Before Billy Phillips took the mound to start the bottom of the sixth inning in the second game of Maryland’s doubleheader at Tennessee on Sunday, the left-hander studied the notecard on which he had written a few things he was thankful for that day. He texted his mom, Michelle, who was back home in Delaware, and his four best friends to let them know he would, at last, be making his collegiate debut. And then, three years after he was diagnosed with leukemia as a senior in high school, adrenaline kicked in.
“I couldn’t feel my legs and my heart was racing,” Phillips said Tuesday of his short trip from the bullpen at Knoxville’s Lindsey Nelson Stadium to the mound.
The notecard was Terrapins pitching coach Corey Muscara’s idea. A firm believer that the mental aspect of the game is every bit as important as the physical aspect, Muscara asks all of his pitchers to jot down what they’re thankful for and what they hope to accomplish before every practice and game. As he prepared to throw his warm-up pitches, Phillips was especially thankful for the eight guys in red jerseys on the field with him, including shortstop AJ Lee.
“I looked around at my teammates and they all had big smiles on their faces,” Phillips said. “AJ came in and gave me a hug and I thought, hey, I’m here now, I might as well just have some fun with it. If I get hit, I get hit. If positive things happen, positive things happen.”
“I just wanted him to know that we were all behind him and he had nothing to worry about out there, that he wasn’t out on an island by himself,” Lee, the 2015 All-Met Player of the Year at St. John’s, said. “You could tell that he was a little nervous. That’s what you would expect for anyone’s first outing, but especially given what he’s been through.”
Phillips, who starred at St. Mark’s in Wilmington, Del., had been through a lot during his recovery from leukemia and subsequent complications from a bone-marrow transplant, but his latest challenge was figuring out a way to retire Tennessee catcher Benito Santiago. The son of the 1987 National League Rookie of the Year by the same name, Santiago had homered and doubled twice in his first three at-bats to help the Vols build a 12-6 lead.
Despite the score, everyone in the Maryland dugout was leaning on the railing of the dugout as Phillips prepared to deal. Santiago fouled off Phillips’s first pitch, swung through a breaking ball on 0-1 and then took a called third strike on the outside corner. Phillips pounded his glove, which features his name in orange stitching — the color for leukemia awareness — as his teammates cheered.
After allowing a one-out single, Phillips got Wyatt Stapp to hit into an inning-ending double play. He pounded his glove again, pumped his fist and smiled as he backpedaled toward the dugout, pausing after he crossed the third base line. First baseman Kevin Biondic flipped Phillips the baseball, which he now keeps in his dorm room, and shared another hug with Lee.
“The first thing I thought of was to kind of say thank you and give a hug to all the guys who had supported me from Day One,” said Phillips, who was wrapped in a minute-long stream of embraces after his only inning of work. “I wanted to make sure I waited for them. It was probably one of the greatest moments I’ve had in my entire life. It kind of put everything into perspective for me, that it’s more about the relationships that you make on the field and off the field. I’ll remember these guys for the rest of my life.”
“Best baseball moment I’ve experienced,” Maryland pitcher Hunter Parsons wrote on Twitter, a sentiment shared by several Terrapins players and coaches.
“You can’t ask to be a part of something much more special than that,” Lee said. “We were all just so happy for him, so proud with where he’s come from to where he is now. That just shows the kind of team we have.”
Lee and Phillips first met as juniors in high school, when St. John’s and St. Mark’s scrimmaged in D.C. before their respective seasons. Lee and Phillips had both committed to Maryland by then and were looking forward to becoming college teammates. Phillips was named first team all-state for the second time that year, but on March 10, 2015, a couple of weeks before the start of his senior season, he was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia after experiencing joint and muscle soreness.
Phillips, whose father died of cancer at age 46 in 2011, spent 35 days in the hospital to undergo chemotherapy, during which time he lost 30 pounds off his 175-pound frame. That spring, the Maryland baseball team honored Phillips by stitching “BP15″ on the backs of their caps as they made a run to the NCAA Super Regional. Things got worse for Phillips before they got better. After receiving a bone-marrow transplant, he developed graft versus host disease (GVHD) in his gastrointestinal tract and dropped to 126 pounds after being fed intravenously for two months.
“I couldn’t walk up steps, I couldn’t get out of bed without my heart rate shooting up,” Phillips said. “That was kind of the lowest point. I wasn’t even thinking about baseball anymore; it was just fighting to get through each day.”
Phillips’s condition began to improve in the spring of 2016. He was cured of GVHD and regained enough strength to begin taking classes at Maryland. He roomed with Lee, whom he looks up to like a big brother, and lifted weights with the team, but a return to the field was an uncertainty. Phillips continued to regain his strength and added about 30 pounds last summer. The NCAA reinstated his eligibility in the fall and he threw his first bullpen session as a collegiate athlete in November. “Like riding a bike, baby!” Muscara shouted as Phillips peppered the strike zone before an audience of proud teammates.
On Sunday, Michelle Phillips couldn’t figure out how to stream her son’s debut from home, so Lee’s mom, who made the trip to Knoxville for Maryland’s season-opening series, texted her video updates from the stands. After the game, Maryland’s only loss of the weekend, Phillips called his mom, who is planning to attend Maryland’s series against Army in College Park this weekend.
“I couldn’t really talk to her because she was sobbing the whole time and couldn’t get a word out, but I told her it was all right and I had a lot of fun and that I loved her and all that good stuff,” Phillips said. “It was a great moment.”
Phillips’s phone was inundated with congratulatory messages and he spent Sunday night responding to family members, close friends and coaches who had always told him he would pitch again, even if some of them weren’t fully convinced he would. On Monday, Phillips attended five classes and received a text from Zach Jancarski. The senior center fielder wanted Phillips to know how proud he was of him.
“The very next thing he said was, ‘You’re not done yet,’” Phillips said. “I keep that mind-set.”
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