PHILADELPHIA – The game-winning, pinch-hit home run he hit last October for the Philadelphia Phillies? It's something, Matt Stairs(notes) said, that someone brings up to him, oh, just about every time he walks into a bar.
"It's nice to turn the page,'' he said, "but it's a real big page, pretty hard to turn.''
Jonathan Broxton(notes), meanwhile, had entertained little desire to relive that moment. He never watched a replay, he said, of making the pitch that all but propelled the Phillies into the World Series while sending the Los Angeles Dodgers into nuclear winter.
But Monday night, the Dodgers' closer could not escape his past, coming face to face again with a personal demon, one appearing in the lumpy shape of a middle-aged Canadian who once joked that he'd be driving a Zamboni machine if he couldn't hit a baseball.
Like last season, it was Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. The Dodgers needed a win to draw even with the Phillies and stave off almost-certain elimination. Dodgers manager Joe Torre entrusted Broxton and his 100-mph fastball with the game. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel summoned Stairs to take it away from him.
Broxton said he didn't experience a flashback. Stairs?
"Ummmm. [long pause] Yes. I walked into the batter's box, and there was one thing on my mind, and that was to go for the Budweiser sign.''
Stairs did not hit a home run Monday night. In the end, it was teammate Jimmy Rollins(notes) who was hoisted into the air by Ryan Howard(notes) after hitting a two-run double with two outs in the ninth that lifted the Phillies to a 5-4 win and put them within a game of returning to the World Series.
Rollins was the one the Phillies made the focus of their celebration behind closed doors in their clubhouse, away from the TV cameras. "Someone stuck a glass in my hand,'' Eyre said. "I sniffed it, knew what it was. Don Julio. We all lifted a glass to Jimmy and said, 'One more, one more, one more.' ''
But while Rollins was the toast of his teammates, it was Stairs who commenced the winning rally by drawing a four-pitch walk from Broxton, who then hit the next batter, Carlos Ruiz(notes), in the elbow, to put the deciding runs on base.
Broxton's apparent reluctance to tempt fate a second time with Stairs ended just as badly for the Dodgers. Did the memory of the home run play with his mind?
"That's definitely a possibility,'' said Brad Lidge(notes), the Phillies' closer who has experience in such things (Albert Pujols(notes), 2005). "I would imagine that if nothing else, he's thinking of not making a mistake and making that same pitch again.
"I don't know if he was thinking about it or not, but he ended up pitching around him a little bit and it worked out for us.''
Howard, the Phillies' strongman who hit a two-run home run off Randy Wolf(notes) in the first, making it a record eight straight postseason games in which he has driven in at least one run, had his suspicions that Broxton was not pitching with an uncluttered mind.
"I'd have to think, yeah, you definitely don't forget something like that,'' he said. "You're not going to try to get beat the same way.''
Manuel had told Stairs with the Dodgers at-bat in the top of the ninth that he would be the second man up in the bottom of the inning, batting for Pedro Feliz(notes). Broxton, who had retired Jayson Werth(notes) with two men on to end the eighth, coaxed a ground ball to second out of Raul Ibanez(notes) for the first out of the ninth.
With a sellout crowd of 46,157 in Citizens Bank Park furiously waving white towels, Stairs strode to the plate.
"The swings in the cage, all the thought processes, go out the window,'' he said. "You get up there looking for a pitch to hit.''
The first pitch he saw from Broxton registered at 99 mph, the second at 100, then 99 again. Stairs took all three pitches for balls. "He was throwing gas,'' Stairs said, "just not throwing strikes. Good timing for us."
How hard is it to come in cold to a game and lay off those pitches?
"Not hard,'' he said dryly, "when they're by you.''
Manuel flashed Stairs the green light to swing at 3-and-0.
"I'm kind of glad he didn't throw me [a strike],'' Stairs said, "because I was going to swing as hard as I can and see what happened.''
Stairs is 41, a native of New Brunswick who now lives in Bangor, Maine, where he helps coach the high school hockey team in the offseason. He batted a career-low .194 this season but led the majors in pinch home runs with five.
"I've never turned down a fastball and I never will,'' Stairs said. "I'll be swinging at fastballs when I'm 50. They might be slow-pitch fastballs, but you look forward to those situations.''
When Ruiz took a fastball off his front elbow, the pitchers on the Phillies' bench, Eyre said, yelled, "We've got ice.''
The dugout by then was pandemonium. "When Stairs walked,'' said Eyre, who faced two batters in the ninth before giving way to Lidge, "everyone was yelling, 'Same seat, same seat.' Then when Carlos got hit, the yelling got even louder.''
Lidge was sitting next to another Phillies reliever, Ryan Madson(notes), when Rollins came to the plate, the Phillies down to their last out after pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs(notes) was jammed by a pitch and lined softly to third. Lidge said he was visualizing where Rollins would hit the ball – he imagined a gapper. "Incredible,'' he said, "when it happens that way.''
Eyre, meanwhile, kept it simple: "I was saying, 'C'mon, Jimmy, c'mon Jimmy, c'mon Jimmy,' ."
Rollins drove a ball that split the Dodger outfielders, and Stairs was among the pack of Phillies who followed Howard out to third base, where Rollins was pointing skyward before Howard lifted him in the same direction.
"How easy was it?'' Howard said. "Pretty easy. I didn't get the full extension, though, because I got bum-rushed from the back.''
Broxton, meanwhile, was left to make the lonely walk back to the loser's dugout, just as he'd done a year before.
"He's too good a closer to let anybody on-deck, anybody in the batter's box, to affect him,'' Stairs said, offering a final reflection on whether Broxton had been ill-served by his memory bank. "He was throwing gas, just not throwing strikes.
"One of those things where he threw five bad pitches in a row with a walk and a hit batsman. Jimmy came through with the huge hit for us. Start celebrating.''
- the Dodgers