
”-- Reds leadoff hitter Brandon Phillips
And finally, on the other end of this masterpiece was a Reds team that hadn't been no-hit, in either the regular season or postseason, since June 23, 1971. That, if you don't have your calculators out, was more than 6,000 games ago -- a game pitched by another Phillies right-hander named Rick Wise, a game in which Pete Rose made the final out.
This particular Reds team, the 2010 edition, may not have been as star-studded as that one. But this was a team that led the National League in runs scored, homers and batting average during the regular season. And no team had been no-hit in a season in which it did all that since the '96 Colorado Rockies.
But did it even matter who was on the other end of Halladay's epic performance on this day? What team out there would have beaten him? What other team could have beaten him?
"Nobody, man. Nobody," said the man who made the last out in this game, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. "If he was pitching against the Phillies today, they probably would have done the same thing we did."
And who would argue? On the day he made history, Doc Halladay was so untouchable, the identity of the hitters he steamrollered was almost irrelevant.
Once his offense handed him four runs in the first two innings -- a rally that featured an RBI hit by a pitcher who was in the process of allowing no hits -- he was going to win, going to dominate. His catcher, Carlos Ruiz, swore he knew that before Halladay had even finished warming up in the bullpen at 4:45 in the afternoon.
Asked afterward how good Halladay's stuff was out there, Ruiz summed it up in three words:
"Oh, my God."
"He was consistent on both sides of the plate," Ruiz said. "His fastball was good. His cutter was good. He had everything today."
Think about what it must have been like for this man to walk out to that bullpen, knowing what this day meant -- a day he'd pictured in his imagination for so long.
OK, now erase that picture -- because Roy Halladay would never allow himself to get lost in that moment, would never allow himself to get distracted by a thought like that.
Asked about his thoughts and emotions as this game approached, he was as cool, as focused, as programmed as ever.
"It was pretty normal, really," he said. "I think you try and disconnect yourself from the emotions a little bit. Knowing that you've prepared yourself, you're ready, and you try to go out and execute your plan.
"I think once the game started, I got out there and I felt like I was able to do that," he said. "I wasn't thinking about all that stuff -- first playoffs or any of that. It was 'Go out and try and execute a plan.' And that made it a lot easier. But it's been fun for me. It's been a challenge that I look forward to. So 'excited,' I guess, is a better word to describe it than 'nervous.' I was excited. It was a lot of fun to look forward to pitching in this game."
Halladay is a strike-throwing machine every day of every year. But this was ridiculous. He faced 28 hitters -- and threw 25 first-pitch strikes. He went to 0-and-2 on 11 hitters -- but went 2-and-0 on none. He never ran a 3-and-0 count or even a 3-and-1 count. It took him 47 pitches before he threw his 10th pitch out of the strike zone.
About 3½ months ago, he'd given up 13 hits to this very same Reds team. But it's safe to say he'd made a few adjustments since then.
"He probably prepared more than anybody in the history of the game for this start," Phillies reliever Ryan Madson said with a laugh.
Of the 28 hitters who came to the plate, exactly one managed to square a ball up and hit it remotely hard. And that, naturally, was the one hitter Halladay hadn't prepared for -- Reds reliever Travis Wood. But Jayson Werth ran down Wood's third-inning line drive to right. And not only was that the only ball close to a hit, it was practically the only good swing the Reds took.
"It's almost," said the Reds' Jonny Gomes, "like he's got another gear when his team gives him the lead. And that was even more true today."
The Reds tried their best to disrupt him. Stepped out. Stepped in. Called time. Tried to make him wait. None of it seemed to penetrate Halladay's impenetrable shield. Did he even notice? He just stood on that rubber, watching, staring, glaring, until it was time to throw that next unhittable pitch. He kept carving them up, one after another after another.
"You can try as many tricks of the trade as you want," Gomes said. "Ruin his rhythm. Step out. Call time. Whatever. But when a guy's pounding the zone like that, and is in the zone like that, none of that really works."
Only once all day did Halladay let The Plan get away from him, even for a moment. With two outs in the fifth inning, and a 2-2 count on Jay Bruce, he overthrew a fastball, barely inside, for ball three, then snapped a cutter, inches too low, for ball four.
"A lot of times," said pitching coach Rich Dubee, "I've seen Jay Bruce swing and miss at that pitch."
But not this time. Bruce laid off -- and became the only Reds hitter all day to have the privilege of standing on first base, even for a few fleeting moments.
"I guess, at the end of the day, I can credit myself with a good at-bat," Bruce said. "But it's a team sport. And at the end of the day, that walk obviously didn't matter. The only thing it did was separate a perfect game from a no-hitter. Had it started a rally, had it gotten us going, that would have been different. But he just dialed it in. After that, he just went right back to what he was doing."
By then, it was apparent to pretty much the whole continent exactly what he was doing. He was making history. And he was going to make history -- unless some fluke or some bloop or some unlucky bounce of the ball got in his way.
He chewed through the middle of the Reds' order in the seventh, as the decibels and the bedlam mounted. Down went Orlando Cabrera, after a seven-pitch at-bat, on a chopper to second base. Down went the likely MVP, Joey Votto, on a thunker to third base. Then down went the cleanup hitter, Scott Rolen -- the man his old hometown still loves to boo -- frozen by an arcing 2-2 curveball.
And as Rolen ripped off his batting gloves, Halladay stomped toward the dugout, never once looking up to allow the rising tide of emotion to seep into his consciousness.
Asked how Halladay actually managed to make it back to the dugout without taking his eyes off the grass in front of his feet, Lidge chuckled: "I think he's just picking up a couple feet at a time -- just enough so he doesn't run into somebody."
The eighth inning was more of the same. Halladay snapped an 0-2 curveball past Gomes. One out. Bruce topped a two-seamer back to the mound. Two out. Then Drew Stubbs joined the K Klub on three carnivorous pitches, back-to-back-to-back. And Roy Halladay was three outs away.
By the time he reached the mound for the final time, it was 7:35 p.m. ET. Everyone between Halladay and Haddonfield was standing, ripping through what was left of their vocal cords, trying to stay out of the cardiac ward. But the man on the mound just kicked at the dirt around the rubber, then turned and awaited his next victim.
That would be the catcher, Ramon Hernandez. Two pitches later, he popped up a cutter. One out. Next was pinch hitter Miguel Cairo, a member of the Phillies' postseason roster 12 months ago. At 2-and-2, Cairo flailed at a curveball in, popped it into foul territory and could only watch, helpless, as third baseman Wilson Valdez smothered it with both hands.
Rally towels swirled. An earthquake of noise crashed down on the man on the mound. But Halladay just stared straight ahead as Phillips got ready to help him make history.
Phillips watched a fastball roar by. Strike one. Took an ugly hack at a cutter. Strike two. Phillips stepped out and adjusted his cap, as flash bulbs popped and grown men shrieked and the man with the baseball waited, as if this was just another Wednesday in June.
Phillips tapped the plate, wheeled his bat. And here it came, the 104th and final pitch of Halladay's magical day. One last gyrating curveball came whooshing toward home plate. The baseball went one way. Phillips' bat went another way. And the result was a tantalizing dribbler barely 10 feet in front of home plate.
Ruiz charged out after it, only to come upon the bat Phillips had just dropped and the spinning baseball, all converging in the same place. So in order to make this dream come true, Ruiz had to tell his kneecaps to stop shaking, dodge the rolling bat, find the baseball, drop to one knee and snake his throw around the runner. That's all.
"That was real difficult right there, with a no-hitter going," the soft-spoken catcher from Panama would say later, still heaving sighs of relief that it all worked out. "If I don't make that play, oh my God, I'm gonna feel bad."
But his throw flew past Phillips' shoulder. Ryan Howard squeezed it. And Don Larsen had company on a very special page in the baseball history books.
OK, so it wasn't the World Series. It was "only" Game 1 of the division series. So we should all make at least some slight distinction between the meaning of what Larsen did 54 years ago, almost to the day, and what Halladay did Wednesday.
But now let's reflect once more upon how this man got to this place in time. This was no ordinary journey. It was a journey 13 years and 169 regular-season wins in the making. Only one other pitcher in the division-play era (Chuck Finley) won more games before he got to make his first postseason start. No other pitcher in history had pitched this many games and had this good a winning percentage (.663) without throwing a single postseason pitch.
So we'll never know now how Roy Halladay would have looked at his career if this day had never come. But we know now, because it did, exactly how we'll look at it for the rest of time.
He's a remarkable man, with a remarkable gift. He writes scripts Francis Ford Coppola would be proud of. And now his rendezvous with no-hit October history has given us a game ESPN Classic will be rerunning for the next thousand years.
Unless he throws another one next time he goes out there. And don't put it past him.
"You never know," Lidge said with a laugh. "We've still got a ways to go. Who knows what Roy might do?"
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.