“I’m at a loss for words,” said Kevin Kiermaier, center fielder of the Tampa Bay Rays, early Sunday morning. “I don’t know if anything like that has ever happened, especially in the World Series. I don’t know if we’ll ever see it again.”
The Los Angeles Dodgers may well win the World Series, but that can’t happen Sunday night in Game 5, because on one of the wackiest plays that 116 Fall Classics have produced, the Rays flipped a defeat into a win, and the series is tied in staggering fashion. The entire list of simple, straightforward facts about this one: The Rays beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, 8-7, in Game 4 at Globe Life Field, where the series is being staged because of a global pandemic. Everything else takes serious sorting out and must be verified before we accept it as fact.
There was a single from a player who hadn’t had an at-bat in more than two weeks, whose previous hit was a month ago Sunday. There was a bobble in the outfield and a decision by a third base coach to send a slugger who is making history with his bat but now has a complicated, signature moment with his feet. There was a drop of a relay, a runner bouncing back up, and then …
That enough? Let’s sort it out.
The hero was Phillips, a 26-year-old from Seminole, Fla., a suburb of St. Petersburg, home of the Rays. The fact that the Rays traded for the hometown kid as a defensive replacement and pinch runner adds some flavor, and there’s more seasoning to come, because when Tampa Bay was in the World Series in 2008, Phillips was an eighth-grader riveted to those games. So this is backyard, by-yourself stuff — bottom of the ninth inning in a World Series game, team’s down, winning run on …
“It’s definitely crossed my mind, just like every other kid out there,” Phillips said.
The moment, though, took some building to get there. Before Saturday night, this World Series could have fairly been described as boring. There had been not a single lead change. The Dodgers looked superior. When they twice took two-run leads in Game 4, the outcome felt inevitable because they seem so invincible.
“There’s no letup in that lineup at all,” Tampa Bay second baseman Brandon Lowe said.
But Lowe set up the first back-and-forth the series has seen when he hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the sixth, giving the Rays their first lead. From there, a game of ping-pong: The Dodgers took the lead back in the top of the seventh, the Rays tied it in the bottom of that inning, and the Dodgers scored again in the top of the eighth. All they needed, then, was three outs from their closer, Kenley Jansen.
They got two. And with Kiermaier at first, up to the plate came Randy Arozarena to face Jansen. That he had homered off the massive right-hander the night before wasn’t particularly pertinent, because Arozarena has homered off just about everyone he has faced this October. In his regular season career, the 25-year-old Cuban has eight homers. When he took Los Angeles’s Julio Urías deep in the fourth inning Saturday, he had nine this postseason — the most in history.
And yet, he didn’t need to swing.
“Randy’s not getting himself out,” Tampa Bay Manager Kevin Cash said. “You’re going to have to get him out in the zone. There’s been some really good pitches that he’s laid off of or fouled off to extend the at-bat.”
The seventh pitch he saw from Jansen — a 3-2 slider — could have ended the game. Arozarena spit on it. Ball four — and barely.
Which brought up — Phillips? Cash and the Rays are famous for using their entire roster. And indeed, because he had pinch-hit for both his third- and fourth-place hitters Saturday — a move from another galaxy for most teams, de rigueur for the Rays — he ended up with his most infrequently used player at his team’s most important spot. Phillips had been inserted as a pinch runner for Ji-Man Choi in the eighth. Cash kept him in the game.
“I’m sure he was like: ‘Oh, no. Oh, no,’ ” Phillips said. “ ‘We got to go to the last guy on the bench?’ ”
When Phillips came over from Kansas City in late August for a minor leaguer, he hit .150. The Rays left him off the roster for the American League Championship Series, and he turned himself into a fake coach — writing slogans on the whiteboard in the clubhouse designed not as instructions but to lighten the mood. When he got to the plate with Kiermaier as the tying run on second, Arozarena as the winning run at first, he had taken five hacks in the cage as a warm-up. He couldn’t remember his last hit. He was undeterred.
“I think everyone in that situation wants to be up there and be the man,” Phillips said. “And that’s exactly what was going through my head.”
Jansen has been the man, though his grip on that status has wavered recently. Yet an $80 million closer with 312 career saves and a career postseason ERA of 2.40 vs. … Brett Phillips?
The Dodgers should have a 3-1 lead in the series. Except … baseball.
“That’s the kind of at-bat you dream of when you’re little,” Lowe said. “You always tell yourself, ‘World Series, bottom of the ninth, winning run on.’ ”
Jansen started Phillips with a cutter, and Phillips did well to lay off it. He followed with two pitches — a cutter up and in, a sinker low and away — that could have been balls. They were both called strikes. Phillips hasn’t had a hit for a month? What’s he going to say?
From the third base box came the voice of coach Rodney Linares.
“Just swing the bat, kid,” Linares yelled. “Swing the bat. You can do it.”
Linares knows what he’s talking about where Phillips is concerned. He managed him in both Class A and AA in the Houston system.
“I felt really good,” Linares said.
At 1-2, a strike away, Jansen came with another cutter. Phillips sent it floating toward short right-center field. Chris Taylor, who moved to center late in the game for the Dodgers, charged. Kiermaier, one of the game’s best base runners, took off from second, Arozarena from first.
“As soon as the ball was hit,” Arozarena said through an interpreter, “I was thinking, ‘Score.’ ”
Kiermaier did so easily, and the game, for an eye-blink, looked headed to extra innings, tied at 7. But Linares had his eyes trained on Taylor, who bungled the ball.
“When I saw the ball leave the glove and go up in the air, I saw air under it, I’m going, ‘He has to run to get the ball on the go,’ ” Linares said. “I’m looking at Randy, and I’m looking at him.”
The decision: Go.
Arozarena is a remarkable athlete, strong and fleet. But there is weight in carrying the winning run in a World Series game the 270 feet it takes to cover first base to home. Somehow, maybe 30 feet from home plate, his feet were somehow no longer underneath his body. He fell.
“I crossed home plate and just turned around just to see what was going on,” Kiermaier said. What was going on appeared to be carnage. “I’m just sitting here thinking, ‘Oh, no.’ ”
“But when he fell down,” Linares said, “he got up really quick.”
Taylor’s relay came in to Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy, who turned and saw he had Arozarena nailed. Dodgers catcher Will Smith, however, had his back to the play. When Smith fielded Muncy’s easy toss, he flung his glove and body around to make a sweeping tag, injecting urgency where a methodical approach would have worked better.
Smith dropped the ball.
“I couldn’t tell you any more from that point on,” Kiermaier said.
“I think I blacked out,” Linares said.
Arozarena had already started back toward third. But Smith’s sweeping non-tag had jettisoned the ball away from the plate. Arozarena threw himself back into gear and lunged for the plate. There, he lay in the dirt, slapping the dish with his right hand over and over and over again.
“We’ve worked on that a lot in spring training the last couple years,” Cash said.
In the outfield, Phillips had begun to soar. As the Dodgers slumped off the field, Phillips ran out of gas. The Rays caught him, mobbed him — and nearly suffocated him.
“The next thing I know I had no energy or breath left to yell,” Phillips said. “I was literally this close to passing out.”
When he separated himself from the dogpile, he bent and put his hands on his knees. What. Just. Happened?
“I don’t know if I’m going to sleep,” Phillips said nearly an hour later.
That moment, right there? That’s why you stay up. To see a .150 hitter against one of the best closers of his generation. To see an elite athlete stumble, then get back up. To see the hometown kid have his World Series moment.
“Definitely want to extend some advice to all the kids out there,” Phillips said. “Keep dreaming big. These opportunities are closer than you think, and they can come about.”
They just never have as they did Saturday night. Blink your eyes clear, and watch it again. Now close them, because they match all those kids’ dreams.