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The Phillies' Neil Walker owes his life to Roberto Clemente | Extra Innings

Walker's father, Tom, wanted to be on Clemente's plane that crashed in 1972, but Clemente told him there was no room for him.

Neil Walker batting against the Toronto Blue Jays in spring training.
Neil Walker batting against the Toronto Blue Jays in spring training.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

You might have read last week that the Phillies are one of four teams never to play a full seven-game playoff series. They’ve played a few Game 6s — some memorable and some not — but a seven-game series has never gone the distance.

If it’s any consolation, the Phillies start a seven-game series Thursday that is guaranteed to go the distance. It might not be a postseason series, but the next five days in Miami will help determine if the Phillies are going to the playoffs.

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Neil Walker: ‘I literally owe Roberto Clemente my life’

Roberto Clemente has impacted generations of baseball players, inspiring major leaguers from his native Puerto Rico and elsewhere by the way he played for the Pirates during his Hall of Fame career and the way he lived his life. His impact was evident Wednesday when baseball celebrated Roberto Clemente Day and players wore Clemente’s No. 21 and called for it to be retired leaguewide.

But it would be hard to find a current player whose life has been impacted more by Clemente than Neil Walker. The Phillies were off Wednesday, so they’ll celebrate Clemente on Thursday. And it will certainly carry extra meaning for Walker, one of the team’s utility players.

“I literally owe Roberto Clemente my life,” Walker said last year in an interview with the Marlins TV broadcast.

Walker’s father, Tom, was a major-league pitcher and met Clemente while playing winter ball in the 1970s in Puerto Rico. In December 1972, an earthquake ravaged Nicaragua while the league was on a holiday break and Clemente arranged for people to drop donations off at the stadium.

Tom Walker offered his help and spent a few days loading a truck and driving the goods to the airport. On New Year’s Eve, Walker told Clemente that he wanted to fly with him to Nicaragua. But there was no room on the plane. Clemente told Walker to enjoy his holiday.

“I can still see him standing on the ramp to the plane and I’m talking to him. I’m probably the last ballplayer to see him alive,” Tom Walker said in a 2017 interview during a Reds game. “As I worked my way back to my apartment that evening, the person across the street from me came over to tell me that his plane had crashed and there were no survivors.”

Tom Walker would pitch five more seasons in the big leagues, meet his wife, Carolyn, and have four children. Neil Walker was born in 1985, 17 years after Clemente kept his father off the plane, and grew up outside Pittsburgh, the town that is still in love with No. 21.

The Pirates drafted Walker in 2004, and he played seven years at PNC Park, which is connected to downtown Pittsburgh by a bridge named after Clemente and a right-field fence that is 21 feet high. It’s easy to feel Clemente’s presence in Pittsburgh. But Walker did not need any reminders.

“I always felt like I had an angel on my side,” Walker said.

The rundown

The Phillies can host a playoff series if they win the National League East, but then it will be off to the bubble for the later rounds. MLB is planning to move the final three rounds — the division series, league championship series, and World Series — to bubbles. The National League would go to Texas, while the American League would head to California.

The Phillies' playoff fate rests on their pitching, health, and whether they can beat the Marlins, Scott Lauber writes. Lauber runs through four pressing questions as sets the stage for what the Phillies need to do in the final weeks of the season to reach October.

Important dates

Today: Jake Arrieta starts the first of seven straight vs. the Marlins, 6:40 p.m.

Tomorrow: Phillies play two against the Marlins, 5:10 p.m.

Saturday: Phillies and Marlins settle for just one game, 6:10 p.m.

Sunday: Another doubleheader, 1:10 p.m.

Monday: The seventh game in five days against the Marlins, 4:10 p.m.

Stat of the day

Roberto Clemente played 137 games at Connie Mack Stadium against the Phillies, and his 174 hits at 21st and Lehigh trail only Wrigley Field (201 hits) for his most in a visiting ballpark. Clemente’s 30 doubles and 10 triples at Connie Mack were his most at any ballpark outside of Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field.

From 1955 to 1970, Clemente had the second-most hits at Connie Mack among all visiting players, trailing Hank Aaron by 15.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @matt_breen.

Question: Will the Phillies see Sixto Sanchez this week against the Marlins? — Michael A. via email.

Answer: Thanks, Michael. Yes, the Phillies will face Sanchez once during their five-day stay in Miami. It looks like he’ll pitch one of the two games on Sunday if the Marlins decide to keep him on normal rest.

As I’m sure every fan knows, the Phillies traded Sanchez to Miami before the 2018 season as the centerpiece of the package that got them J.T. Realmuto. Sanchez reached the majors last month and has 25 strikeouts in his first 25 innings. He’s been electric, and it will sure sting if the Phillies can’t re-sign Realmuto this winter.