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October 15, 2008

You Could Look It Up

Drowning in Drama

by Steven Goldman

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Monday night's Phillies-Dodgers National League Championship Series Game Four may go down as a classic confrontation between the two clubs, and a loss of historic proportions for the Dodgers. In one torturous half-inning, the Dodgers went from a likely win and a series that would go a minimum of six games to facing elimination in Game Five.

Previous post-season confrontations between the two teams have mostly lacked games with the dramatic impact of Joe Torre's mismanaged top of the eighth. The 1977 and 1978 Championship Series were won by the Dodgers by identical 3-1 scores. Neither was truly close, though the 1977 series featured two games that turned on ninth-inning action, giving one win to each team, and the 1978 series saw the deciding game concluded because of poor defense by the Phillies as the Dodgers batted in the bottom of the tenth. In both series, Phillies defense cued Dodgers rallies. One of the main takeaways is just how good the not-quite Hall of Fame pitcher Tommy John was in both series. Shaky in the first game of the '77 series—he allowed four runs in 4 2/3 innings, none earned, though he also walked three—he came back in the decisive Game Four to pitch a complete-game, one-run victory, allowing seven hits, walking two, and striking out eight. The next year, John started Game Two and topped himself, pitching a four-hit shutout, with two walks and four strikeouts. He was a fine post-season pitcher overall, appearing in nine series in five separate seasons and going 6-3 with a 2.65 ERA in 88 1/3 innings.

The 1983 series was won by the Phillies three games to one. It too was not particularly competitive, though Game One featured an all-lefty pitchers' duel between Steve Carlton and Jerry Reuss; the game was won 1-0 by the Phillies, the sole run coming on Mike Schmidt's first-inning home run. Carlton took the ball into the bottom of the eighth, when singles by Steve Sax and Dusty Baker and a walk to Pedro Guerrero loaded the bases with two outs. First baseman and right-handed batter Mike Marshall was up next, but Marshall tended to be a reverse-platoon hitter, something that played into the hands of the Phillies' lefty-dominated pen; southpaw Al Holland came in and induced Marshall to fly out to right field. In the bottom of the ninth, with Holland still pitching, eighth-place hitter Derrel Thomas reached base on a two-out Schmidt error, then stole second. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Tommy Lasorda had earlier double-switched Marshall out and now had Greg Brock in the game, batting in the pitcher's spot. Brock couldn't hit lefties at all, but Lasorda was boxed in. One 6-3 groundout later, it was all over. Sadly, this game was John-free.

In part, I note this because I will never get over being a youthful Tommy John fan, but that's not what this week's installment is about. Rather, the question is, did the 2008 Game Four displace the regular-season game that took place between the Dodgers and Phillies on October 1, 1950 as the greatest, most decisive contest in the shared history of the two franchises? After it was over, critics said that the victor had backed into the pennant (to which Casey Stengel, the manager of the American League's pennant-winning Yankees responded, "So what? It's like backing into a mansion, ain't it?"). The truth was so much better.

The Dodgers had won the NL pennant in 1947 and 1949, in the latter case edging the Cardinals by one game thanks to a final-day victory over the third-place Phillies. That Brooklyn club had the best offense in the league, the best defense, and a pitching staff that made up for a short starting rotation with an emphasis on relief pitching that was unusual for the time. In 1950, the offense was still strong, headed by defending-NL MVP Jackie Robinson and center fielder Duke Snider, but the pitching staff had disintegrated, the starting rotation being reduced to young righty power pitcher Don Newcombe and veteran lefty Preacher Roe, a Jamie Moyer type. The rest of the week it was soup du jour, with a collection of swingmen going in and out of the bullpen as needed, to the detriment of both the rotation and the relief effort. The best of these was Erv Palica, a 22-year-old flamethrower who would never come close to topping his 6.1 WARP of 1950. At Philadelphia on September 6, manager Burt Shotton had even resorted to having Newcombe start both ends of a doubleheader; it worked, though it should be noted that Newcombe lost his next two starts.

Thanks to the offense, the Dodgers contended. During the early going, the race was a three-way affair between the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Phillies, the former two teams tied for first, and the Phillies one game back at the one-third mark. Shortly thereafter, the roles reversed; the Dodgers and Cardinals began a long stretch of playing losing baseball, while the Phillies surged to the top. The youthful Phillies, with an average age of about 26, were not a great offensive unit; it was the pitching staff that was, at least for a time, special. We'll deal with that in more depth below. The offense featured one future Hall of Famer in center fielder Richie Ashburn, who was actually nowhere near his best in 1950; in his career he would have five seasons of batting averages of .330 and up and six seasons of on-base percentages over .400, neither of which did he achieve that year with rates of 303/.372/.402. The real spark was supplied by several players who had solid careers of less than award-winning quality, players like catcher Andy Seminick, a Darren Daulton type, Puddin' Head Jones, a Joe Crede-style third baseman, and right fielder Del Ennis, a righty slugger who was at his best in 1950 with a .311/.372/.551, 31-homer performance.

At the 100-game mark, the Phillies led the league by five games over the Braves. The Dodgers were in third, 6 games behind. On September 19, with the Phillies having 13 games left to play and the Dodgers 17, the top of the standings looked like this:


Team         W-L     Pct   GB
Phillies    87-54   .617    -
Braves      78-60   .565   7.5
Dodgers     76-61   .555   9.0
Giants      77-63   .550   9.5

It was at this point that the Dodgers tried to mount a comeback (again, Burt Shotton was the manager, not Joe Girardi). They dominated a fortuitously scheduled four-game series with a weak Pirates team, Palica winning the second game as a starter and the fourth as a reliever. Then came two games with the Phillies at Shibe Park. These were fortuitously scheduled as well, as the Phils were having bad pitching problems. Their rotation was initially fronted by 23-year-old righty Robin Roberts and 21-year-old lefty Curt Simmons, but they also relied heavily on ace reliever Jim Konstanty, who would ultimately win the NL MVP after throwing 152 innings out of the pen. The Phillies also got good work in the rotation out of righties Bob Miller and Bubba Church, but as the season wound down, Simmons was drafted, Miller was pitching with an injured back, and Church was put out for over a week when Ted Kluszewski hit him in the face with a line drive. In a precursor to the infamous 1964 race, this meant that Roberts started three times during the last four days of the season—the first game of a doubleheader on September 27, the second game of a twin bill on September 28, and the last game of the year on October 1. This worked out about as well as you might expect, and in 15 games leading up to the final day the newly christened Whiz Kids went 5-10.

As part of this sequence, the Dodgers took the two games in Philly behind Newcombe and Palica, then headed back to New York for a season-ending 11-game homestand. The Dodgers took two of three from the Giants, then welcomed the Braves for a ridiculous six-game set consisting of three doubleheaders in three days. This exploited the Dodgers' particular vulnerability in the rotation, because despite the September 6 stunt with Newcombe, they could only get one game each out of he and Roe in a week's worth of contests. The other games were pitched by Palica, Carl Erskine (at 23 not yet ready for prime time), 33-year-old trash-time lefty Joe Hatten, and rookie southpaw Chris Van Cuyk, who did not go on to a Hall of Fame career. Somehow, the Dodgers went 4-2 in the set of six despite getting just one win out of a starter from Erskine, and "Oisk" also picked up a win in relief during the final game of the series. Dan Bankhead, the first African-American pitcher in the majors, though none too successful (6.25 career ERA in 153 1/3 innings), picked up wins in relief of Newcombe and Rowe.

The Dodgers were now two out with two to play, and both games were at home against the Phillies; if the Dodgers swept the pair, a three-game playoff would be held between the two teams. Palica started the first game on September 29 against Miller. The game was scoreless through four and a half innings. Roy Campanella struck out to open the home half of the fifth, but Billy Cox, a light-hitting, defense-oriented third baseman, ripped a single into left-center field. Palica moved him over to second on a weak grounder back to the pitcher. That brought up leadoff hitter Cal Abrams. The Dodgers used five left fielders in 1950, and Abrams was the fifth; everyone in front of him was hurt. The 26-year-old rookie didn't have a great deal of power, but his strong sense of the strike zone helped him put up a .386 OBP. He drove a hard single into center field, plating Cox. Pee Wee Reese followed with a booming fly ball off of the right-center field wall; by the time the ball came back to the infield, Abrams had scored and Reese was hugging third.

Miller and his aching spine were lifted from the game, and Konstanty entered to pitch to Snider. This was not one of the days he earned his MVP award: the Duke of Flatbush knocked Konstanty's second pitch of the game over the right-field wall and onto the street. The score was 4-0 Dodgers. Snider gave the runs back in the top of the sixth when he tried and failed to make a diving catch of a sinking line drive off the bat of Dick Sisler, playing it into a two-run triple. Sisler was then allowed to score on fan interference, shrinking the Dodgers' lead to one run, but Palica held them there. In the eighth inning, Campanella plated Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo with a three-run homer, and that ended things. The Dodgers were one game back with one must-win game to play.

The October 1 game would be a battle of aces, Newcombe versus Roberts. The lineups:


Philadelphia          Brooklyn
1B Eddie Waitkus      LF Cal Abrams
CF Richie Ashburn     SS Pee Wee Reese
LF Dick Sisler        CF Duke Snider
RF Del Ennis          2B Jackie Robinson
3B Willie Jones       RF Carl Furillo
SS Granny Hamner      1B Gil Hodges
C  Andy Seminick      C  Roy Campanella
2B Mike Goliat        3B Billy Cox
P  Robin Roberts      P  Don Newcombe

The two hurlers traded zeroes through five. The Phillies went up 1-0 in the top of the sixth, but Reese struck a long fly ball that hit the top of the right-field screen, then dropped to the ledge below and lodged there. This was ruled a home run, tying the game up at 1-1. It stayed that way into the Dodgers' at-bat in the bottom of the ninth, with the top of the lineup due up, and both starting pitchers still in the game. Roberts had excellent control, walking 2.3 men per nine innings on the season, but Abrams worked him to 3-2, and took ball four. Reese made two attempts at getting a bunt down, then singled, moving Abrams to second. In those days, this wasn't an automatic call to the bullpen, even with Duke Snider, the only left-handed hitter in the lineup after Abrams, coming to bat.

The reasons for what happened next are controversial. Snider hit a ball up the middle and through for a hit. Abrams took off, with third-base coach Milt Stock waving him home. Ashburn, who had great range but not much of an arm, had been playing in for some reason. Abrams claimed that Ashburn was moving in to back up a pickoff attempt, but Roberts missed the sign. Newcombe says that Ashburn was expecting Snider to bunt. Ashburn insisted that he simply made a great throw. Whatever the cause, Ashburn picked up the ball at a place far closer to the infield than normal positioning would allow, and fired home. Some said that Abrams abetted him by making an extra-wide turn at third base, but whatever the case, Abrams was out by miles, by at least 15 feet according to some reports. He ran into the catcher (Stan Lopata, who came in after Seminick was replaced by a pinch-runner), trying to jar the ball loose. He failed.

Manager Shotton was stunned. "We've run for extra bases on Ashburn all year," he said after, and second-guessed his own decision not to have Snider bunt. He would be replaced by Charlie Dressen in 1951, and the man Dick Young christened K.O.B.S. (Kindly Old Burt Shotton) would never again manage in the majors. The irony that everyone seems to have missed at that time was that had Snider bunted—though a power hitter, he had laid six bunts down that year—the end result would have been exactly the same as it was at the end of the play—runners on second and third, one out. Though Abrams was the game's scapegoat, the most consequential at-bats were still to come.

Jackie Robinson was intentionally walked to load the bases and bring up Furillo, a .305/.353/.460 contact hitter. In this instance he was too good, swinging at the first pitch and popping it foul to the first baseman; two outs. Gil Hodges, with 32 home runs in the book, crushed the ball to left, but it died in front of the wall.

So, the game went to extra frames. In the top of the tenth, Roberts singled, Waitkus singled, and Ashburn bunted into a force at third base to bring up Dick Sisler, Hall of Famer George's son. Dick was not a patch on his dad, but like so many Phillies he was at his best in that season. Newcombe got ahead 1-2, then gave Sisler a pitch that was a little too fine, which Sisler put into the left-field seats; Phillies 4, Dodgers 1. Newk stopped the bleeding, but it was all over. The wrong part of the Dodgers order was up to bat: Campanella hit a soft fly to left, and then pinch-hitters for Cox and Newcombe were retired to end the game, and the season.

As a result, he Phillies had won their first pennant since 1915, earning the right to go to the World Series only to be swept by an excellent Yankees team. Fortunately for the Phillies of 2008, there's no chance of that happening this year. Whether any of their battles with the Dodgers go down in history the way this one has, and whether those battles result in as excellent a triumph, remains to be seen.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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