WHEN THE Phillies picked up Matt Stairs a couple years ago, then-general manager Pat Gillick's hopes were modest. If Stairs could help win one game, he reasoned, the move would have been worthwhile.
That his signature moment turned out to be a pinch-hit, game-winning home run in Game 4 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium was just a bonus.
Getting Jeff Conine late in 2006 didn't result in the same payout, but the philosophy was the same. As it was earlier this week when veteran Mike Sweeney materialized in a Phillies uniform.
Sweeney doesn't get all the credit for turning what appeared destined to be a desultory loss into a stirring, 7-5 win over the Mets last night. But his leadoff single in the bottom of the eighth was the first of five straight hits against the New York bullpen that led to a six-run rally, which lifted the Phils to their 13th win in the last 15 games.
Fittingly, Sweeney also drove in the final run with a single to left when the lineup turned over. It was his first start since joining the team in Florida on Wednesday.
"It was truly a team effort. Even though it was late, our bats came alive," he said. "This was great. It's a great lineup and to be in the middle of. It was a blast. It's a night I'll always remember. I'm used to watching the Phillies do this in October when I'm on my fishing trips. To be a part of it is a joy. It's like nothing I've ever experienced in the big leagues."
He also made a nice diving stop at first base to rob Carlos Beltran in the top of the eighth and, after his leadoff single in the bottom of the inning, went first-to-third on Jayson Werth's base hit up the middle.
"I'm not the fastest guy in the world, but I take pride in the way I run the bases," Sweeney said. "Ball in the dirt, first-to-third, it's big. I hope that bringing that here, a little passion and a little energy, can spread through the clubhouse. Because that one extra base can be huge."
Second-guessing a Manuel is nothing new around Citizens Bank Park, but this time it was Mets manager Jerry Manuel who had some explaining to do. After pitching out of trouble in the first inning, his starter, Jon Niese, allowed just one runner to get as far as second before he left the game in the top of the eighth with a 2-1 lead.
He said that he thought Niese's pitch count, 111, was enough. Still, considering what happened next, he might have wondered.
Bobby Parnell came in and gave up four straight singles.
Pedro Feliciano relieved Parnell and gave up a single, a walk and another single before Raul Ibanez, the eighth batter of the inning, finally made an out.
Manny Acosta relieved Feliciano and gave up a sacrifice fly and yet another base hit before finally ending the inning.
And even though it was only the eighth, that could well have been the Phillies' last gasp. If the Mets had held the lead one more inning they could have used closer Francisco Rodriguez in the ninth. And K-Rod has been practically unhittable recently.
"Niese was pitching good," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel noted. "In the third inning he started using his breaking ball and his changeup to go with his fastball. When he started mixing it up, he was tough. Once he left the game, that's when we picked."
There was still some drama left, though. Danys Baez started the ninth and left with two outs and two on. After a series of chess moves, lefthander J.C. Romero faced Mike Hessman . . . whose pinch-hit homer created a save situation.
Brad Lidge came in to end the game with a strikeout, but questions linger. Romero is the only lefthander in the Phillies bullpen and he's struggling right now. In his last four appearances he has been charged with two blown saves and has allowed three runs in 1 2/3 innings.
Phillies starter Joe Blanton turned in what might have been his best start of the season before the 92nd consecutive sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park (45,378), plus an impressive array of former Phils who gathered for the team's annual alumni weekend. He didn't get a win, but maybe had something to build on.
"Joe Blanton pitched good. He got on a roll. He did a good job," said Charlie Manuel, whose team trails the Braves by one game after Atlanta lost to the Giants, 3-2, in 11 innings.
Sweeney, the 37-year-old who has never appeared in the postseason, was the story last night, though.