Memories, all alone in the moonlight. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE
Simply put, this was one the greatest, if not the greatest, regular season baseball games I have ever witnessed -- although I was only an ear-witness since it was played on a weekday afternoon. The 41-year-old El Duque was in his last major league season, and he actually had a pretty decent year. But he didn't have it in this game. Ryan Howard began the scoring in the 1st with a two-run homer, and then the Phillies knocked El Duque out in the third with a two-run line drive homer by Pat Burrell (which almost nailed Phanatic in the head) and a solo shot by Aaron Rowand.
Unfortunately, El Duque wasn't the only pitcher who didn't have it on this day. Kyle Lohse pitched decently with the Phillies after being acquired from Cincinnati in a deadline deal, but in the 4th inning of this particular game, he coughed up the lead, allowing three runs. Lohse was replaced by Geoff Geary, who allowed the Mets to take a two-run lead in the top of the 5th. But in the bottom of the 5th, the Phillies took the lead right back with five runs against the washed-up Aaron Sele, who, like El Duque, was in his last MLB season and was serving as the Mets' long reliever.
And it looked like the Phillies would cruise the rest of the way, especially after Clay Condrey settled the game down with two scoreless innings in the 6th and 7th. But in the top of the 8th, after J.C. Romero began the inning with an out and a walk, Charlie called on Antonio Alfonseca, who allowed five straight batters to reach base without recording a single out. Jose Mesa had to come in and stop the bleeding. When the smoke cleared, the Mets had a spirit-crushing 10-8 lead.
Which brings us to the part of the story about Billy Wagner. He had been a Phillie in 2004 and 2005, and had been a very effective closer in both seasons (notwithstanding two disastrous, horrifying losses he served up to his former team, the Houston Astros, in consecutive games in September 2005, with the wild card race hanging in the balance -- the Astros went on to beat out the Phillies for the wild card berth by one game). With Wagner about to become a free agent in the 2005-06 offseason, the Phillies made it clear that they wanted him back. But he refused and signed with the Mets instead. Not only that, but as he was heading out the door, he delivered a few public parting shots through the media to the Phillies organization, the city of Philadelphia, and his former Phillies teammates. Needless to say, this did not go over well with either the Phillies' fan base or clubhouse, and one Pat Burrell publicly replied that Wagner was a "rat." Given those circumstances, it was pretty sweet when Wagner helped the Mets lose to the underdog Cardinals in the 2006 NLCS, specifically in Game 2 when he entered a tied game at Shea in the top of the 9th and lost it by serving up a leadoff homer to, of all people, So Taguchi.
The Phillies had already exacted a more personal revenge against Wagner in their series at Shea in June. In the third game of that series, Burrell pinned a blown save on him by hitting a game-tying homer in the top of the 9th, and the Phils went on to win in extras. Wagner was not gracious in defeat, grousing to the press after the game that Burrell had a "one path swing, and I threw it in his path" -- thus setting the stage for an even more crushing retribution on August 30.
Wagner had not been used in the first three games of the series and Mets manager Willie Randolph -- perhaps mindful of how the Mets had been hurt in game two when he used Guillermo Mota instead of Wagner in a tied game -- asked Wagner to complete a rare two-inning save to guarantee that the Mets would avoid a four-game sweep. Chase Utley, who had only recently returned from the DL following a broken hand, led off the 8th, but Wagner, who was unhittable vs. lefties, mowed him down with a K.
And that brought Pat Burrell to the plate. He homered -- his second of the game, and his second of the season against Wagner, cutting the Phillies' deficit to 10-9. And that's how it remained until the 9th. Jayson Werth led off with a single...
Recall that Wagner served up two crushing losses to the Astros on September 6 and 7, 2005. Every Phillies fan who isn't a fansince09 remembers the second of those losses. The Astros took a 5-3 lead into the 8th, but the Phils came from behind in that inning on a two-run homer by Bobby Abreu and an RBI single by Shane Victorino, miraculously giving them a 6-5 lead. Wagner came in to close out the game, quickly retired the first two batters, and induced Jose Vizcaino to hit a routine grounder to third base... which David Bell booted. Willy Taveras then beat out an infield single, and Craig Biggio deposited a 1-1 pitch into the left field seats to put the Astros up 8-6. Brad Lidge then pitched a 1-2-3 bottom 9th. For those Phillies fans who witnessed that game, it was the sort of knife in the gut that will remain a painful memory for life, even after the 2008 title. It really was that bad. [Trivia: The Astros middle reliever who finished the 8th and got the win? Chad Qualls.]
One of the effects of that awful loss was that all memories of the less-awful loss the night before were quickly lost to the sands of the time. That night, a 28-year-old star pitcher named Roy Oswalt shut the Phillies down for eight innings, allowing only one run and striking out eight. But he was matched step for step by the Phillies' Jon Lieber, who held the Astros to one run (on a Biggio solo shot) over seven innings. With the score still tied at 1, Wagner entered the game in the 9th and retired Luke Scott, but then issued a four-pitch walk to Lance Berkman. The Astros pinch-ran for Berkman, and the pinch-runner promptly stole second base, and then stole third base, and finally scored on a single. [More trivia: That pinch-runner's name? Eric Bruntlett.] After the game, a disgusted Wagner blamed himself, telling the press: "I've got no pickoff move, and I [stink] going to first. Anybody who watches baseball knows that." And he spoke the truth. Like a lot of flame-throwing closers, Wagner relied on never letting anyone on base. When you got there, you had carte blanche.
So, back to 2007. Jayson Werth led off the 9th with a single. And then the Phillies' knowledge of Wagner came in handy. Because after Carlos Ruiz flied out and with one strike to Tadahito Iguchi, Werth easily stole second -- my recollection is that it didn't even draw a throw. And then on the very next pitch, Werth stole third.
The bad news was that Iguchi was now stuck in a 1-2 hole, but after fouling off a couple of tough pitches, he punched a single into left, scoring Werth and tying the game. And then Iguchi stole second.
With the winning run now in scoring position, the red-hot soon-to-be MVP Jimmy Rollins came to the plate with a chance to personally follow through on his preseason boast. But the Mets refused to give him that opportunity. With Wagner's lefty-killing skills in mind, they elected to walk Rollins to get to Chase Utley, who came to bat with Burrell looming on deck. But by this point, Wagner had already thrown 38 pitches, and Utley had already had an at-bat to adjust to his speed. After working the count full, he lined a single into right. Iguchi scored and the sweep was complete.
As exciting and memorable as this series was, subsequent events diminished its perceived importance a bit. The teams actually went in opposite directions for the next week or so, and the Mets rebuilt their lead from two to seven games by September 12. It was only after the two teams then played another series, this time at Shea (which I might also recount when that five-year anniversary comes up), that the Phillies' 7-in-17 comeback was finally on.
Regardless, myth of the predetermined outcome notwithstanding, I think we can still safely say that these four wins were crucial to the outcome of the season. If the Phillies had lost any of them, nothing either team did in September would have mattered. And who knows how the front office would have reacted to yet another near-miss at the playoffs? The 2008 title, the 2009 pennant, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay... maybe none of that would have happened. Alter one tiny detail with Adam Eaton, Marlon Anderson, or Aaron Rowand's little dribbler, and our entire baseball universe might have turned out differently.
It's fascinating to ponder. And yet I think an even better thing to ponder is something as simple as how unbelievably fun these wins were. I don't know if I've ever had so much fun watching sports before or since, not even in 2008. More than schadenfreude and more than the butterfly effect speculation, the best part of reminiscing about this series is just remembering what you love about baseball and why being a fan, despite all the frustration and all the pain, is worth it.