When you think of Wilson Valdez you think of Babe Ruth. It’s only natural.
But when the Phillies and Reds got together on May 25, 2011 on a serene Wednesday night, no one knew the Phils’ skinny utility infielder would conjure up images of the greatest slugger in baseball history.
Cincinnati came to the park that night straddling just above the .500 mark, while the Phillies were well on their way to 102 regular season wins. Roy Halladay got the starting nod for the Phils against left-hander Travis Wood, and based on how things began, no one could have foreseen that Valdez would be called upon to do tremendous feats of baseball not seen since The Babe.
Just two batters into the game, Ben Francisco, who started in right field, hit a two-run blast that got the Phillies off to a quick 2-0 lead. The Phils would tack on another run in the second thanks to a John Mayberry Jr. RBI single to make it 3-0. That’s usually enough for Halladay, who cruised through the first four innings, but ran into some trouble in the fifth. He gave up an RBI single to Joey Votto to make it 3-1, and allowed Cincinnati to tie the score in the seventh thanks to a two-run single by current Phil, Jay Bruce.
The Phils offense could do nothing more against Wood after their first two frames and the game remained knotted at 3-3 going into the 10th. That’s when Bruce struck again, with a lead-off bomb off left-hander Antonio Bastardo that gave the Reds a 4-3 lead, but Ryan Howard responded in the bottom half of the 10th with a lead-off blast of his own off Francisco Cordero to re-tie the game at 4-4.
Baseball then entered into one of its supernatural vortexes of insanity. For another eight innings, neither team scored. In fact, from the 12th through the 15th, 20 straight hitters were retired. Not a single runner reached 2nd base until the 18th, when that man Valdez hit a two-out double, but was stranded there when Michael Martinez, now playing center field, lined out to shortstop.
A quick note about a forgotten Phils in the middle of all this madness — Danys Baez. For five innings, the 14th through the 18th, he retired 15 out of the 17 hitters he faced, by far his finest achievement as a Phillie (he had a career 5.81 ERA in 80 otherwise ghastly appearances over two seasons in Philadelphia). Baez eventually ran out of gas and, with the pitching cupboard bare, manager Charlie Manuel called on Valdez to pitch the 19th.
Valdez had started the game at second base in place of Chase Utley and, to everyone’s surprise, seemed to have some semblance of what to do on the mound. He shook off catcher Dane Sardinha a couple times, who had replaced Ruiz in the latter innings, and hit Scott Rolen with a breaking ball. But he faced the heart of the Reds’ lineup, Votto, Bruce and Rolen, and retired the first two on fly balls, before getting fellow reliever Carlos Fisher out on a routine pop up.
The crowd went nuts.
Inspired by Valdez’ performance, Rollins singled to open the bottom of the 19th, Domonic Brown walked, Placido Polanco bunted the runners to 2nd and 3rd, Howard was intentionally walked and Raul Ibanez hit a deep fly ball sacrifice fly to win the game. As a result, Valdez became the first player since Babe Ruth to record a win as a pitcher after starting the game as a position player.
In all, the marathon took 6:11 to play and I must admit, I was not able to stay up for the entire game. My oldest son was just three months old at that time, so finding pockets of sleep where I could was paramount. But for those who watched, they saw a combined 16 hurlers throw 600 pitches, none more entertaining than the 10 Valdez needed to shut down one of the best offenses in the game.
It was baseball at its most unkempt, and it was glorious.
On Episode 385 of Hittin’ Season, I talked about this historic night with Justin Klugh and Liz Roscher as we debated whether this night alone is worthy of Valdez being inducted into the Phillies Wall of Fame. It truly was a night for the history books.