Before Saturday night, Brett Phillips hadn’t come to bat for Tampa Bay since Oct. 7. He hadn’t had a hit since Sept. 25.
The Rays, who acquired him from Kansas City in August for his speed and his defensive skills in the outfield, left him off their roster for the American League Championship Series. But facing Dodgers all-time save leader Kenley Jansen — who inexplicably was asked to close a wildly seesawing game despite his recently wildly seesawing outings — Phillips was confident he’d succeed Saturday.
What gave him strength, he said, was simple. “For myself, just having this unrelenting belief that I was going to come in and help the team win or do a job like I’m asked. That’s why I’m here,” he said. “I feel thankful and blessed that the opportunity presented itself for myself.”
He had entered the game as a pinch runner in the eighth inning and didn’t expect he’d hit in the ninth but the Rays’ bench was too depleted to use a pinch-hitter. Told he’d hit and would be up fifth, he went to the cage to take a few swings. The batting practice pitcher was a lefty because Phillips anticipated he’d face a lefty if he got in. That was his only miscalculation of the evening.
When a single by Kevin Kiermaier and smart walk drawn by Randy Arozarena extended the inning, Phillips got his chance — but it came against Jansen, a righty. Despite the weight of the occasion Phillips was blissfully unconcerned that the Dodgers were one strike away from grabbing a commanding 3-1 World Series lead. Even disagreeing with two strike calls didn't shake his focus.
“I haven’t had an at-bat in two weeks. I’m not going to let one or two bad pitches or calls ... I didn’t even see where the pitches were. You can’t let that affect you, especially in that moment.”
On a 1-and-2 count Phillips softly lined the ball to right-center, setting off a bizarre chain of events that led to Tampa Bay’s 8-7 victory and turned the World Series into a best-of-three event. With Corey Seager and Justin Turner each coming off four-hit games, the Dodgers should still have an edge offensively, and with Clayton Kershaw scheduled to start Sunday their pitching lines up well enough for them to prevail in six or seven even if manager Dave Roberts stubbornly refuses to acknowledge Jansen can’t be counted on.
But if the Dodgers have learned anything in splitting the first four games against the Rays in Arlington, Texas, it’s that the biggest payroll doesn’t buy a championship — and that the game they’ve played all their lives can take abruptly strange turns and become agonizingly frustrating. “It speaks volumes, the loudest volumes, about what these guys can accomplish as a group,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said of his team’s comeback.
The suddenness of Phillips’ hit, the shock of center fielder Chris Taylor misplaying the ball, the further shock of Arozarena stumbling as he rounded third before he slid home on his belly, and the unlikeliness of catcher Will Smith fumbling Max Muncy’s relay was too much to absorb. “I couldn’t believe that ball got past Will Smith. I don’t have any more words,” Kiermaier said, a dazed expression on his face.
“I think I lost 10 years on that last play,” said second baseman Brandon Lowe, whose three-run home run in the sixth inning had given Tampa Bay a 5-4 lead in the sixth. “It was a storybook baseball game if I've ever been part of one.”
Phillips didn’t see himself as a star. While in the on-deck circle he wanted to be “the man,” but he would have been equally happy for a teammate to play that role.
“Randy has all the potential in the world to win the game with a home run. He takes a great at-bat and lays off some really tough pitches and lets the guy behind him be the hero,” Phillips said. “And again, that’s what makes this team so special, passing the baton. Taking what the other team is giving you. Let the next guy be the hero. I wanted to get a good pitch to hit, not try to do too much.”
His exhilaration inspired Phillips to flap his arms and pretend to take off like an airplane, imitating a celebration he had seen Kiermaier perform in a video, before landing at the bottom of a happy dogpile. Only then did the moment become too much. He became so breathless from exertion that he nearly fainted, and a couple of team staffers had to pull him away from the group.
Still, he didn’t regret a second of it.
“I know there are some guys out there with a really slow heart rate that have been in that situation probably many times before and it’s just another day for them. But for myself it’s not,” Phillips said. “I’m going to enjoy the heck out of it, and all the excitement I’m feeling in the inside, I’m portraying on the outside.”
Phillips said his elation was nearly unmatched. “It doesn’t always work out like this but tonight it did, God willing, and it’s great,” he said. “This is the best feeling in the world next to getting married to my wife last November.”
Phillips grew up in Seminole, Fla., and was a big fan of the Rays. He had gotten many imaginary game-winning hits for them in his backyard. On Saturday, he did it for real.
“I want to send some advice to all the kids out there. Keep dreaming big. These opportunities, they’re closer than you think,” he said. “And they can come about. Keep dreaming big, kids, and an opportunity like this, having an unrelenting belief that it’ll happen, it does. Things like this happen.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.