Phillies Nation


The Night I Saw Wilson Valdez Pitch

It’s very seldom that you see something happen in person that, as you’re watching, you know you’ll never see the like of again. It’s only happened a few times for me. When I was in ninth grade, I was talking to a friend while we were walking down a sidewalk, and (I forget how) the “running man” dance move came up in conversation. At the very moment my friend said “running man,” a running man passed us on the sidewalk. When I was a freshman in college, another friend and I were walking across the Horseshoe, the green area at the center of campus, when we saw a person in a giant mouse costume playing soccer with a person dressed as a giant panda. I’ve never seen anything like that before or since.

Then, tonight, I saw Wilson Valdez throw a scoreless 19th inning and go down as the winning pitcher in a game against the Cincinnati Reds. I was there on this remarkable evening, and I’d like to share it with you.

The game started off innocently enough. I went to tonight’s game with Paul Boye, a tremendous baseball man who used to write for this site and has been my best friend for ten years. We arrived shortly before first pitch, and for nine innings, it was, more or less, a normal game. Roy Halladay got hit pretty hard by his standards, but the Phillies were tied after nine innings, and, enjoying our seats at the top of Section 415, with a nice breeze on a beautiful evening for baseball, we were more than happy to consume extra innings. I even made a joke about how the last Phillies game I attended in person was a 12-inning affair against the Brewers last month, and that I’d be happy if we could beat that.

Things got weird around the ninth inning. We’d been more than a little cheesed that we were heading to the first game of the Reds series that wouldn’t feature both Dom Brown and Chase Utley, but after John Mayberry singled to lead off the bottom of the ninth and was sacrificed to second by Exxon, we heard “Kashmir” over the loudspeakers. Then Nick Masset gave Utley a free pass. Then he threw a ball to the backstop, sending Mayberry to third and Utley to second. Then he gave Jimmy Rollins a free pass. We were only, in the words of the late, great baseball blog Walkoff Walk, four balls from shrimp, and we were freaking out. But it wasn’t going to be that easy. Dom Brown, on for Ben Francisco, popped out, and Placido Polanco further bailed out the wild Masset by grounding into an inning-ending fielder’s choice.

After about nine innings, the stands start to empty, even in places like Philadelphia. The couple sitting in front of us with the cute toddler we were trying not to drop peanut shells on all night had long left, as had the guy trying to start “Let’s Go Yankees” chants a few rows in front. One person we ran into on the way out to the car after the game told us he contemplated leaving in the middle of the 10th inning, but reconsidered. Lucky man.

When Jay Bruce blasted an Antonio Bastardo pitch out of the yard, we were sure that Tony No-Dad would take the loss and we’d get home at a reasonable hour. It was not to be. Ryan Howard answered in the bottom of the 10th off Francisco Cordero, and that’s when Paul and I had our first man-hug of the evening. I’d had trouble getting reception on my phone all night, and it was at about this point that I was able to check Twitter and see what the Phillies blogosphere had to say about the game. Through ten innings, no one really thought much of it, but that was about to change.

A good friend of mine lived in Los Angeles for most of his early childhood, and his dad once took him to a game at Dodger Stadium. My friend, then four years old, started acting up, as the story goes, and his dad had to pick up and take him home after only two or three innings. That day was July 28, 1991, and Dennis Martinez of the Montreal Expos pitched a perfect game that evening. I imagine those who left waking up tomorrow with similar emotions.

I was pretty sure the game would end in the 11th. Kyle Kendrick hit Brandon Phillips in the hand with a pitch, and Phillips danced around for a few moments with anger, as he is wont to do, before taking his base. J.C. Romero then came in and walked Joey Votto. At this point, Romero, who’s not much better against right-handed hitters than you or I, was facing Scott Rolen with the go-ahead run in scoring position and one out. Then Romero, out of nowhere, caught Phillips too far off the bag and picked him off. Suddenly, we could see our way out of the inning and, sure enough, after two more walks, Ramon Hernandez grounded to David Herndon with the bases loaded and two out.  That’s really when it first hit me that we might be witnessing something truly bizarre. If Kyle Kendrick, J.C. Romero, and David Herndon could load the bases without giving up a hit, then get out of the jam with no damage done, anything could happen.

Then the most bizarre event of the night happened. David Herndon stayed out there for the 12th and 13th innings, and he was throwing darts. Herndon lived, for 2 1/3 innings, at 94 with the fastball, and though we couldn’t tell much of anything about location or movement from where we were sitting, none of the seven batters he faced reached base. Yes, that David Herndon.

In the 14th inning, we were treated to the 14th Inning Stretch, which I had never experienced before in person, and despite it already being after midnight, and despite home being more than an hour away, I was loving the absurdity of the late extra innings so much I secretly hoped to be around for the 21st Inning Stretch. It was also around this point that I started having trouble keeping up with the innings–I was convinced that we had played the 12th no fewer than three times, jumping ahead from the 11th to the 12th in my mental calculus, then counting it accurately, then forgetting about the quick work done by Herndon and Reds reliever Logan Ondrusek when it came time to start the 13th.

Kate, the Long-Suffering Fiancee, had by this time heard about our late-night travails and sent me a text message while Danys Baez was preparing to enter the game.

KTLSF: “Is it a good game?”
Me: “In parts. When baseball goes past 12 innings or so it just starts to get strange.”

Baez went on to mow down the first five batters he faced, creating a string, as odd as this sounds, where he and David Herndon had combined to pitch four consecutive perfect innings. But Baez, as we know well, is best used in small doses, one or two innings, maybe three in an emergency, which this game counted as for sure. Baez was the last man standing, the Jay Witasick in Game 6 of the 2001 World Series, who would sit out there and take whatever abuse he could bear, and then some, because his team had no more pitchers. After Baez’s second inning, I sent this response.

Me: “The Phillies are out of relievers.”
KTLSF: “Nooooooo. So what do they do?”
Me: “Paul and I have spent the last two innings trying to guess.”

It’s true. In that time, the ushers began to clear out the upper decks, trying to regain some semblance of a head start on cleanup before the next day’s game. Looking back on it, I’m really sorry for all those peanut shells. Anyway, as Baez trundled on into the night, inning after inning, this is what the upper deck looked like:

Not a soul. Before too long, Paul and I were ourselves ushered out of our seats and down to the 300 level like so many cattle, though he speculated the brave individuals who had stayed through 14+ innings could be fit into the lower bowl with room to spare.

But all the while, we were discussing what would happen when Baez inevitably ran out of gas. Would it be a starting pitcher? It couldn’t be Vance Worley, who went five innings yesterday. Conventional wisdom is that if you bring on a starter in relief in an extra-inning game, you bring in the person who started three games ago, so he could throw on the day he usually did his side work, but Roy Oswalt‘s balky back made that proposition a frightening one. Cliff Lee, tomorrow’s starter, perhaps? Or Cole Hamels, on one day’s rest, storming in to shut down the Reds in relief?

Or would it be a position player? Of those left, Domonic Brown probably threw the hardest, but considering that Jose Canseco once suffered a serious arm injury in a relief appearance, would Charlie Manuel risk his top offensive prospect?

Me: “They have one more inning from the guy who’s in now, then probably a position player.
KTLSF: “Do they ever practice that?”
Me: “Not really. You just pray one of your guys pitched in college.”
KTLSF: “That’s crazy.”

Perhaps the most accurate characterization of the night, from a person who, to my knowledge, has never watched a baseball game voluntarily in her life. But I was wrong. Baez pitched a third inning, then a fourth. Then Paul got hungry. How, I have no idea, since Hoagiefest is on and we’d each eaten one of those, plus about half a pound each of peanuts. But in the middle of the 17th inning, he went to look for food.

Last summer, I went to a Braves-Nationals game with KTLSF and her mother at Turner Field, and all KTLSF could talk about was something called “ice cream in a hat.” Apparently, as a child, she’d enjoyed eating soft serve out of one of those plastic batting helmets and would not hear of our taking in a ballgame without consuming ice cream in a hat. So we spent the fourth inning of that game scouring the concourse for ice cream in a hat. Notice, in the image at left, how much happier she seems to be about ice cream in a hat than I am. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed mine too, because this was a mid-August day game in the Town that Sherman Burned, which meant that the temperature in the stands was somewhere between the inside of an extremely hot chicken tender and the temperature one would experience while standing on the surface of the sun. But considering my own experiences with ice cream in a hat, imagine my surprise when Paul came back for the bottom of the 17th looking like this:

Now, when KTLSF and I had our ice cream in a hat, it was because it was a brutally hot afternoon and, for her, it was a vital part of the experience. When Paul got his, it was because it was the only food left on sale by the 17th inning. But that’s a long enough digression for ice cream.

At any rate, Danys Baez put in a real yeoman’s performance, pitching (extremely effectively, I might add) up to and past the limits of his own endurance, through not three, or four, but five innings of scoreless relief. His counterpart, Cincinnati righthander Carlos Fisher, deserves equal credit. But for someone who gets as much stick from Phillies fans as Baez does, he put in a performance this evening of almost literary quality, and for that he deserves our respect and praise.

But when Baez came out for the top of the 18th, the cavalry was nowhere in sight. Cliff Lee had not run out to the bullpen to get loose, and it was obvious that the Phillies’ last reliever had nothing left in the tank. While checking Twitter for news, I saw that Jackie Bradley Jr., the center fielder for my alma mater, the University of South Carolina, and reigning MVP of the College World Series, had taken note of the Phillies’ remarkable game, and when I asked him, since the Phils would likely need another bench bat before the night was through, if he’d be willing to come up and help out, he offered his services. Sadly, he was unable to make it to Philadelphia from Columbia, S.C. in time, but hear this, Ruben Amaro: Bradley’s expected to be a first or second-round pick in next week’s draft. He would have gladly filled in tonight, and Shane Victorino ain’t going to be around forever. That’s my two cents.

Still, in Bradley’s absence, and in the absence of any activity from Hamels, Oswalt, or Lee, the guessing game continued, then intensified when Dane Sardinha pinch-hit for Baez in the bottom of the 18th. Martinez to the mound, Brown to center, Hamels in right? Brown to the mound, Sardinha in right? Valdez to the mound, Martinez to second, Brown to center, Hamels in right?

In the end (and yes, I know, I’ve buried the lead), it was Valdez to the mound, Polanco to second, Ruiz–who was an infielder in the minors–to third base, and Sardinha behind the plate. It was only when Exxon took his warm-up tosses that we realized that Jay Bruce, whose appearance we’d been fearing the past four times through the lineup, was due up in the 19th, along with NL MVP Joey Votto. I had been taking, then erasing, videos of every at-bat by Domonic Brown and Ryan Howard since the 12th inning or so, hoping to catch the hit that won the game. This is the only video I didn’t erase tonight. This is Wilson Valdez’s scoreless 19th inning, from Paul’s and my perspective.

It was ecstasy and absurdity, as you can probably tell by the tone of my voice throughout the film. After the inning was over, I saw a text from my brother that read: “Are you watching Wilson Valdez shaking off Sardinha as if he has more than one pitch?” Indeed, in fact, he was. Valdez was more than a little lucky, since Votto’s fly ball could easily have been a double or worse, but he really looked comfortable out there, sitting in the high 80s and mixing in what was either a sinker or slider that he used to induce a pop-out from Jay Bruce.

I want to let that video stand for itself, except for one thing. At one point in the 19th inning, I said “This is the most fun I’ve ever had at a baseball game.” I truly believe that. It was bitersweet when Fisher finally ran out of gas after he threw more pitches (by half) tonight than he ever had before in a major league game. Considering that Dusty Baker, through overuse and carelessness, has ruined the careers of such pitchers as Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Aaron Harang, we wish Fisher the best going forward, but that his excellent 5 2/3 should come to an end on so mundane a note as a sacrifice fly seemed banal. A game of this peculiar character ought to end with a bases-loaded walk, or a rundown that allows the lead runner to score, or a plague of locusts or somesuch. We’ll read tomorrow about the length of the game, or that Exxon became the first player since Babe Ruth to start a game in the field and end it as the winning pitcher, but watching it unfold gave it a special character that I thought was deserving of a better ending. Mostly, though, even though I was sweaty, and hoarse, and tired after six hours in the bleachers, I just couldn’t believe the fun had to come to an end.

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