Thursday, May 26, 2011
Rashi, our Australian Shepherd, followed me dutifully in to the kitchen, looking up expectantly as I opened my laptop to check the scores before we went out. The Red Sox had clobbered Cleveland. The Phillies, after Halladay gave up a 3-1 lead, were in extra innings with Cincinnati. Each team had just scored in the 10th to leave the scored tied at 4-4.
That is when Rashi's long night started. That is when Wilson Valdez earned himself a permanent place in Phillies, and baseball, lore. Perhaps it is too soon to speak the name Dave Roberts--the journeyman outfielder whose stolen base in the bottom of the ninth inning of an elimination game launched the Red Sox to the championship in 2004--but Wednesday night's game was the stuff kid's dreams are made of.
The game wore on. Inning after inning, the late relievers for each side handled their opponents with little threat of a resolution to the contest. By the end of the 18th inning, the Phillies last pitcher, Dennys Baez was spent, and there was no one left in the bullpen.
Enter Wilson Valdez. A 33-year old utility infielder from the Dominican Republic, Valdez had never pitched an inning as a professional baseball player. Not in the major leagues. Not in the minor leagues. But he was game to give it a shot, and Phillies manager Charlie Manuel had nowhere else to go.
Valdez proceeded to live a dream. The game was six hours hold, but the Philly faithful were hanging in. Fans--including many who clearly were going to be tired in school the next day--chanted his name as he faced the heart of the Reds line up.
And he looked the part. He looked like an infielder who had been handed the ball. One of his first pitches went wide to the backstop--he was not crisp. But he settled in, and one could slowly see the kid emerge, as the fantasy that happened to be real unfolded. He became the Dominican youth channelling Pedro Martinez, the Dominican legend who himself spent a few fading months in a Phillies uniform. Wilson and Pedro. Similar slight build. Right handers.
OK. Maybe that is the end of the comparison. One a slam dunk Hall-of-Famer. One, not so much. But on Wednesday night--or make that Thursday morning--Wilson Valdez channelled Pedro in his imagination. He was dealing.
He had clearly practiced the moves. Standing on the mound, right foot on the rubber, peering in for the sign. Like he had done it a thousand times before--just not for real.
He was a bit shaky at first, facing reigning National League MVP Joey Votto. His first batter as a major league pitcher. But Valdez was inhaling the wonder of the moment. A few pitches in, he shakes off the sign from Dane Sardinha. Hard to imagine what he was shaking off, actually. The 86 mile an hour fastball or the 88 mile an hour fastball. Perhaps he was clearing his head, checking to see if he was really there.
No. He was shaking off Sardinha because that is what a kid does, living out that moment. Top of the 19th. Facing the heart of the order. It is a mind game, me vs. the batter... Votto, perhaps not quite believing the situation, flied out lazily to center.
Then Valdez faced Scott Rolen, stirring the fans into a greater pique of frenzy. Go Wilson Go!
Scott Rolen! The scriptwriter made a great choice. Rolen came up in the Phillies organization. A powerful third basemen, heir to the hot corner legacy of Michael Jack Schmidt. Heir now as well to the boos that rained down on Rolen, the player who abandoned the city and the team, back in the days before the parade.
Valdez, still fighting for control of his pitches, located a fastball on Rolen's shin, and located him on first base.
But then, Valdez settled in. The outcome was never in doubt. It never is in those situations. Who misses that shot at the buzzer when you are a kid?
Valdez showed no fear. He was facing the heart of the order. He gave in to his inner Pedro, ceded his Dominican soul to his childhood hero. He peered in to Jay Bruce. Bruce, the powerful slugger, leading the National League in home runs.
Really, could it get any better this? First, the league MVP goes down. Next, he hits Rolen. Now he is facing down Bruce?
So he drops down, wheels in from the side. Pure Pedro. His teammates are in awe.
He is feeling it. He is dealing. Bruce takes him deep, but not deep enough. Flies out the the warning track in deep center.
Then with two outs, it comes down to Carlos Fisher. Relief pitcher. An easy out for any pitcher in the majors.
If he was facing a just any major league pitcher.
But he was facing Pedro Martinez.
It was over. As Fisher skied a pop up behind second base, Valdez was already trotting off the field as the ball landed in Placido Polanco's glove. It doesn't get any better than this.
If you weren't watching, it all ended in the bottom of the 19th. Phillies scored, and won 5-4.
The long night ended. Finally, Rashi got her walk. And Wilson Valdez became the first player since Babe Ruth to start a game in the field and win it on the mound.
Posted by David Paul at Thursday, May 26, 2011