Monday, July 12, 2010

A Night In Philly I'll Never Forget

It's been a long time, I know. A job will do that to your blogging skills. But I've been prompted to come back and write after what I witnessed this past weekend in Philadelphia. I watched the greatest single game I've ever seen in my life, a true testament to everything that makes baseball the best sport conjured up by human beings.

In just over three hours, I remembered everything that made me fall in love with the game 18 years ago this summer. Affirmed to me was that despite cries that baseball is dead and no longer matters in 2010, baseball is alive and well, will never die and will always matter. I'm going to tell you why.


My best friend Sam asked me to come with him to New Jersey and Philadelphia to pick up some furniture that belonged to a late friend of ours and his girlfriend. I agreed, and we decided to take in a Phillies game against Cincinnati as a result. This would be my fourth game at beautiful Citizens Bank Park on the south side of Philadelphia.

Citizens Bank Park is awesome. Like many of the new stadiums constructed in the last 20 years, it's a big ballpark that somehow feels incredibly intimate, and you're right on top of the action at all times. When you're there, you can tell the fans love the place, too.

Phillies fans are also great, they have a lot in common with Boston fans in terms of years of disappointment and dealing with unfortunate or bad situations when it comes to their teams. I've never been happier for a fanbase when the Phillies won the 2008 World Series because I knew just how much it meant to them. Now, like Red Sox fans, winning has made them want to win even more. You can feel that desire every time you walk into Citizens Bank Park.

Sam and I were pumped to find out Roy Halladay would be starting for Philadelphia Saturday night. We bought our tickets beforehand, knowing a Saturday night game in Philly with Halladay on the hill would sell out (we were right). But starting for the Reds was someone I'd never heard of, a rookie lefty named Travis Wood, who'd be making just his third big league start.

Wood was selected 60th in the 2005 MLB Draft, which I consider to be one of the best draft classes in history. To give you some perspective, Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Garza and Clay Buchholz were all taken in front of Wood, with Nolan Reimold, Chase Headley, Kevin Slowey, Yunel Escobar and Brett Gardner all going after him. So in such a deep class, going 60th was nothing to scoff at. But that didn't mean I knew anything about him before Saturday night's game.

We showed up a bit late thanks to traffic, and even though we were only about 20 minutes late we'd already missed the first two innings. It was National League ball at its finest. Little did we know what was in store as we made our way to the second row of section 416 in the upper deck along the first base line.

Halladay and Wood were both cruising. Halladay was laboring through some of his innings, scattering a few hits here and there, but typically getting out of jams thanks to his typically-awesome sinker.

Wood, on the other hand, was dominating a still-strong Phillies lineup that was missing Chase Utley and Placido Polanco. As a lefty with a deceptive delivery, he kept the Phils off balance with impeccable control which allowed him get ahead in counts and never fall behind. He got stronger as the game went along, at first spotting his fastball at 90-91 then working his way up to 92-93.

Wood was never overpowering Saturday night, seemingly getting all of his outs on fly balls. Shane Victorino hit a line shot down the third base line in the fourth but it was snared quickly by Miguel Cairo (who's somehow still alive) for the out. The Phils were making contact, but nothing found open spaces.

Wood retired nine in a row to start the game. Then 12. Then 15. That's when Sam and I started taking note that something very, very special was happening.

In historic terms, no-hitters and even perfect games have become somewhat common place in the last two years. There have been three official perfect games (including one by Halladay) in the MLB since the start of last season, and you'd have to be completely heartless to not count what Armando Galarraga did earlier this year as a perfect game, too. If you include Galarraga's performance, there have been six no-hitters or perfect games this year and we're just now at the All-Star break.

In most other years, I wouldn't get my hopes up about actually seeing a perfect game. Before last year, it had only happened 17 times since 1880, with 15 happening in the modern era beginning in 1900. The chances were so slim. I would have figured there'd be no way a rookie could possibly go on the road and toss a perfect game against the two-time N.L. champs. But in 2010, I had reason to believe.

Wood kept rolling. He struck out the immortal Cody Ransom to end the 5th, and then got Halladay to flail at strike three to finish the 6th. When that happened, I could feel a moment of unease in the stadium. Phillies fans were picking up on what was going on. A perfect game was being thrown against them, in their own park, by someone who might as well have been working behind the counter at Ishkabibbles on South Street.

Meanwhile, Halladay was also dealing, making the Reds hitters look bad with his Cy Young repertoire. Through seven innings he'd only allowed three hits and no one had crossed the plate for the Reds. We were looking at a situation where Wood could throw nine perfect innings...and still would need to keep going for a win.

Sam and I raced to buy programs so we'd have something to commemorate the game in case it was, in fact, historic. With my lifelong love affair with the history of baseball, this had potential to be one of the true highlights of my life. I told him that if, by chance, Wood were to throw nine perfect innings then finish the game with a perfect 10th after a hypothetical Reds go-ahead run, we'd probably have witnessed the single greatest pitching performance in the history of the game.

Upon conjuring this thought, my mind immediately centered on one man: Harvey Haddix. In case you don't know (and you probably don't), Haddix pitched what's considered the best single game in history on May 26, 1959. He threw nine perfect innings for the Pirates against the Braves, but his team couldn't score a run. So Haddix kept going, retiring another nine hitters before his third baseman committed an error. Later in the inning he gave up a walk-off double to Joe Adcock and lost the game 1-0 despite pitching 12 perfect innings.

Wood had a chance to do something similar to what Haddix did, but hopefully this time, he could walk away with the win. And I would be in the park to see it happen.

In the bottom of the 7th, Jimmy Rollins led off with a long flyout to center. Victorino popped out by the camera well on the first base line on an excellent play by Joey Votto (the game was pretty much devoid of excellent defensive plays except that one and the Cairo play, which is atypical for such a performance). Next up was Jayson Werth, the bearded, embattled right fielder who's experienced a sub-par season and has even been mentioned in trade rumors.

Werth worked the count. He was fouling off pitches, making Wood sweat out on the mound. He got to a three-ball count, which seemed to be the first time that had happened all game. It got to the payoff pitch. Three balls. Two strikes. Two outs. A chance to end the rookie's pursuit of perfection.

The crowd stood up and cheered louder than I could have imagined. The Phillies fans were willing Werth to get on base. They were cheering because there was a chance Werth might draw a walk. I had never seen anything like it, and I doubt I will again.

When Werth swung and missed for Wood's 21st consecutive retired batter, the stadium made a collective groan that was deafening. It was followed by complete silence as Wood paced his way back to the dugout. That's when I knew I was seeing the greatest game I'd ever witnessed. At that point, I honestly didn't care if Wood got the perfecto or not. I was seeing a great game. That's all that mattered.

Cairo doubled to start the top of the 8th and was successfully bunted over by Drew Stubbs. Next up was Ryan Hanigan, a no-name backup catcher who's primary job for the night was to call pitches for his rookie pitcher (and was doing a damn fine job at that). With the go-ahead run 90 feet away Hanigan staged a fantastic at bat against Halladay, but the ace got the novice swinging. Dusty Baker couldn't pinch-hit for Wood, and watched on as his pitcher killed the rally by striking out. I thought there was an outside chance Baker would call for the squeeze just to see if it would work, but it didn't happen.

The usher in our section was a jovial, portly fellow with a fine Philadelphia accent. I told him that Ryan Howard needed to take a swing at a first-pitch fastball to see if he could end Wood's dance with history, and possibly put the Phils ahead going into the ninth. Howard took my advice, but got under it too much and flew out to center. 22 down. Ben Francisco lined out to left. 23 down. Up next was Ransom, and about midway through the at-bat he turned on a pitch and launched it down the left field line, high and foul. It was easily the hardest-hit ball of the evening against Wood, but Ransom was just a bit out in front. The crowd gasped before realizing it was foul.

Ransom lifted a lazy pop fly to right that landed in the glove of Jay Bruce. 24 down. Only three to go. But he needed some help. Halladay wouldn't allow it. Votto laced a two-out single to left field, only to be stranded there when Jonny Gomes lined out to Werth.

Regardless of what happened in the bottom of the 9th, Wood wouldn't be getting his perfect game without the scenario I outlined a few paragraphs ago. It was a long shot, and I was pulling for him. It could happen. I could see the best performance ever.

Up first for Philly was Carlos Ruiz. If you've paid attention to the Phillies these past two postseasons, you'll know Ruiz is insanely clutch. He has a .905 OPS in the playoffs despite a pedestrian .726 OPS during the regular season. He hit 13 homers total in the '08 and '09 regular seasons but clubbed three dingers in those postseasons. I reminded Sam of this as Ruiz strode to the plate.

Ruiz got a pitch he liked, and drove it into the left-center field gap for a double. It was over. Wood's run with perfection died after 24 straight outs.

The crowd, understandably, went crazy. They didn't want to see a perfect game thrown against them. As a fan, I could understand their feeling. Mike Mussina lost a perfect game in 2001 with two outs in the 9th and two strikes on Carl Everett in Fenway Park. As much as I hated Everett, and that Red Sox team in general, at that time I had no desire to see the Yankees celebrate a perfect game on our turf. The Sox lost the game, but Everett saved us the embarrassment. The Phillies fans felt the same way.

Eventually their cheers for Ruiz turned into cheers for Wood, who was being consoled by teammates around the mound. I was standing and cheering the entire time, mostly for Wood. He came so close, as so many others had, but couldn't do it. I felt for him. But I honestly wasn't sad I missed out on seeing a perfect game.

I was too happy that I was witnessing an incredible game to be sad about anything.

Now, the question was, how long would this last? With the winning run at second base, would Wood be dealt a terrible loss? Or would these two clubs, deadlocked at no score, play deep into the night? Wilson Valdez gifted the Reds an out by popping up a bunt, causing the entire crowd to briefly lose their shit.

Hitting in Halladay's spot was Raul Ibanez, a pro's pro if there ever was one. He hit a mammoth shot to dead center that I could have sworn was gone when it left his bat, but landed on the warning track in Victorino's glove. Rollins popped out. Wood trudged back to the dugout, his night finished. His line: 9 IP, 0 R, 1 H, o BB, 8 K, 108 pitches.

Wood might have a long, productive career in the big leagues. Or he could flame out and amount to nothing. Either way, for the rest of his life, he'll wonder what might have been that night in Philly. Baseball is a cruel game. Wood pitches the game of his life, goes nine innings, but couldn't give his team a victory.

Brad Lidge relieved Halladay and struggled mightily in the 10th, but held the Reds scoreless. Nick Masset, and later Bill Bray, shut down the Phillies in the bottom half. Still no score. The crowd began to get uneasy. The previously washed-up Jose Contreras dominated the top of the 11th, and Bray came back out to start the bottom half.

After striking out Ransom, up came that man Ruiz. He launched a drive to the exact same spot he'd reached to break up the perfecto, ending up on second once again. Valdez was intentionally walked, and after Ross Gload popped up for the second out, Baker made a curious decision. He elected to lift Bray, a lefty, in favor of Logan Ondrusek, a righty, to switch Rollins to the left side.

Our jovial usher said this was a bad decision. I was inclined to agree. On the second pitch, Rollins smacked a single to right field. Ruiz trotted home, and the crowd went wild. Rollins was mobbed at first base.

With the Phillies jubilation, I made sure to watch the Reds dugout as well for their reaction. They were devastated. It was like they'd lost Game 7 of the World Series. Their heads were hung low. They knew they blew a chance at history. If they'd just been able to push a run across before, they could have made sure their rookie pitcher was remembered forever.

As I walked out of the stadium amongst the happy Phillies denizens, I knew July 10, 2010 was a night I'd remember forever.


I feel so fortunate to love the game of baseball as much as I do. I appreciated every second I was in the ballpark. I'll never, ever forget the feeling watching that game. As an outsider, not rooting for either team, I could fully appreciate what I was seeing.

Baseball is awesome.

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