The Philadelphia Phillies, the new champions of the National League, and the Houston Astros stepped through the looking glass tonight and into a baseball world inhabited by mad hatters, door mice and Cheshire cats. The Astrodome is supposed to be the eighth wonder of the world, but in his fifth and absolutely last game of the fantasy playoffs, it became a surreal baseball wonderland.
Winning pitcher: Alice. Loser: Sanity.
The Phillies will go to the World Series now -- for the third time in 97 years (the last visit was in 1950). The scoreboard says so: 8-7 in 10 innings. That, however, is mere empirical data. The truth here is that nobody, not even the teams, is exactly sure why the Phillies will be playing the Kansas City Royals beginning Tuesday in Philadelphia.
Larry Bowa of the Phils had the right idea. When the final Astro fly ball came down out of the dungeon grayness of the Dome roof into the glove of Garry Maddox, who had gotten the game-winning double, Bowa looked straight up, raised his hands to the sky and jumped up and down for a full half-minute as though touched by some irrational gift of tongues or Pentecostal fire.
The Phillies must have known that they had some providential mercy on their side tonight.Perhaps the White King in Alice in Wonderland said it right, "The only way to tell the story is to start at the beginning, go to the middle and then end." The chronology of Phillie blessings, of their escapes from the oven, was something out of a hookah dream, an illusion as hard to grasp as the Cheshire's smile. This was a game that needed to be experienced forward, but perhaps can only be told backward.
Naturally, the man who scored the winning Phillie run in the 10th inning -- Del Unser, journeyman extraordinaire -- got on base by hitting a one-hopper right at the Astro first baseman.However, here in the home of Astro Turf -- that synthetic pox on baseball that is supposed to have no bad bounces -- Unser's smash hit a seam and took a hugh crazy hop over Dave Bergman's head for a double.
Maddox's winning hit may have been the only simple play in this game. With two out, he hit a crackling liner to center off loser Frank LaCorte on which center fielder Terry Puhl barely missed a shoestring catch. The Astros can only wonder if fleet Cesar Cedeno would have made the catch had he not dislocated his ankle in the third game.
That fortuitous 10th, however, was a trivial sleight of hand compared to the way the Phillies saved this game with five runs in the eighth inning against Astro starter Nolan Ryan, transforming the chasm of a 5-2 deficit into a temporary 7-5 lead.
Of all things in baseball, few are more certain than the Ryan Express with a lead from the seventh inning onward. One stat has always been Ryan's pride. When he takes a lead into the seventh inning, he has held it 98 percent of the time. But not tonight.
The old Ryan -- the near-.500 pitcher with the 100 mph fast ball -- had reared his perplexing head in the second inning, allowing the Phils two runs despite the fact that the Dome radar guns clocked his pitches that inning at 98 and 99 mph. All his 14-season sins had arrived at once. Allow the first hit of the game, then get distracted and walk the next man on four pitches. Then compound your aggravation by bobbling a perfect double play ball and getting only one out at first base. And, finally, stubbornly challenge that No. 8 hitter with first base open, rather than walk him intentionally with two outs to get to the other pitcher. That decision to pitch to Bob Boone will haunt the Astro all winter because Boone clipped a 99 mph heater for a two-run hit.
However, after that mishap, Ryan found his unmistakable stride, getting 13 outs on 13 hitters after Boone's single. When the Astros broke a 2-2 tie with three runs in seventh off starter-turned-reliever Larry Christenson, the 44,802 fans here in this air-conditioned nightmare began an orange celebration, certain that they, not Philadelphia, would be hosting the first game of the Series against Kansas City Tuesday night.
It would be the Phils with transgressions to ponder. What about the liner that Greg Luzinski dropped in the sixth to let the tying run reach base. And what about that awful seventh when the Astros plated three runs on three consecutive pitches. First Denny Walling's line hit to right. Then a Christenson run-scoring wild pitch. And finally Art Howe's ringing RBI triple to right center.
The Phillies were silent and despondent. All their early heroics were forgotten. Who cared if Manny Trillo, who was voted the playoff's MVP, had made a glorious 150-foot relay peg to the plate to cut down gimpy Luis Pujols as he tried to score from first on a double into the right field corner? And who would remember the nimbleness of old Pete Rose who nailed Enos Cabell at the plate when he tried to score from seconde base as Trillo fielded a tough grounder, then pulled Rose off first with a wide throw?
Ryan would put an end to Philadelphia hopes and add another chapter to the long history of postseason Phillie failures, like those odious haunting losses in '76, '77 and '78. However, this was the night when Ryan, the million-dollar-a-year pitcher with the 11-10 record, would fail in the late going as well as the early. If the Phillies are fatalistic and snake-bitten, then Ryan is a one-man walking snakepit.
Little Bowa bit him first with a leadoff single in that eighth. Then Boone snapped a grounder back to the mound that bounced out of Ryan's nervous iron glove and rolled behind the mound for a hit. "That," said Astro manager Bill Virdon, "was the key play of the game."
The reason, presumably, was because that play sent an eerie chill through the temperature-controlled Dome and started the premonition machine to chugging. Next pinch hitter Greg Gross laid down an excellent bunt for a hit as Ryan, somewhat dazzled, looked at him as though such a tactic were skulduggery.
Finally, after barely tipping one full-count pitch, Rose walked to force home a run and knock Ryan out of the game. It was like an inevitable exit cut: Ryan walking off as a run walked home.
When the strategy of this disaster is discussed -- by those with a taste of carnage -- many will wonder why Bill Virdon called in a starter (Ken Forsch), instead of one of his proven relievers. After all, he had just watched Phillie Manager Dallas Green come to grief when he tried the same thing with Christenson. But on came Forsch. Just like Christenson, he got one false-confidence out, then had the roof fall on him.
The biggest of all Phillie hits may have been the one that tied the game, 5-5, and erased the lead given Ryan. That was the psychic blow. And who but humble Unser got it with a liner to center? As is often the case when dams crack, the flood is not far behind. On the next pitch, Trillo smoked a two-run triple into the left-field corner for a 7-5 lead. The Astros had scored three runs on three consecutive pitches, so the Phils got three on two. s
Maybe the Astros last noble comeback was fated. After all, these teams ended the most taut, if not the best played of all NL playoffs, by playing four straight extra inning games -- twice the previous series record. Certainly the two hits that pulled the Astros even were lunging excuse-me hits that barely floated their way over the Phil infield -- the first by Rafael Landestoy, and the second by Jose Cruz.
That, however, was to be the last Astro gasp. On the sixth try, Manager Green found a Phillie pitcher who was sharp -- Dick Ruthven. His five predecessors had allowed 14 hits. He buzzed through six straight Astros in the ninth and tenth.
"I've dreamed about this moment since I was five years old," cheered Bowa as he poured champagne over the manager who said of him two weeks ago, "if I ever opened up on Larry Bowa, he'd never play another inning in Philadelphia."