Phillies' Championship Is Vindicating for Some

Mark KriegelCorrespondent IOctober 30, 2008

For the record: The last pitch of 2008 was a slider thrown to Eric Hinske.

"I saw him swing over the top of the ball," Brad Lidge, the Phillies' closer, would recall. "Then I guess I kind of dropped down."

Never has dropping to one's knees been such a gesture of triumph. Lidge raised his arms to the night sky. The celebration had begun. Carlos Ruiz, the catcher, ran to the mound. Then Ryan Howard, the first baseman, hurtled into the rapidly expanding pile. In the next moment, a squadron of motorcycle cops drove into the outfield and established a makeshift perimeter on the warning track.

By the time the press trekked onto the field, the ballpark was warm with good feeling, which is saying something on a night when the temperature had dropped to 40 degrees, not accounting for wind chill. It was a blissful bedlam, a wall of sound emanating from the stands. Howard was sprinting across foul territory with a banner, proclaiming Philadelphia's first major-sport championship in a quarter-century, the second ever for the Phillies and their first since 1980.

That 1980 team is recalled, fondly and forever, for its reliever, Tug McGraw, and the slogan he popularized, "Ya Gotta Believe." McGraw died of cancer in January 2004. But as the Series arrived in this city, his son—the country singer Tim McGraw—sprinkled his ashes on the mound at Citizens Bank Park. If the ashes were washed away by the several storms since, McGraw's spirit was not.

The Philadelphia Phillies believed. In fact, it was their belief that transformed them into something few predicted—the best team in baseball.

It's been almost two years since shortstop Jimmy Rollins declared the Phillies "the team to beat" in the N.L. East. It turned out, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, that they were, coming from seven games down with 17 to play to win the division. But going into this season—in which the Phillies found themselves a mere three-and-a-half games back on Sept. 10—Rollins saw no need for such a statement.

"This year was different," he said a couple of weeks ago, after beating the Dodgers for the N.L pennant. "This year, we came in believing."

And none more so than the closer who took the mound to begin the ninth inning. Not so long ago, however, Brad Lidge was a castoff from the Houston Astros. He had lost the closer's job. He'd get booed when he warmed up. After the 2007 season, Houston traded him with Eric Buntlett for the likes of Michael Bourn, Geoff Geary and a minor leaguer named Mike Costanzo.

"I don't give a crap about Houston, honestly," he said, "because this is the pinnacle of my life."

There was no beer or champagne on the field. Apparently, there is no need when the home team wins the Series. It was a great thing, too, as it meant there was no phony celebration, no benchwarmers intent on demonstrating their prowess at dousing. Without the suds and the goggles and the practiced rituals, the real emotions became apparent.

"I'm just thinking of how lucky I am," said Lidge. "How blessed I am."

He had 19 saves in 27 chances that last season with the Astros. He was 41-for-41 as a Phillie, and another seven for seven in the postseason. What ended with Hinske swinging over the slider was Lidge's second save of the series.

Maybe he thought it could be like this. But listening to him after the strange suspension of Game Five didn't inspire much belief. Lidge kept talking about how anything could happen in a three-inning game.

To be sure, what happened Thursday was a thrill. 46 hours after Bud Selig called it on account of rain, pinch-hitter Geoff Jenkins came to the plate and knocked a double, his first hit of the postseason. Jenkins would score. Then, the next inning, the Rays' Rocco Baldelli would homer. In the eighth, Pat Burrell doubled off the center-field fence, and two batters later, a Pedro Feliz single would score the winning run.

If Thursday night was any indication, baseball might want to try a couple more three-inning games. The significance of each pitch and each swing was magnified.

"A lot of nerves," said Lidge. "A lot of adrenaline."

But nothing that Lidge, or the rest of the Phillies, couldn't handle. Lidge has been the Phillies' closer almost from the day he arrived. For whatever reason, Charlie Manuel believed in him in a way that Astros manager Phil Garner could not. Then again, Manuel himself was a castoff, having been fired by Cleveland in 2002.

"Do you think you proved anything to the people back in Cleveland?" Manuel was asked.

"I wasn't working on trying to prove nothing. Don't take this in a cocky way, I already knew how good I was."

Apparently, so did his team.

"It had to be won here," said Lidge, looking out from the infield.

Here. Fans in the stands. Ashes on the mound. Belief in the air.

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