Commentary

A stroke of luck in Phillies' Game 3 win

Ben Francisco's improbable pinch-hit home run pushes Cardinals to brink

Updated: October 5, 2011, 11:14 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- The magic of October isn't an easy thing to explain.

You don't measure it just on the scoreboard. You measure it with throbbing hearts and exploding eardrums. You measure it in the looks on the faces of October's unlikely heroes. You measure it by the memories it creates.

And if that's the measure, Game 3 of the National League Division Series, on a pulsating Tuesday afternoon turned early evening at Busch Stadium, deserves to go down as another classic October magic show for the ages.

The history books will record it as Phillies 3, Cardinals 2. But that doesn't begin to describe this game.

The offensive portion of the winning team's day pretty much began and ended with one swing of the bat.

The losing team, on the other hand, got 12 hits and four walks, left 14 men on base, never went down 1-2-3 in an inning, had two members of its lineup get four hits apiece -- and somehow scored just enough runs to get beat.

[+] EnlargeBen Francisco
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesBen Francisco, who hadn't homered since May 25, delivered the game's big blow, a pinch-hit three-run blast in the seventh inning.

The man who hit the game-winning three-run pinch homer, Ben Francisco, hadn't made a home run trot in 4 1/2 months and had spent the season pretty much fading from everyday player into the Phillies' witness protection program.

The man who gave up that homer, Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia, had spent his career -- and his afternoon -- dominating the Phillies so relentlessly that he allowed as many earned runs on that one swing of the bat as he had allowed the Phillies in his previous 34 innings, covering five starts, combined.

But there was more to this melodrama. So much more. There was a thrill-a-minute five-out save, a glove-seeking missile that turned into a game-changing double play, even a late-inning squirrel invasion.

And the outcome hung there in doubt, in the turbo-charged Missouri night, for so long after Francisco's homer that the Cardinals sent the potential tying or go-ahead run to the plate 11 times over the final three innings -- right down to the final pitch.

Now that, friends, was a spectacular October baseball game.

"A game like that, it definitely gets your adrenaline going," said Phillies reliever Brad Lidge, his heart still thumping afterward. "It's Game 3. [The series is] 1-1. It's pretty big. So situations like that -- that's what we live for. And if it's not, you'd better check yourself, because it's probably the most fun you can have playing major league baseball, to play in a game like that."

Now, for the losers, "fun" would never describe what happened out there on their home field Tuesday. So even as their manager talked about "the heart and the guts" of his team, and spun one more tale of how often these Cardinals have stared elimination in the eyeballs over the past few weeks, this was one painful loss.

The facts are these: The Phillies now lead this series, two games to one. And in the first 16 years of division series history, the 23 teams that won Game 3 to put themselves in that position have gone 19-4 in those series. That computes to a powerful .826 winning percentage. So those are long odds, even for a Cardinals team that made a 10 1/2-game lead disappear over the last five weeks of an improbable season.

And on the other end of that equation, not many teams with 2-1 leads have had arms such as Roy Oswalt and Roy Halladay lined up to pitch Games 4 and 5. But the Phillies do. So after spending 3 hours, 13 minutes teetering on the brink of disaster, they are now, somehow or other, back in control of this series.

All because of one improbable swing of Ben Francisco's bat.

As he headed for home plate Tuesday, his previous hit had been 13 days ago. His previous extra-base hit had been 42 days ago, back on Aug. 23. His previous pinch-hit had been eight weeks ago, on Aug. 7. His previous home run had been so long ago -- on May 25 -- that the Indians still had the best record in baseball back then. And in his only plate appearance of last year's division series, he got drilled in the head by a 103 mph Aroldis Chapman smokeball.

So he wasn't exactly this game's most likely folk hero. But every trip to the plate in October can turn into a ride on the hero-manufacturing assembly line. And it was about to become Ben Francisco's turn to take that wild ride.

There were two outs in the seventh inning of a 0-all game. With a runner on second, Tony La Russa chose to intentionally walk the No. 8 hitter, Carlos Ruiz, even though Francisco was already standing in the on-deck circle, waiting to pinch hit for Phillies starter Cole Hamels.

Ruiz was only 1-for-10 in the series at the time and had just one career hit against Garcia. But La Russa knew exactly what he wanted to do there, because he has seen Ruiz get "as many big hits as the guys in the middle of the lineup. He just terrorizes us."

La Russa also knew Francisco was only 1-for-9 lifetime against Garcia. So "the matchups," La Russa said, "were in our favor."

What a great feeling, watching that ball go over my head at second base. I was just hoping to score a run -- and we ended up scoring three.

-- Shane Victorino on Ben Francisco's seventh-inning pinch-hit home run

But what the manager didn't remember, apparently, was that Francisco had faced Garcia as recently as 2 1/2 weeks ago -- and mashed a high fastball to deep left field that almost exited the premises. The guy at the plate remembered it, though. Remembered it vividly.

"Just missed it," Francisco reminisced Tuesday night. "I was thinking about that at-bat all day. He threw me a pitch [that day] that I hit well. I wanted it back tonight."

He wanted it. And on the second pitch of this at-bat, he got it.

It was a floating, 89 mph, navel-high fastball. And Francisco sent it soaring through the early-evening ozone.

First, it flew over the head of Shane Victorino, who was leading off second base.

"What a great feeling, watching that ball go over my head at second base," Victorino said. "I was just hoping to score a run -- and we ended up scoring three."

Then, as that baseball kept sailing, a bullpen full of Phillies relief pitchers suddenly realized there was a UFO heading their way.

"At first, I didn't think it had a shot, because it was hit on a line," closer Ryan Madson said. "I was hoping it was going to hit the wall. But once it got about halfway out there and it was still carrying, I think we realized it had a chance. I was sitting next to [Michael] Stutes, and we started shouting, 'Get up. Get up.'"

Finally, the baseball roared over the wall, crashed off the fence behind the bullpen mound … and changed pretty much everything.

Never in the history of postseason baseball had anyone launched a pinch home run to break up a scoreless game. But Ben Francisco just had. And as he circled the bases in a suddenly silent ballpark, his pulse spiking, you can only imagine what that journey around the infield felt like.

"Excitement … joy … a big adrenaline rush," he said. "I knew it was three runs. And I could not wait to get back to the dugout to celebrate with my teammates."

In the history of the 125-year-old franchise, this was just the third pinch homer anyone had hit to give the Phillies a lead in a postseason game. And it was remarkably reminiscent of the previous one -- Matt Stairs' legendary game winner in Game 4 of the 2008 NL Championship Series.

Francisco wasn't a Phillie back then. But "I hear about it a lot," he said. "People in Philadelphia talk about that home run all the time."

Asked whether it had sunk in yet that he'd just hit One of Those Home Runs, the kind that folks file away in their memory banks for years and years, Francisco held up his hands.

"Uh, I wouldn't go THAT far yet," he said with a laugh. "We have to win a lot more games before that happens. But hopefully, it works out that way in the end."

Of course, there were times over the next hour that it didn't look like the memory of that home run would hold up for even the rest of this game -- because the Cardinals were about to spend the final three innings constantly threatening to steal Francisco's glory, not to mention this entire series.

They put eight runners on base over those last three innings. They scored once in the seventh and once in the ninth, forced the Phillies to rip through four relievers and eventually pressured Phillies manager Charlie Manuel to wave for his closer, Madson, with five outs to go.

Naturally, Madson hadn't had a save of more than three outs all season. And the only two saves of five outs or more he'd ever gotten had come way back in another lifetime, before he'd taken over this closer gig 5 1/2 months ago.

But as he trotted in from the bullpen, as the ballpark trembled and the decibel levels climbed, Madson told himself not to think about all the outs he was going to have to get. What he thought to himself instead, he said, was: How much fun is THIS?

"It IS fun," he would say later. "Just the excitement, the atmosphere, the crowd, makes it that much more interesting than a regular-season game. And that's what we look forward to -- to running that [regular-season] marathon, just so we can run this sprint."

But that doesn't mean these sprints are easy, you understand. He arrived at the mound with the bases already full. Rally towels spun. The bedlam in the seats engulfed him. And one of the least-known tough outs in this lineup, Allen Craig, was digging in.

Craig fouled off a fastball for strike one. Madson took a stroll behind the mound, rubbed up a new baseball and took one more giant gulp of oxygen. There wasn't a soul in the park still sitting in any of those 46,000 seats. The organ pumped. The season hung there in the night, ready to be decided.

Then Madson reached back and pumped a 95 mph fastball toward the outside corner, hoping, he said, that Craig would "roll into a double play."

What he got, though, was no "roller." What he got, instead, was one of the hardest-hit balls of the day. It just happened to fly directly at Madson's second baseman, Chase Utley -- who somehow picked it on the short hop, avoided getting dragged into right-center field by the sheer force of it and sprinted to the second-base bag to turn a stunning, inning-ending 4-3 double play.

This was yet another moment in this game that bore a strange resemblance to the Phillies' fabled Matt Stairs game in 2008 -- because in that game, Utley also picked another late-inning rocket out of the sky and staggered to the bag at second for an inning-ending double play. And the guy who got doubled by that play was, incredibly, the same man he would put out at second in this game -- Furcal. Crazy.

Remember this, too: If the Phillies hadn't been shading for a double play in this particular situation, Utley never would have been standing there in the first place. And if he hadn't been standing right where he was standing, this ball would have roared through the infield, two runs would have scored and Albert Pujols would have been stomping toward home plate.

But these are the nutty things that happen in October that define who wins and who loses games such as this.

"You know, that's true," Utley said afterward. "And that's what makes baseball such a great game. You never know what's going to happen in a game that can change your whole season."

Ah, but before the whole season could finish changing, there was more madness to come in the ninth. Two more Cardinals hits. Another Cardinals run. The tying run reaching first base. The winning run reaching the plate.

But finally, Madson would get Ryan Theriot to chop one last fastball to second base for the 27th out of a classic October baseball game -- and the first five-out save by any Phillies reliever in any postseason game since Tug McGraw collected one in Game 1 of the 1980 World Series. And only then, for the first time in more than three hours, did anyone in this ballpark remember it would be an excellent idea to resume breathing.

Now logically, there is almost no way to explain a game like this. There is almost no way to explain why the winning team won and the losing team lost when, if you looked just at the box score, you would think it had to be the other way around. Had to.

But at times like these, there is only one explanation that's necessary, and only one explanation that's possible. And you can sum up that explanation in one magical word:

October.

What else?

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 a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com