Phillies

10 years ago today: Matt Stairs made time stop with 1 swing

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10 years ago today: Matt Stairs made time stop with 1 swing

Ten years ago this month, the Phillies won their second World Series title in franchise history. Over the next few weeks, Jim Salisbury will look back at the team’s run through the NLCS and World Series.

A decade later, my knee still hurts and it’s all Matt Stairs’ fault.

We were squished like so many sardines in the press box at Dodger Stadium, hacking away on our laptops trying to make tight East Coast deadlines. It was the eighth inning of Game 4 of the NLCS. Shane Victorino had just added another highlight to his impressive postseason resume with a game-tying, two-run homer to right. Now, hard-throwing Dodgers’ right-hander Jonathan Broxton was coming out of the bullpen to face Phillies’ pinch-hitter Matt Stairs with a man on base.

You know the rest.

Stairs, who had been acquired late in the regular season for moments just like this, worked the count to 3-1 and looked for a fastball. He got one, 95 mph. He swung hard, as he always did, and hit it halfway to Pasadena. As the ball rose off Stairs’ bat in a majestic arch, the huge crowd of 56,800 fell completely silent. All these years later, I can still hear that sound of silence interrupted by only a few cheers coming from the Phillies family section under the press box.

And I can still feel the lump on my kneecap because when Stairs made contact with the pitch, I jumped (just like everyone else in the ballpark) and smashed my knee into an electrical junction box under my seat. (I still curse at that thing every time I go to Dodger Stadium.) It hurt like heck, but adrenaline kicked in and I started typing:

Philadelphia, meet your new favorite player, Matt Stairs.

The 40-year-old slugger was looking to hit a home run on a 3-1 count and in the dugout his teammates knew it.

“In the back of my mind, I’m thinking he might hit one here,” Pat Burrell said after the game.

As Stairs rounded the bases, Burrell led a raucous dugout eruption. Ten years later, his initial reaction to Stairs' cannonading blast, as told by people who were in the dugout, remains NSFW. Sorry. But Geoff Jenkins summed up the feeling, saying, “The dugout went nuts. I felt like I jumped 20 feet in the air.”

Stairs provided a memorable quote after the game saying there was no better feeling for a hitter than coming back to the dugout and having a bunch of guys beat you up.

His homer, one of the biggest in Phillies' history, gave the team a 7-5 lead and Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge locked it down. The Phils were up three-games-to-one on the Dodgers and there would be no holding them back in Game 5, not with the momentum that Stairs had given them and not with Kid Cole on the mound.

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Phillies had 2 massive extra advantages in 2008 NLDS vs. Brewers

Phillies had 2 massive extra advantages in 2008 NLDS vs. Brewers

You need a lot to break right to win a championship in any sport but particularly in baseball, where we routinely see the best team fail to win it all. It doesn't matter how you've performed in the preceding six months and 162 games, any team is susceptible to a bad week in October.

The 2008 Phillies were not the favorite to win the World Series when that postseason began. They had won 92 games with a prolific offense. The Cubs won 97, and in the AL, the Red Sox, Rays and Angels all won 95-plus.

The teams with the two best records in baseball that year (Angels at 100-62, Cubs at 97-64), were dispatched quickly in the playoffs, with the Cubs suffering a sweep to the Dodgers in the NLDS and the Angels going down in four games to the Red Sox in the ALDS.

Who knows how much differently the 2008 playoffs would have gone for the Phillies if they drew the Cubs or Dodgers in the NLDS, or the Red Sox instead of the Rays in the World Series. It obviously doesn't matter because reality > hypotheticals, but that 2008 postseason was a good example of timing being everything.

The 2008 Phillies were a better team than the 2008 Brewers, but they also had two huge benefits in that series beyond home-field advantage. Those benefits were the Brewers' top two starting pitchers.

CC Sabathia was the blockbuster trade acquisition in '08. The Brewers acquired him on July 7, three weeks before the deadline, and he dominated for more than two months. In 17 starts with Milwaukee, Sabathia went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. Ridiculously, he pitched seven complete games with three shutouts in those 17 starts.

But by the time the postseason began, Sabathia was spent. His start against the Phillies in Game 2 of the NLDS was his fifth straight start on short rest. Four days earlier, Sabathia had thrown 122 pitches in a complete game.

It was clear pretty early in that game that Sabathia was not the pitcher he was down the stretch, and Phillies fans will never forget the second inning. (We will explore the famous nine-pitch Brett Myers walk and Shane Victorino grand slam in more depth Tuesday.)

The other advantage the Phillies had was that the Brewers' rock that year, Ben Sheets, found out at the end of the regular season that he needed Tommy John surgery and would be unable to pitch in the playoffs. Sheets, who had a 3.24 ERA in 128 starts from 2004-08 and was a four-time All-Star, never ended up making a postseason start. 

Had he been healthy, Sheets would have started Game 1 for the Brewers ahead of Sabathia. Instead, that Game 1 start went to Yovani Gallardo, who had torn his ACL on May 1 and was unable to return until the final week of the regular season. 

Gallardo went on to have a decent 12-year career but he wasn't ready for that big moment in enemy territory in '08. The Phillies scored three runs off of him (unearned because of a Rickie Weeks error), and that was plenty of run support for Cole Hamels.

The Phillies clearly benefitted from the Brewers' starting pitching situation that October, but that doesn't discredit the business they took care of. In the NLDS, Prince Fielder went 1 for 14 (.071). Ryan Braun, who would go on to become a career Phillie-killer, had just an OK series, reaching base in five of 17 plate appearances and going hitless with runners in scoring position until his final at-bat of the series, an RBI single with the Phillies up five runs in their Game 4 clincher.

The Brewers hit just .206/.271/.254 as a team in that series with one home run against the Phils.

The re-airs of the Phillies' entire 2008 playoff run begin tonight on NBC Sports Philadelphia. The NLDS runs this week from Monday-Thursday, followed by the NLCS next week and the World Series the week after.

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Kid Cole becomes The Man — '07 lessons Cole Hamels carried into '08

Kid Cole becomes The Man — '07 lessons Cole Hamels carried into '08

On Monday night, NBC Sports Philadelphia will begin re-airing the Phillies’ magical 2008 postseason run, all 14 games, culminating with the club’s World Series clincher against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Grab a chair. Find the remote. It’s going to be great.

Before our trip down Memory Lane commences, it’s fair to remind everyone that none of this happens without a 24-year-old kid named Cole Hamels.

Yeah, Jimmy, Chase and Ryan were vital cogs in Charlie Manuel’s victory machine from 2007 to 2011. And guys named Lidge, Madson, Victorino, Werth, Ruiz, Burrell and Stairs — oh, yeah, that Stairs guy — were crucial to the cause, as well.

But Kid Cole was The Man during that October run. The Phillies received some outstanding pitching up and down the staff that month, but Hamels was a cut above. He started five games and the Phillies won all of them. In 35 innings of work, he allowed just seven runs for a glistening ERA of 1.80. He was named MVP of the National League Championship Series and World Series.

Hamels benefited from confidence and momentum in that postseason. 

“I had that belief that I was very good and each and every game I was pitching, I felt better and better and better and everything worked out,” he told us a few weeks ago.

The momentum and confidence that Hamels enjoyed was rooted in his first start that postseason: On October 1, in front of 45,929 crazies at Citizens Bank Park, Hamels neutralized the heavy-hitting Milwaukee Brewers in a 3-1 victory in Game 1 of the NL Division Series. Hamels pitched eight shutout innings, scattered two hits, walked one and struck out nine. That’s what you call a tone-setter and you can watch it again Monday night.

The gem against the Brewers was Hamels’ second postseason start. He’d lost Game 1 of the NLDS to Colorado the year before. He walked three batters in the second inning of that game and gave up three runs. The Phils were a quick out in that postseason and the Game 1 loss stuck with Hamels for a year, until he took the mound against Milwaukee that day.

“I got my butt kicked the year before against Colorado and I’m like, ‘Gosh, I don’t want to have another one of those,'" Hamels said. “Game 1 is so important to get things going off right. There were a lot of nerves going in because I didn’t want to repeat ’07. But at the same time, I had to trust myself. Throw that first pitch, get that called first strike and (the nerves) go out the window and you, all of a sudden, calm down.

Hamels had faced the Brewers twice that regular season. They had roughed him up early in the season and he came back to beat them in September.

The Brewers thought they had a good scouting report on Hamels coming into the NLDS. Hamels was a lefty who could locate a plus fastball and dazzle with a great changeup — he didn’t add the cutter until later in his career — and everyone knew that. But on this day, Hamels had something extra up his sleeve: a sharp curveball. It was the difference maker that day and the pitch that helped his postseason — and the team’s on the whole — get off on a strong foot.

“He’d been mostly fastball-changeup against us,” Milwaukee shortstop J.J. Hardy said after that game. “He mixed in that curveball for strikes today and that got us off his other two pitches. This was the best I’ve seen him.”

Hamels has always had a love-hate relationship with his curveball.

On that day, he loved it.

And the Brewers, of course, hated it.

“The curveball always has been a pitch that’s either here … or there,” said Hamels, pretending to toss the latter away like an old apple core. “I had the feel of it that day and if I know I have the feel of my curveball I know hands-down I can win because I have three pitches and they’re all plus.”

Hamels threw 101 pitches through eight innings that day and, with a 3-0 lead, could have pursued a shutout.

“Charlie looked at me like, ‘You want to finish?’ “ the pitcher recalled. “I was like, ‘No. We have Lidge.”

Brad Lidge, who had gone 41 for 41 in save chances during the regular season, survived a bumpy ninth for the save as the Phils opened the best-of-five series with a win.

After stumbling in the first round of the postseason the year before, Hamels knew this postseason would be different. That’s why he deferred to Lidge in the ninth.

“I wanted to save myself for the next series because I knew we were going to the next round,” he said.

Confident guy.

See why (once again) Monday night on NBC Sports Philadelphia.

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