Tuesday, October 20, 2009

2008 NLCS Pays a Visit to 2009 NLCS


It was one week and one year ago today, Monday, October 13th, 2008. The Philadelphia Phillies led the Los Angeles Dodgers by two games to one in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series. But headed into the top of the 8th inning of that Game #4, the Dodgers held a 5-3 lead and the Phils bats seemed lifeless.

With just six more outs, at least three of them from fireballing closer Jonathan Broxton, the Dodgers would even up the NLCS and would have Game #5 right here at home in Dodger Stadium. Ryan Howard singled to begin that 8th inning, and LA manager Joe Torre brought in reliever Cory Wade, a decision that would set into motion a chain of events that would turn both this 2008 NLCS and a year later the 2009 NLCS around in dramatic fashion.

It started well for Wade as he coaxed Pat Burrell to pop out to new 2nd baseman Angel Berroa for the 1st out of the inning. Then Shane Victorino stepped to the plate. To that point in the playoffs, Victorino was on fire, his 11 rbi setting a franchise post-season record. Wade started 'The Flyin' Hawaiian' out with a first-pitch curveball, and Victorino shot it on a line out to right field and just over the fence. The bolt-of-lightening homerun had just that suddenly and dramatically tied the score at 5-5, and the Phillies had new life.

Pedro Feliz followed by smashing a line drive to left field, but the ball was right at Manny Ramirez for the 2nd out of the inning. But then Carlos Ruiz followed with the third straight hard-hit ball off Wade, a ground single to left, and Torre decided to make his next move, the move that would directly resurface in last night's Game #4 of the 2009 NLCS. He brought in dynamic closer Jonathan Broxton, he of the 100-mph fastball fame.

With the hard-throwing righthander Broxton now in the game, and with the pitcher's spot coming up in the batting order, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel turned to pinch-hitter Matt Stairs. The lefty-swinging Stairs had been acquired in an August trade from the Toronto Blue Jays for just this type of situation. Stairs is a powerful dead-fastball hitter, and Manuel figured that if anyone could catch up to Broxton's heat and not be intimidated by the situation it would be the 40-year old, 16-year veteran.

In one of the most memorable Phillies post-season moments of all-time, Stairs uncorked a mighty swing and drove a flaming Broxton fastball high into the Los Angeles night. When the ball finally came crashing down into the midst of the stunned Dodgers crowd way up in the right field stands, the Phillies had taken a 7-5 lead. They would hold that lead, and rather than being tied they instead took a 3-1 lead in the series, which they closed out two days later.

Flash forward now to last night's Game #4 of the 2009 National League Championship Series. The same Phillies and Dodgers were meeting again, and again the Phils had taken a two games to one lead. But again, the Dodgers seemed in control of this game and were poised to tie the series. The two biggest differences this time were that the game was being played at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, and that the Dodgers this time were holding a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the 9th inning.

As in 2008, Torre had again turned to Broxton in the 8th inning. This time the flame thrower had gotten his team through the inning. When he began the 9th by getting Raul Ibanez to pop up, there was one out with nobody on base. The Dodgers were now just two outs away from tying the series and shifting the momentum to their side. The Phillies desperately needed someone to put a big swing on one of Broxton's big fastballs, and when Manuel looked down his bench there was really only one place to turn.

Grabbing his bat and heading to the plate as a pinch-hitter was that hero of the 2008 Game #4, Matt Stairs. The regular season had not been kind to Stairs overall, but he had demonstrated that he was still capable of catching up to fastballs by launching a handful of homeruns. It was very, very obvious that Broxton was well aware of who was stepping to the plate, of his own inability to intimidate Stairs, and had replayed Stairs mammoth '08 playoff homer hundreds of times in his head.

Knowing full well that Stairs possessed the ability to turn a 100-mph fastball into a tie game with one swing of the bat, Broxton either intentionally stayed away from the big lefty's bat, or was himself intimidated by Stairs and the memories. Broxton started with a fastball way inside, perhaps as a feeble attempt to back Stairs off the plate. It didn't work, and the next three pitches were way outside. Stairs couldn't have hit any of them with an 8-foot long bat, and instead drew a 4-pitch walk to put the tying run on base.

Manuel immediately sent Eric Bruntlett in to pinch-run for Stairs, but the big burly lefthander had done an important job. Perhaps he didn't take Broxton deep, but he had reached base, giving the Phillies a chance to tie the score. Broxton seemed to still be a bit shaken when he delivered a pitch to Carlos Ruiz that nipped the catcher on the elbow, putting Ruiz on first and moving Bruntlett to 2nd base representing the tying run. Broxton then overpowered pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs for a soft pop to 3rd base, and moving within one out of tying the series.

The final obstacle to Broxton's redemption was Phillies shortstop, leadoff man, and de facto team captain Jimmy Rollins. With the count at 1-1, Broxton powered a 99-mph fastball right down the middle of the plate. Rollins quick-stroked his bat through the zone, the head of his bat squarely meeting the ball, immediately turning it around on a line towards right-centerfield.

Rollins' liner hit the grass and found a gap between outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, and began to bounce towards the centerfield wall. Bruntlett and Ruiz were off with the crack of the bat, and it was obvious immediately that Bruntlett was going to score to tie the game. But as the fans attention turned from the ball to the baserunners, it also became obvious that Ruiz was motoring, and there was no way the Dodgers were going to get him. The catcher slid home with the winning run, and the entire team mobbed Rollins near 3rd base as the hometown fans went wild with joy.

With fireworks exploding and the crowd roaring at a deafening level, Jonathan Broxton walked off the mound past a Phillies team that was piled in a celebratory heap. For the second straight year in the NLCS, in the second straight Game #4, Broxton had blown a save chance. He had blown a chance to get his team even. And he has likely blown any chance they had at stopping these Phillies from advancing to the World Series.

There were a number of key moments in that Phillies comeback rally, not the least of which was Rollins' clutch game-winning hit. This was Jimmy Rollins moment, he is the hero this time, and no one can take that away from him what may even be a career highlight if this team goes on to win another championship.

But it should also be remembered that when Matt Stairs came to the plate against Jonathan Broxton, the 2008 NLCS visited this 2009 NLCS, and that Broxton's memory of that night a year and a week ago led directly to the tying run reaching base, and once again to the Phillies taking charge of a playoff series.

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