ST. LOUIS – Ben Francisco's(notes) swing looked good. He stood in the batting cage in the bowels of Busch Stadium hacking away against Ali Modami, same as he'd done thousands of other times. Nobody knows Francisco's swing quite like Modami, the Philadelphia Phillies' batting-practice pitcher and Francisco's personal pitching machine in the offseason.
"There's a different trajectory when he's hitting it well," Modami said. "More loft. And today was really good."
Just how good not even Modami could have guessed. Francisco drilled a three-run pinch-hit home run in the seventh inning, and despite some late-game scares from the Phillies' bullpen, it proved the difference in their 3-2 victory against St. Louis that gave Philadelphia a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-five National League Division Series.
Every offseason, Francisco and Modami drive a few miles from their houses in Scottsdale, Ariz., and meet up at the home of former Cy Young winner Mark Davis, who has a batting cage on the premises. Modami needs to keep his arm fresh. Francisco needs to hone his swing. Soon after the season ends, months before spring training, they start their routine. They spend hours together, throwing and swinging, talking and commiserating, dreaming of a night like Tuesday and a moment like Game 3.
Francisco knew the chance was coming, too. The Phillies' starter, Cole Hamels(notes), had thrown 117 pitches. Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia(notes) stood on the mound. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was going to need a right-handed pinch hitter, which meant Francisco had better be ready. Manuel didn't need to ask him to warm up. He fetched Modami, like Garcia a left-hander, and went to work.
And when he stepped in the batters' box, Francisco felt déjà vu. On Sept. 14, in the seventh inning of a tie game, Garcia left a sinker up in the strike zone to Francisco. He caught it off the end of the bat and flew out to the warning track. After intentionally walking Carlos Ruiz(notes) to face Francisco in Game 3, Garcia threw another flat sinker, this one four inches more to the outside and one inch higher, and Francisco didn't miss.
"I knew who he was," Garcia said. "I knew what he'd done in the past."
All Garcia could do was lament an opportunity missed and a game blown. Over his first 91 pitches, he dominated a Phillies lineup that looked overmatched and overwhelmed. Pitch No. 92, to Francisco, left the bat a laser and managed to carry over the wall and careen into the hand of bullpen catcher Jesus Tiamo, who planned on giving it back to Francisco.
He certainly deserved it. This hasn't been the easiest of seasons for the 29-year-old, who petered out after a hot first week and was relegated to a bench role. It was there that Francisco devoted himself to the fine art of sitting for a few hours, using a couple cuts in the cage as warm-up and being thrown to the lions.
Francisco went 7 for 26 as a pinch hitter this season. He last homered May 25. His last pinch-hit home run came July 3, 2007, as a Cleveland Indian. Matt Stairs(notes) he wasn't. This was a fluke – a beautiful, crazy stroke of luck that he knew the pitcher and the pitch, recognized the spin as well as the situation's gravity and got just enough lift to will it over the wall.
"I'm hoping that it gets in the gap," said Victorino, on second base at the time, "that nobody catches it."
"I didn't know it was gone until I saw it bounce over the fence," Francisco said. "I thought it was going to be a double."
It was much more than that. As great as the Phillies' starting rotation is – Roy Oswalt(notes) and his 3.21 ERA go in Game 4 on Wednesday – they are vulnerable when their bats go cold, as they did against Garcia. The second-guessing of Cardinals manager Tony La Russa started about five milliseconds after Francisco's ball exited the premises. Everything from why he didn't yank Garcia before the seventh inning to his rationale of pitching to Francisco instead of Ruiz.
In his career, Francisco was 1 for 9 against Garcia. Ruiz, La Russa reasoned, has been a Phillies killer (.310/.368/.450 career splits) and had done even more damage this season. From that perspective, it made sense. Putting on another runner in a tie game, even with first base open, didn't.
Because when Francisco stepped in, he felt comfortable. The weather in St. Louis was an unseasonable 80 degrees, much like winter in Scottsdale, and the recent time in the batting cage had been fruitful to his swing.
"Obviously," Francisco said, "it paid off."
Across the clubhouse, Modami beamed. It's tough to watch any friend, particularly one who works as hard as Francisco, lose his job and maintain his sense of worth. Francisco never sulked. He didn't pout. He understood that on a team of 25, being the 25th man is better than being 26th.
"He's the best," Modami said. "Good guy. Down to earth. He deserves this."
Modami, 31, shied away from sopping up the acclaim others in his position gladly would take.
"No credit," Modami said. "I don't want any."
This was Ben Francisco's night. Finally, all those swings, those hours at, of all places, Mark Davis' house, had paid off. In the biggest way possible.
Other popular stories on Yahoo! Sports:
• 'Sweetness' excerpt does NFL legend Walter Payton an injustice
• Video: Is Clemson this year's Auburn?
• Yahoo! Sports Radio: Jeff Passan on World Series ratings if Yankees, Phillies don't advance