LOS ANGELES - The bat is round and so is the ball, and for that reason you never see moments like this coming: Matt Stairs walking from the dugout to the batter's box with a man on first and two outs and a tie game in the top of the eighth, a 40-year-old man with 16 big-league seasons and one postseason hit to his credit, a man who spent the first three-quarters of the season playing in an entirely different country, seeing the ball and hitting the ball and sending a team with whom he is still getting acclimated to the brink of its first World Series in 15 years.
Almost 20 years to the day since Kirk Gibson hit the homer that Jack Buck did not believe he just saw, Stairs provided a moment that nobody could have predicted last night, hitting a two-run homer off Jonathan Broxton to lift the Phillies to a 7-5 victory and a 3-1 lead in this National League Championship Series.
"I'm not goin' to hit a single and steal second base,'' said Stairs, who clubbed a 3-1 fastball for the game-winner. "So I think the biggest thing is get up there, swing hard and elevate.''
Suddenly, this is where the Phillies sit: Leading three games to one, with three opportunities to cement the franchise's sixth-ever trip to the game's ultimate stage. They will get their first crack tomorrow night with ace lefthander Cole Hamels on the mound. If they come up short, they will have two chances at Citizens Bank Park, a venue where they have defeated the Dodgers six straight times this season.
The setup seems perfect. But for the majority of the night, until Stairs and Shane Victorino reversed the Phillies' fortunes with two dramatic swings, it looked anything but. Leads were squandered. Opportunities were lost. A routine throw from first was launched into rightfield.
When Victorino walked to the plate with one out in the eighth, the opportunity to stitch together a comeback seemed to be in its twilight. The Dodgers had scored two runs in the bottom of the fifth inning off Joe Blanton to take a 3-2 lead. Then, after the Phillies evened the score at 3-3, they scored two more off Chad Durbin, one on a home run by Casey Blake, the other on a throwing error by Ryan Howard.
Momentum, we'd all been warned, was important this time of year. And Los Angeles had it.
Dodger Stadium, a place the Phillies were 0-5 this season, was rocking. Towels were waving. Music was thumping.
Howard led off the eighth with a single, but Pat Burrell popped out for the pivotal first out. That brought Victorino to the plate. It had been a whirlwind week for the young centerfielder. After driving in four runs in the Phillies' 8-5 victory in Game 2, he had learned his grandmother had passed away. On Sunday, he was at the center of a maelstrom after Dodgers righthander Hiroki Kuroda unleashed a pitch at his head, sparking a benches-clearing incident.
Prior to last night's game, Victorino learned he had been fined $2,500 for his role in the incident. In his first at-bat, he grounded into a doubleplay with runners on first and second and one out, costing the Phillies a crucial run.
But with a man on first and a 5-3 deficit on the scoreboard and righthander Cory Wade on the mound, he wasted little time. Wade threw him a curveball low and inside. Victorino swung his bat like a wheat thresher. The relievers sitting in the Phillies' bullpen rose to their feet. Closer Brad Lidge, who would later record his first four-out save of the season, initially thought it was a double. But the ball kept carrying, eeking over the yellow padding atop the fence and whizzing by the head of rookie catcher Lou Marson.
Suddenly the game was tied.
"This is what you play for as a kid,'' Victorino said. "You play for it in the minor leagues. You get an opportunity and try to make the best of it.''
Three batters later, Stairs did the same. There were two out. Carlos Ruiz was on first base. Righthander Broxton was on the mound. Broxton had not allowed a home run in Dodger Stadium since July 2006.
Stairs, a veteran currently playing for his 11th big-league team, had never appeared in a League Championship Series. He was 1-for-12 all-time in the postseason, including 0-for-2 this year. He watched a strike, then three straight balls, then pulled off the improbable, launching a no-doubt-about-it drive into the seats in right-center.
"A professional at-bat,'' was how manager Charlie Manuel described it.
As Stairs walked down the steps in the dugout he was mobbed by his teammates. Dodger Stadium was silent. The momentum was gone.
The Dodgers threatened in the bottom of the eighth, but Lidge eventually closed it out.
The hero, however, was Stairs
"You want to get that one big hit where you feel like you're part of the team,'' Stairs said. "Not that I don't feel like I'm part of the team, by no means, but when you get that nice celebration coming into the dugout and you're getting your ass hammered by guys, it's no better feeling than to have that done.'' *
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.