Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Top 10 Clutch Hits in Phillies History

Both of these sparkplugs made the "#Clutch10" cut
The game on the line. The series on the line. The season on the line.

These are the moments when not only talent, but mental toughness are required.

Facing the other team's ace starting pitcher, or lock-down setup man, or flame-throwing closer.

Whether their hits came with the Phillies backs to the proverbial wall, or a postseason series needing to be turned, or a Pennant needing to be clinched. Barely ahead and a nail needing to be put in the other team's coffin.

These are the Philadelphia Phillies franchise top 10 "clutch" hits. The biggest rips, the most key bloops and blasts, the cracks of the bat that brought Philly fans to their feet, whether in a ballpark or in their homes.

To reach a final Top 10 from among hundreds of big hits, there had to be a few basic criteria set. To even be considered, the hits had to come in either a postseason series or a pivotal game towards the end of a regular season.

Also, this is not necessarily a list of the most important hits in Phillies history. To me, such a list would absolutely include Pedro Feliz' single to drive in the winning run of the 2008 World Series, and Mike Schmidt's home run in Montreal to clinch the 1980 National League East crown.

Those two big hits made the list of about two dozen finalists for this Top 10. But I was looking for something more than the obvious big moment. The 10 who made the cut all had even more of an edge to them. More of that "we might not actually win this thing" feel prior to the hit.

Any list of this type is going to be subjective. Your own list will undoubtedly have a handful of different hits on it. The two just mentioned by Schmidt and Feliz will be there for many. There were so many clutch moments in 1980, 1993, 2008 and across club history. I hope this spurs your thoughts, comments, and some conversation.

There are hits here on my own list from 1950, 1981, and 2009. There are two each from 1993 and 2008. And there are three from the 1980 postseason. 7 of the 10 hits came on the road in 5 different cities. At home, two came at Citizens Bank Park, and one at The Vet.

And perhaps as a testament to the ability of a player to rise to the moment, the hits were registered by 10 different players. That was not contrived. I didn't realize it until I had settled on the final 10.

So here we go, one man's take on the all-time top 10 clutch hits in Philadelphia Phillies history, all but one of which I had the pleasure to experience as they happened during my lifetime:


10. George Vukovich: Saturday, October 10th, 1981
In 1981, a work stoppage had caused MLB to conduct a split-season format for the only time in history. The first half was won by the defending World Series champion Phillies in the NL East, the 2nd half by the young and talented Montreal Expos. The two teams then faced off in a National League Division Series at a time when normally no such series existed. Montreal had won the first 2 games of the best-of-5 series at home, putting the Phils in a desperate situation, backs to the wall. But the team played well in Game 3, winning back at Veteran's Stadium to stay alive. Now in Game 4 at The Vet, the Phillies needed to again win to stay alive and force a decisive 5th game. They built an early 4-0 lead, but the Expos came roaring back, and the game went to extra innings tied at 5-5. In the bottom of the 10th, George Vukovich stepped to the plate. No relation to Phillies Wall of Famer John, the left-handed hitter had just 91 plate appearances spread across parts of the 1980 and 1981 seasons to that point. Vukovich was leading off as a pinch-hitter for Phils closer Tug McGraw, facing Expos closer Jeff Reardon, who would be in his 4th inning of pitching, having set down 8 batters in a row. With the season hanging on the line, Vukovich came up big in his clutch moment. He blasted the only walkoff postseason homerun in Phillies history, winning the game and tying the series.

9. Lenny Dykstra: Monday, October 11th, 1993
The Phillies had gone worst-to-first from 1992 to 1993 in winning the NL East in wire-to-wire fashion. The "Macho Row" gang of mulleted misfits was still a heavy underdog to the 104-win Atlanta Braves. But this tough group, who had over the previous 6 months put on the single most consistently exciting and fun regular season that I still to this day have ever experienced, had typically battled Atlanta hard, confounding the experts in splitting the first four games of the best-of-7 NLCS. The Phils took a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the 9th at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and appeared poised to go back home up 3-2 in the series. But the Braves roared back to tie it up, nearly won it, and had all the momentum as the pivotal game moved to extra innings. With one out and nobody on in the top of the 10th, the man alternately known as "Nails" and "the Dude" stepped in against Atlanta's young fireballing righthander Mark Wohlers. Dykstra drove a supremely clutch homerun to steal away all the Atlanta momentum and put the Fightin's on top 4-3. Veteran Larry Anderson then came out of the bullpen in the bottom to shut the Braves down and win the game. Now up 3 games to 2, the Phillies would return home to complete the stunner and advance to the World Series for the first time in a decade.


The Flyin' Hawaiian delivered off C.C. Sabathia in 2008 NLDS
8. Shane Victorino: Thursday, October 2nd, 2008
At first blush, this might not appear to be such a clutch situation. The Phillies were on top of the Milwaukee Brewers already 1-0 in the NLDS. They were playing in front of a raucous home crowd at Citizens Bank Park. But they also were facing the Brewers hired gun, ace lefty C.C. Sabathia, who was obtained in a July trade for just such big games. Sabathia had gone 11-2 after coming from Cleveland to Milwakee in that deal. Coming into this game, the Brewers had every reason to expect to ride C.C. to the series-tying victory, heading back home all even and with all the momentum. The Phils had been swept out of the NLDS the year before by Colorado, and as yet had proven nothing in the postseason. The Brewers took an early 1-0 lead in the top of the 1st, and then Sabathia struck out both Chase Utley and Ryan Howard with Victorino in scoring position to end the Phillies half of the 1st. It looked like it might be a long night. But then the first piece of 2008 magic happened. With one out, the Phils got to Sabathia for the tying run, and then pitcher Brett Myers battled him hard for the most electrifying walk in club history. After another walk, Victorino stepped up with the bases loaded. If the Phils were going to ever get to Sabathia and win this key game, they could not afford to squander this opportunity. They wouldn't, as "The Flyin' Hawaiian" drove a grand slam to put the Phils on top 5-1 and send the crowd into a state of delirium. Myers would pitch a gem, and Victorino's slame would prove clutch, holding up for a 5-2 victory. The Phillies went up 2-0 in the best-of-5 series that would prove to be the first step on the road to a world championship.

7. Kim Batiste: Wednesday, October 6th, 1993
It was the opening game of the National League Championship Series between the upstart, worst-to-first Phillies (same team as the earlier Dykstra homer here), and the Phils were considered big underdogs to Atlanta by most observers. Curt Schilling pitched fantastic, and the Phils took a 3-2 lead into the 9th. However, the effort was squandered as the Braves tied it off closer Mitch 'Wild Thing' Williams, sending the game into extra innings. It appeared that the Phillies had wasted a golden opportunity to get a jump on the favored Braves. Williams was still in the game, and in the top of the 10th had a typical tightrope walk. He got the first two hitters easily, then gave up a single and double to put two runners in scoring position, then got a strike out for the third out. In the bottom of the 10th, the Phils needed to make something happen. With one out, John Kruk lined a double to right field off Braves closer Greg McMichael. Up stepped reserve infielder Kim Batiste, who had a good season coming off the bench. Batiste had come in for defensive purposes at 3rd base for Dave Hollins in the top of the 9th. The move by manager Jim Fregosi backfired almost immediately, as Batiste made a key error that helped Atlanta tie the score. Presented with this chance to atone for the error and deliver a huge victory, he came up clutch, drilling a hot shot double past 3rd baseman Terry Pendleton. Kruk came rumbling around to score the game-winner, and the Phils had a confidence building 4-3 walkoff victory.


Pete Rose bowled over Bruce Bochy on The Bull's big 1980 NLCS hit
6. Greg Luzinski: Saturday, October 11th, 1980
The veteran-laden Phillies were most certainly feeling the pressure in Game 4 of the best-of-5 NLCS vs the Houston Astros. After winning Game 1 thanks in large part to a massive home run from Luzinski, the Phils had dropped the next two. Now the Astrodome was rocking, as the Astros took a 2-0 lead into the top of the 8th, and appeared poised to advance to the World Series for the first time in franchise history. But the Phillies vets would prove resilient this entire postseason, and they rallied to go ahead 3-2. Houston was tough as well, and in front of the increasingly roaring crowd, the Astros rallied to tie in the bottom of the 9th, nearly winning it as well. The game headed to extra innings with the Phils season on the line. With one out, Pete Rose singled, but then Mike Schmidt lined out for the 2nd out of the inning. With two down, the Astros looked to the tough Joe Sambito to get the 3rd out, hoping they could come to bat trying to win the series. But the man known as "the Bull" had other ideas. One of the most senior of Phillies, Luzinski came through in the clutch, driving a Sambito offering for a hit into the gap. Rose charged around the bases. Hustling all the way from 1st, Pete came charging around 3rd, and then bowled into Astros catcher Bruce Bochy at the plate, knocking the ball away just as the throw arrived. Luzinski's double and Rose's hustling score had put the Phillies ahead 4-3. They would tack on another run, Tug McGraw would shut down Houston in the bottom of the 10th, and the Phils would force a decisive Game 5 in a series in which the final 4 games all went to extra innings.

5. Dick Sisler: Sunday, October 1st, 1950
Over nearly the entire first century of Phillies baseball, this was by far the biggest, most important, most "clutch" hit in franchise history. For 93 seasons from the organization's founding in 1883 until 1976, the Phils would reach the postseason just twice. In 1915, they had lost 4-1 to the Red Sox in the World Series. The "Whiz Kids", as these young 1950 Phillies had become known, came down the stretch in September holding the lead in the National League. In those days there were no divisions. A team had to come in first place in the NL to reach the World Series. The Phils led the league by 7 1/2 games as late as September 20th. But in losing 8 of their next 10 games, the lead had collapsed to just a single game over the Brooklyn Dodgers with one left to play between the two teams. If the Phils won, they would win just the team's 2nd-ever NL Pennant and head to the World Series. Lose, and Brooklyn would have forced a tie, and a playoff for that NL Pennant. The two teams battled hard, each scoring just a single 6th-inning run. In the bottom of the 9th, the Dodgers nearly had won it. Their first two hitters reached base. Then Duke Snider delivered what looked like the game-winning hit. But centerfielder Richie Ashburn saved the day. He charged and threw a strike to backup catcher Stan Lopata, who tagged out the sliding Cal Abrams. Pitcher Robin Roberts then wriggled out of the jam, and the Phils stayed alive. They came up in the top of the 10th knowing that they couldn't give the Dodgers many more chances. Two hits and a sacrifice brought Sisler to the plate. In his historic clutch moment, the Phils leftfielder drove a pitch from Don Newcombe over the wall for a 3-run homer and a 4-1 lead. Roberts set the Dodgers down in order in the bottom of the 10th, and the Phillies had won the National League Pennant on the final day of the season.
Dick Sisler's homer won the 1950 NL Pennant for the 'Whiz Kids'


4. Matt Stairs: Monday, October 13th, 2008
The Phillies had won the first two games of the NLCS at Citizens Bank Park, but LA won big in Game 3 at Dodger Stadium. In Game 4, they looked to tie up the best-of-7 series, and would then hold the home field advantage for Game 5 as well. Los Angeles appeared well on it's way to accomplishing that goal, taking a 5-3 lead into the top of the 8th. The Phils got a leadoff single, and Dodgers manager Joe Torre brought in reliever Corey Wade to face a series of Phils righty hitters. He got Pat Burrell to pop up to 2nd base for the first out. But then Shane Victorino stepped up and smacked a line-drive, game-tying blast that was his own 2nd huge clutch homer of the postseason. Wade remained in the game, getting the 2nd out, but then yielding a single. With 2 outs, a man on first, and the game still tied, Torre  then called on his big, flame-throwing righty setup man Jonathan Broxton. Phils skipper Charlie Manuel countered with big veteran lefty hitter Matt Stairs as a pinch-hitter for reliever Ryan Madson. Stairs drove a Broxton fastball "deep into the night", a long home run into the rightfield stands that was as clutch as could be, putting the Phillies on top 7-5. A key double play helped keep LA off the scoreboard in the bottom of the 8th, Brad Lidge closed the game out in the bottom of the 9th, and the Phils had a pivotal 3-1 lead in the series. Cole Hamels put the final nail in the LA coffin the following day, advancing the Phillies to the World Series for the first time in 15 years.

3. Jimmy Rollins: Monday, October 19th, 2009
The Phillies were the defending World Series champions entering this rematch with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. Just as a year earlier, the Phils took 2 of the first 3. But this time, game 4 was at Citizens Bank Park. Having that home crowd didn't help. Just as a year earlier in the same pivotal 4th game between the teams, the Dodgers took a lead into the late stages looking to tie the series up. As the Phils came to bat in the bottom of the 9th, they would take their last hacks, the true benefit of the home game. As fate would have it they were facing Jonathan Broxton, the man who Stairs had omered off the previous year in our "Clutch Hit #4" above. Broxton had now become the LA closer. With one out, Charlie Manuel tried to see if lightening could strike twice, sending Stairs again in to pinch-hit against the big Dodger. But this time there was no key home run. The wily veteran Stairs did, however, work a walk. So the tying run was now on base. Manuel sent Eric Bruntlett in to pinch-run for Stairs, and after Carlos Ruiz was hit by a pitch, the tying run moved into scoring position. Broxton got pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs to line out to 3rd base for the 2nd out. The Phillies were down to their last hitter, still trailing by a run, with LA needing just this final out to tie the series and take the momentum. The only one standing in their way was the Phillies senior player and leader, shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Batting left-handed against the power righty, the switch-hitting JRoll shot a clutch double into the right-centerfield gap. Bruntlett scored the tying run, and as Citizens Bank Park erupted in a bedlam that was becoming almost commonplace in that era, Ruiz scored the game-winner. Just as the previous season, the Phils had a near-miraculous win and an improbable 3-1 lead in the series. Just as the previous season, they would wrap it up the following game behind Hamels to advance to the World Series.

2. Garry Maddox: Saturday, October 11th, 1980
For my money, the best-of-five 1980 National League Championship Series between the Phillies and the Houston Astros remains the greatest NLCS in history. The Phils won a tight opener 3-1 behind a Steve Carlton gem, and each of the next four games were decided in extra innings. The 4th game, in which the Phillies rallied from behind to gain a 2-2 tie, was the subject of "Clutch Hit #6" on this list from Greg Luzinski. Thanks to that hit, the Phils had forced this 5th and deciding game, one that would ultimately yield a handful of incredible clutch hits. But at the start, the Astros were sending power ace and future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan to the mound. The Phils were countering with a rookie, Marty Bystrom. The matchup clearly favored Houston. Bystrom, as he did that entire September and October, battled into the 6th inning and kept the team in the game, leaving with the score still tied at 2-2. But Houston then roped around Phils veteran Larry Christenson in the 7th to set up the living legend Ryan with a 5-2 lead heading into the top of the 8th. That inning has become legendary in Phillies lore. The team managed to load the bases off Ryan without hitting a ball out of the infield. The events unfolded in such incredulous fashion as to seemingly unnerve the usually unflappable Ryan. It didn't help that the similarly unflappable Pete Rose was at the plate. Rose worked a based loaded walk, and the Astros lead was down to 5-3. Manager Bill Virdon took out the clearly shaken Ryan, who still had not been hit hard by the Phils, and brought in Joe Sambito. The reliever got pinch-hitter Keith Moreland to ground out, with another run scoring on the play. The chess game then continued with Virdon bringing in starting pitcher Bob Forsch to face Mike Schmidt. Forsch won, getting the Phils slugger to strike out looking. Now there were two outs, and the Astros still held the lead at 5-4. The Phillies were down to their final 4 outs. Phils manager Dallas Green then made his move in the chess game, sending up lefty pinch-hitter Del Unser to face the righty Forsch. Unser delivered a clutch hit of his own, singling to rightfield to score Greg Gross with the tying run. Up stepped Manny Trillo, who would be named the MVP of this NLCS for moments just like this one. The Phils 2nd baseman ripped a ball down the left field line for the 8th inning's umpteenth clutch hit. Ramon Aviles scored the go-ahead run, and Unser scampered all the way around from 1st as Trillo slid head-first into 3rd base. The 2-run triple had put the Phillies on top 7-5. Incredibly though, it wouldn't end up a game-winner. The Astros tied it in the bottom of the 9th, and the game entered extras. In the top of the 10th, Unser hit a one-out double, but when Trillo flew out easily to center there were two outs. One more, and the Astros would come up to try and win the series in their half of the 10th. That's when Maddox became a clutch hero. He roped a punch-shot base hit to centerfield, with Unser scoring the go-ahead run as the ball fell in, with Maddox running all the way and reaching 2nd for a double. Dick Ruthven, usually a starting pitcher, had come in and retired Houston in order in the bottom of the 9th to send it to extras. Now he did the same in the bottom of the 10th, and the Phillies were National League champions for the first time in 30 years.

Del Unser delivered the most clutch hit in Phillies history in the 1980 World Series
1. Del Unser: Sunday, October 19th, 1980
The events of the previous hit had put the Phils in the World Series for just the 3rd time in their franchise history. The first in 1915 ended in a 4-1 loss to Boston after winning the opener, and in 1950 the "Whiz Kids" had been swept out by the Yankees dynasty. These veteran, resilient 1980 Phillies quickly put an end to the franchise' Fall Classic losing skid by taking the first two games in Philly. But the talented Kansas City Royals led by Hall of Famer George Brett, slugging 1st baseman Willie Mays Aikens, speedster Willie Wilson, and unflappable vets like Amos Otis, Hal McRae, and Frank White then returned home and won the next two at Royals Stadium to even things up. This Game 5 would be the pivotal contest that would put one of these teams to within a game of their first-ever franchise championship. The Royals appeard to have it. They entered the 9th inning leading 3-2, and had side-arming closer Dan Quisenberry on the hill. Mike Schmidt led off with a hot-shot single off George Brett to put the tying run on for the Phils, and Green sent Del Unser up to pinch-hit for Lonnie Smith. As he had so many times that postseason, Unser delivered, ripping a ball down the rightfield line. Schmidt, an underrated baserunner, was off and running, never slowing as he rolled all the way around, sliding in with the game-tying run. On with his clutch double, Unser was sacrificed to 3rd by Keith Moreland. He had to hold there when Garry Maddox grounded out to 3rd base. But then with one out, Manny Trillo shot a ball right back at Quisenberry. The hotshot ricocheted off the KC closer and rolled away as Unser scored what would turn out to be the winning run. Tug McGraw, almost out of gas and pitching in this 3rd inning of relief, walked three batters in the bottom of the 10th. But when he struck out ex-Phil Jose Cardenal swinging, the Phillies had the huge 4-3 win, and a 3-2 lead in the series. They would now head back to Philadelphia for Game 6, and a date with history and destiny. Unser's hit was clutch in every way in it's own right in the course of a baseball game. But that it came in this game, with the Phillies never having won a World Series in their 98-year history, tying the pentultimate game in the final frame and leading to the winning run, makes it, for my money, the greatest clutch hit in Phillies franchise history.

What's yours?

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