Finally, some drama in our showdown between the only two World Series championship teams in Phillies history.
And it comes compliments of a man who has done it before.
With the 2008 Phillies down to their last out and staring at a gaping series deficit, Matt Stairs came off the bench and clubbed a heart-stopping, pinch-hit grand slam in the top of the ninth inning to rescue his team from a two-run deficit and propel it to a 7-5 win over the 1980 club in a Game 4 thriller at Veterans Stadium.
The best-of-seven series, being played out via Strat-O-Matic computer simulation, based on real-life statistics from the 1980 and 2008 seasons, is now tied at two games apiece.
Stairs’ dramatic Game 4 blast came against Tug McGraw, the ’80 club’s bullpen ace. McGraw enjoyed a brilliant season in 1980 — he had a 1.46 ERA in 57 games and finished fifth in the National League Cy Young voting — and images of him striking out Willie Wilson to clinch the franchise’s first World Series title that season will forever be etched in the minds of Phillies fans. But on this night, in this computer simulation, Tugger could not lock it down.
Both teams received solid efforts from their respective starters, Joe Blanton and Marty Bystrom.
Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, the NL MVP in 1980, continued his strong series with a three-run homer in the first inning and his club took a 5-3 lead into the top of the ninth inning.
The ’08 team hit just .165 in the first three games of the series and it had just four hits through the first eight innings, but the bats began to rumble in the top of the ninth. Pat Burrell started the rally with a one-out single against Dickie Noles and Pedro Feliz and Carlos Ruiz kept the game alive with a pair of two-out singles.
Needing one out to end the game and take a commanding two-game lead in the series, ’80 skipper Dallas Green waved McGraw in from the bullpen. Charlie Manuel, the 2008 team’s skipper, sent up Stairs to pinch-hit for Ryan Madson.
Stairs, of course, was a real-life hero in the Phillies’ run to the World Series in 2008 and his go-ahead, pinch-hit, two-run blast against the Dodgers’ Jonathan Broxton in Game 4 of the NL Championship Series that year will always be the stuff of legend, one of the biggest and most important homers in Phillies history.
Stairs hit 13 homers in 2008 but only one against a lefty. However, in this matchup, his lefty power stroke figured to be a good match for McGraw’s vaunted left-handed screwball.
Suddenly, the ’08 Phillies had the lead and a few moments later, sure-thing Brad Lidge was locking down a most improbable but highly dramatic win.
Once we saw the result of this Game 4 cross the computer screen, we just had to call Stairs and tell him what happened.
“Oh, Lord,” he said. “That’s crazy.”
Stairs is living back home in Canada, in his native New Brunswick. He and his wife are volunteering their time delivering prescriptions to elderly residents during the coronavirus health crisis. They are due to become grandparents in a week or so.
We gave Stairs the lowdown on what we were doing, simulating a series between the 1980 and 2008 Phillies.
“Those were two tremendous teams,” he said.
Yes, we told him, and fans are riveted.
Stairs said he knew all about the greatness of Tug McGraw and regretted that he never met the man.
“I wish I would have,” he said. “I heard so many great things about him. He was a great man, a character and a great competitor. He was a great pitcher.”
Stairs played along with the fantasy of it all.
His approach against McGraw?
“Swing hard, like you live,” he said.
Then he asked a question.
“Did Schmitty give me a high-five when I was rounding third base?” he asked.
Stairs hit 265 regular-season homers in his long career and 24 were pinch-hits. He twice hit pinch-hit grand slams, one for the Phillies in 2009.
Now he has a virtual grand slam in his book and it was a big one, perhaps a series saver for the 2008 Phillies.
We asked Stairs where it ranked in his personal memory bank.
“Just below Jon Broxton,” he said, being a good sport.
The series stays at Veterans Stadium for Game 5. The '80 Phillies need to put the difficult loss behind them quickly. Green used five different starting pitchers in the actual World Series against Kansas City in 1980 and that's what we're doing here. So, Larry Christenson gets the start against '08 ace Cole Hamels. The '08 club, hitting just .183 in four games, needs a good one because '80 Cy Young-winner Steve Carlton is set for Game 6 and he'll surely have a chip on his shoulder after taking the loss in Game 1.