Sports

Brett Phillips Becomes the Rays’ Latest Unlikely Hero

ARLINGTON, Texas — Before Kenley Jansen threw the final pitch of a World Series game for the ages, Dan Johnson threw the first — virtually, anyway. Johnson tossed it on a snow-covered youth diamond in Minnesota, and the video beamed from the scoreboard high atop Globe Life Field.

Only die-hard fans, like Brett Phillips, know Johnson’s story well. Johnson played 18 years of professional baseball, mostly in the minors. He appeared in the majors for six teams, batted .234, and never got to play in the World Series.

But in 2008, when Phillips was in eighth grade, Johnson hit a pennant-race homer for his favorite team, the Tampa Bay Rays, that helped propel them to their first playoff berth. Three years later, on the final day of the season, Johnson struck again with another homer, saving the Rays from elimination on their way to the postseason. They were down to their last strike when Johnson delivered, and it was his first hit all month.

On Saturday night, in Game 4 of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Rays were down to their last strike again. They needed another miracle — and Phillips came through, smacking a cutter from Jansen into center field to score the tying and winning runs, with help from a bundle of Dodger misplays. It was Phillips’ first hit of October.

“That’s an at-bat you dream of when you’re little,” said the Rays’ second baseman, Brandon Lowe. “You always tell yourself ‘World Series, bottom of the ninth, winning run on.’ He had the outcome that everyone wanted.”

It was the first time a team went from losing to winning on the final pitch of a World Series game since Joe Carter’s homer won the title for Toronto in 1993. But Phillips seemed just as awestruck to join Johnson in the pantheon of clutch-hitting Rays.

“To be mentioned with his name now? Wow, that’s special,” said Phillips, who went to high school in Seminole, Fla., 14 miles from the Rays’ Tropicana Field. “I feel blessed — especially in St. Pete, my hometown, that’s crazy. So shout-out to Dan Johnson. You’ve always got to give credit to the people before you, because they paved the way. He definitely was a hero, and still is, in the Tampa Bay area.”

ImagePhillips connected on a Kenley Jansen cutter with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. 
Credit…David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Phillips should probably get used to the feeling. The Rays, who lost the 2008 World Series to Philadelphia in five games, have never been this close to a championship. They will face Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 on Sunday, and their win on Saturday assured themselves of at least a sixth game on Tuesday.

And it all happened because Phillips — Brett Phillips! — ignited one of the wildest endings ever, putting his name beside Hal Smith, Brian Doyle and Geoff Blum among the least likely World Series stars.

Phillips, 26, has been traded three times in the last six seasons, most recently from Kansas City to Tampa Bay in late August. He is a .202 career hitter, but appealed to the Rays as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. He appeared in those roles in the early playoff rounds — going hitless in two at-bats — but was dropped from the roster for the American League Championship Series.

Until Saturday, Phillips was best known as the guy with the breathless, honking laugh on YouTube, the dugout cheerleader with a whiteboard salute for his hot-hitting teammate, Randy Arozarena: “Rakes All Night Day Year.” (The first letters spell “Randy,” get it?) He was not the hitter Manager Kevin Cash wanted as the team’s last hope.

“I’m sure he was probably like, ‘Oh no, we’ve got to go to the last guy on the bench,’” Phillips said, stifling a laugh, but he was right. The Rays had only one other position player, catcher Michael Perez, and they needed to save him for defense in case of a tie. (Cash had just removed the starter, Mike Zunino, for a pinch-hitter.)

Phillips had entered as a pinch-runner for Ji-Man Choi in the eighth, when the Rays left two men on to stop the game’s string of eight consecutive run-scoring half-innings, a World Series record. They had fallen behind, taken a lead, fallen behind again, tied it, and then fallen behind a third time.

“I’d say outs 1 through 26 were very Rays-like, going back and forth,” said center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who shattered his bat (the barrel flew all the way to the outfield grass) on a one-out single in the ninth. “But with that last opportunity to come to the plate, I don’t know if that’s a Rays win or a win that anybody can describe or imagine.”

A coach, Paul Hoover, had told Phillips between innings that he would win the game, inspiring Phillips to take a few swings in a batting cage. But he did so against a left-handed staffer, guessing that if his spot came up, the Dodgers would call for a lefty. Jansen stayed in, so the session had been a waste.

Even so, the Rays had fast runners on base when the left-handed Phillips dug into the batter’s box — Kiermaier on second, Arozarena on first after a two-out walk. Phillips took a ball, then a strike, and the third base coach Rodney Linares — who had managed Phillips in the Houston farm system — yelled encouragement from beneath his mask: “Swing the bat, kid, c’mon, swing the bat, you can do it!”

But Phillips took another pitch, a borderline strike that brought the count to 1-2 and further tilted the odds against Phillips. In his regular-season career, he is 6 for 57 on 1-2 counts, striking out 40 times.

Jansen, 33, is past his prime but still had the Dodgers’ best strikeout rate among right-handers this season. Yet he could not get his final cutter by Phillips, who punched it into shallow center. As soon as he did, Linares furiously wind-milled his right arm, sending Kiermaier home with the tying run. When the hit skipped off Chris Taylor’s glove for an error, Linares stayed in motion as Arozarena rounded third.

Credit…Kevin Jairaj/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Arozarena might as well have been Enos Slaughter in the 1946 World Series, dashing from first with the winning run in Game 7 for the St. Louis Cardinals — except that Arozarena lost his helmet, and then his balance, tripping between third and home. He scrambled to retreat, but the Dodgers’ catcher, Will Smith, did not notice.

“He was trying to catch the ball and put a quick tag down,” Justin Turner, the Dodgers’ third baseman, said of Smith. “Obviously, if he would have known that he fell, he would have taken his time, made sure he caught it and started a rundown.”

In his haste, Smith let Max Muncy’s relay throw carom off his glove and skitter away. Jansen, who momentarily dropped to his knees as Phillips’ hit carried to the outfield, was not backing him up, and Arozarena scored the winning run, sliding headfirst into the unguarded plate.

Jansen gave no explanation for that mistake, and shrugged off the hits by Kiermaier and Phillips.

“I didn’t give up one hard hit,” he said. “What can I do? Can’t do anything with that. I threw the pitches where I wanted to. Credit to the hitters — a broken-bat single, and then a bloop single. Ain’t no time to hang our head.”

Credit…Rob Carr/Getty Images

For the Rays, it was bedlam. Phillips instinctively copied an old Kiermaier celebration, sprinting across the outfield with his arms outstretched like airplane wings. His teammates mobbed him — and nearly suffocated him, too.

“Little did I know I exhausted all my energy doing the airplane, and then all the guys caught up to me and were yelling, and next thing I know I had no energy or breath to yell,” Phillips said. “I had to get out of the doggy pile because I was literally this close to passing out. It was just through pure excitement and pure joy.”

Phillips’ last hit had come on Sept. 25, one of just three hits he had for the Rays after arriving from Kansas City; Turner and Corey Seager each collected four on Saturday alone. Jansen, meanwhile, is a three-time All-Star with more career saves than Goose Gossage.

Phillips was as close to an automatic out as possible, like Michael Martinez — the worst hitter on the Cleveland Indians, but the only one available — at the end of Game 7 against the Chicago Cubs in 2016. There was no logical reason for Phillips to succeed, yet he swore he was confident.

“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.”

Dan Johnson was not supposed to get his big hits, either. But a kid in Florida saw him do it and believed he could do it someday, too.

“Definitely want to extend some advice to all the kids out there,” Phillips said. “Keep dreaming big. These opportunities, they’re closer than you think.”

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