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Despite everything else that had to happen, the most magical, most surprising, most storybook part of the whole game was simply that Brett Phillips got that hit.
Mapped by win probability, the 17 ⅔ frames that came before it look like an electrocardiogram for the heartbeat of a Los Angeles Dodgers or Tampa Bay Rays fan as the two best teams in baseball repeatedly wrested the lead back from one another.
In the first three games of the World Series, there was not a single lead change. Every night, the team that scored first went on to win the game, which is sort of what they intended when the managers plotted out how their bullpen arms would match up against the opposition to protect their precious few runs.
That had been masterful, but by definition it was not especially dynamic. It was not, frankly, very exciting.
But then Game 4 came and blew their best laid plans out of the water, setting a World Series record with runs scored in eight straight half-innings. Four lead changes all told, the last one ending the game.
The 14 seconds between when Phillips made contact and when the final run scored were full of chaotic action all over the field. The kind of play you need to rewatch just to understand what you saw, and that leaves a manager close to speechless if he hasn’t had the chance to yet. If you watch enough angles, look at a different person’s face each time, they amount to something like an immersive experience in the range of emotions sports can elicit, those 14 seconds do.
A baseball game changes with every play, every pitch — the fraction of a second between a foul ball and a home run like a proverbial butterfly’s wings. At this point in October, whole seasons turn on inches and close calls; you spin a story about someone’s entire legacy out of every missed opportunity inherent in a game defined by failure.
But for all that, Saturday night’s 8-7 Rays victory was a team effort that unfurled slowly, the hinge between the first four hours and 10 minutes of a well-matched battle of stamina and the final 14 seconds, when the baseball gods smiled on the Rays, was Phillips getting a hit.
His first ever in the postseason.
His fourth ever in a Rays uniform.
In just his 23rd game with his hometown team after getting traded to Tampa, near where he grew up in Seminole, Florida, from the Kansas City Royals in August.
Two weeks since his last plate appearance, having been left off the ALCS roster.
“I know there's some guys out there with a really slow heart rate that have been in the situation probably many times before and it's just another day for them,” Phillips said after the game. “But for myself it's not. And I'm gonna enjoy the heck out of it and show all the excitement I'm feeling on the inside.”
How Game 4 built up to 14 seconds of madness
Phillips said of his own improbable heroics that “to know the backstory is to know the story,” but we don’t have time for all of that so let’s just go back to the beginning of the inning: Bottom of the ninth, Rays trail 7-6. The Dodgers are looking to establish a commanding 3-1 series lead. Dave Roberts won’t call Kenley Jansen his closer but he once agains asks him to get a high-pressure save on the biggest stage. It’s worked before. It’s also failed before.
Everyone watching knows that the Rays’ best chance to walk it off is due up fourth. Randy Arozarena hit a futile home run off Jansen in the ninth inning of Game 3. He also hit one earlier in Game 4, his record-setting ninth of the postseason. He has a couple of singles in the game, too.
When you've smacked yourself a very normal base knock pic.twitter.com/Q0l97dmQTu
— Céspedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) October 25, 2020
Yoshi Tsutsugo strikes out. Then Kevin Kiermaier, the longest-tenured Ray, breaks his bat on a bloop single into center, carrying the splintered nub with him down to first. Joey Wendle lines out and Arozarena comes to the plate with two outs. There’s a visit to the mound and you have to think they talk about whether or not to intentionally walk the hottest hitter on the planet, who happens to represent the winning run. Instead Jansen throws him a 92-mph cutter down the middle. Arozarena doesn’t swing.
From there he works a seven-pitch walk. The last pitch bounces in front of home plate and Arozarena gives Jansen a withering stare.
This will bring up Brett Phillips, a career .202 hitter the Rays use mostly as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. He took about five or 10 swings in the cage against a lefty earlier in the game, just in case, before coming in to run for Ji-Man Choi in the eighth. Jansen is a righty.
His wife — they got married last November — is in the stands watching her first postseason game this fall. She was working back in Florida up until now and couldn’t quarantine to join Phillips in the bubble, but at least she’s here. He wouldn’t want to hit a walk-off without her.
A ball. And then a strike. The third-base coach Rodney Linares is yelling at him, “Just swing the bat, kid, come on! Swing the bat, you can do it! You’re gonna win the game.”
Another strike and Phillips starts thinking about all the text messages he’ll get from his friends back home if he blows it here. But he doesn’t let doubts creep in. Instead, he focuses on two things:
“An unrelenting belief that things were gonna work out for the best.”
And the pragmatic understanding that, tonight, this is his job. “We're Major League Baseball players and we wouldn't be here if we couldn't do that, everyone on the bench.”
Jansen throws the cutter again, 92 mph on the inner half, and Phillips gets his first hit since September 25. Fourteen wild, confusing, momentum-shifting, fortune-flipping seconds ensue.
Brett Phillips achieves instant hero status
Linares was sending Kiermaier the whole way, he scores, the game is tied.
Dodgers center fielder Chris Taylor bobbles the ball and Linares waves Arozarena around third. It looks like it’s going to be a close call until Arozarena trips, flips, is going to be out by a mile. He tries to turn back to third, but then Dodgers catcher Will Smith drops the relay throw at home and Arozarena, spotting an opportunity, lunges for the plate. Is safe.
“I was the happiest man on the planet to see Randy score as well just so the game can be over with,” Kiermaier said later. “I couldn't have taken any more from that point on.”
“Oh my god, I think I lost 10 years in that last play,” said Brandon Lowe, who homered to account for one of the earlier lead changes.
“We worked on that a lot in spring training the last couple years,” Cash, the manager, deadpanned. “Glad it was able to play in our favor tonight.”
On the field, Phillips sticks out his arms like an airplane. He saw Kiermaier do it once in a video and thought it was the coolest thing ever. It’s not — unless you’ve just collected a walk-off hit in the World Series.
— MLB (@MLB) October 25, 2020
While they’re all still listening to him, before this moment passes, Brett Phillips wants to say something, he wants to give some advice to all the kids out there. That’s not usually how this goes. There’s a microphone, but this is not a podium. Most guys don’t come in with a message.
But Phillips isn’t trying to play it cool anymore, this is not just another day for him.
“Keep dreaming big. These opportunities, they're closer than you think,” Phillips says to all the kids who are not listening but might see it later. “Things like this happen.”
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