May 21, 2019

The Epic Pitching Duel That Changed the Future of Two Franchises

December 23, 2017 by · 1 Comment 

October 7, 2011 and the melting pot that is South Philadelphia is stirring.

From the Parisian redesign of Rittenhouse Square to the William Penn statue at Broad and Market; from South Street to the Mexican and Asian influences of Washington Avenue; from the African-American neighborhood of Point Breeze to the hipsters’ hangout in Northern Liberties, fans of all ages, all races, all backgrounds and all vocations dress in the bright red colors of their beloved Phillies for the biggest game of their season.

All across the City of Brotherly Love, bartenders begin clicking on the TBS network carrying the fifth and final game of the National League Division Series between the underdog St. Louis Cardinals and the Phillies.

“Welcome, everyone, to Philadelphia. I’m Dick Stockton. This game would stand on its own. However, we have a unique situation tonight because we have a classic matchup on the mound. Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay, two of the premier pitchers in the game, have been very close friends for the last decade and are facing each other for the first time in their career…”

As the time for first pitch approaches – 8:37 p.m. – the weather turns tart and crisp as cider. It is 58 degrees and clear, with a light breeze blowing in from right field at rapidly-filling Citizens Bank Park. Inside the stadium there is a sense that this duel of Cy Young winners represents a date with destiny, that what transpires over the next two hours and 29 minutes will forever alter the future of these two franchises.

Arriving at the ballpark, Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa is the least nervous he’s ever been before a big game. He imagines his opposite, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, feels the same. With Carpenter and Halladay – “Carp” and “Doc”, LaRussa calls them – on the mound, LaRussa knows he and Manuel aren’t going to get involved early in the game with pitching decisions. When a skipper sends his ace to the mound in an elimination game, he’s sending out his horse, and he expects to ride him for as long as he can. There will be no quick hooks as the two friends and fellow Cy Young winners face off in the most important and impactful game of their lives.

Like the 46,530 fans who fill CBP and the millions more watching across the country and around the globe, LaRussa cannot wait to get to the ballpark. He hoped the series would come down to Carpenter versus Halladay in Game 5, had even thrown Carp on short rest in Game 2 to set up his pitching rotation and ensure the encounter. Carp versus Doc in a do-or-die decisive game, LaRussa tells the media, will be “an experience of a lifetime for any of us. That would be more than worth the price of admission.”

Carpenter and Halladay were teammates in Toronto. They were first-round Draft picks who made their major league debuts within one year of each other and grew up together in the Blue Jays organization. They remained good friends and were now going head-to-head. Like fans and players, LaRussa can’t wait to see the two brothers in arms compete. The St. Louis skipper’s anticipation at being involved in a do-or-die game is intense. He knows these games are the kind fans fantasize about. It is the stuff dreams are made of, and when it involves a mano-a-mano mound matchup of ace hurlers, it is the stuff of heroic dreams.

TBS color commentator and former Braves’ star pitcher John Smoltz tells his viewing audience that never has there been more pressure on a city whose team is built to win the World Series.

“If they’re going to continue, they pin their hopes on Doc Halladay. I like their chances when you bring out, arguably, the best pitcher in baseball…

“On the other side, they pin their hopes on Carpenter and you know that the St. Louis Cardinals like their chances. Both teams have their aces going for them, it should be a lot fun. I can’t wait!”

Everyone, it seems, is intoxicated with the greatness of this pitching duel. Fans will inhale and exhale with every pitched ball. It’s been that way in the City of Brotherly Love since ace Cliff Lee spurned the Yankees and signed with the Phillies to create The Rotation – Halladay, Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Four aces on one celebrated staff, the most since ’71, when the Baltimore Orioles featured four 20-game winners in Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson.

With their run to a third World Series appearance in four years seemingly pre-ordained, the Phils win a franchise record 102 games and fifth straight Eastern Division title. There are chinks in the champs’ armor – advanced age, injuries, etc. – but The Rotation covers cracks like Super Glue.

If the 2011 Fightin’s are a team for the ages, these Cardinals are nothing less than destiny’s darlings. They reach the postseason on the season’s final day, a wild-card entry whose playoff ticket was punched in no small part by, ironically enough, the Phillies. Philadelphia’s season-ending sweep of Atlanta – St. Louis’ rival for the fourth and final playoff spot – proves pivotal in the Redbirds’ rise from the ashes.

In the end, the Cards finish one game ahead of the Braves in the wild-card race, but St. Louis’ season of miracles is just getting started. Trailing Philadelphia 1-0 in the best-of-five NLDS and 4-0 in Game 2 with Lee, hero of postseasons past toeing the rubber, the deck looks stacked against the Cards. But St. Louis turns stagger into swagger, drives Lee from the mound to the stunned silence of Phillies fans in CBP and squares the series at 1-1. The Fightin’s fight back to win Game 3 but fall victim to what seems like voodoo – a Busch Stadium squirrel stealing the spotlight by scampering across the field as Oswalt is pitching. The rodent, known affectionately in St. Louis as “Rally Squirrel”, plays a part in the Cards’ 5-3 comeback that ties the series for the final time.

Two modern-day red machines collide in Game 5 for the chance to advance. Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins believes both teams know this one game means everything. In Rollins’ mind there is no doubt the Phils and Cards are the two best teams in the league. Philly won more games than anybody in baseball that season and the Cards caught fire in late summer and are the sport’s hottest team at season’s end.

Prior to the decisive game, Oswalt and the Phils are again accosted by a squirrel. Phillies fans taunt the Cards by tossing a stuffed squirrel into the St. Louis bullpen but it’s a good omen for St. Louis, which has adopted Rally Squirrel as its mascot.

With thousands of Phillies fans standing and waving their white rally towels, Halladay’s first pitch to leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal flares outside for a ball. Halladay follows with a strike that dives across the heart of the plate, then falls behind 2-1. Furcal, a switch-hitter batting lefty against the right-handed Halladay, is just 1-for-11 in the series when he catches hold of Doc’s 92 mph belt-high fastball.

Stockton: “And there’s a drive hit to right-center field, (Shane) Victorino chases it and it’s over his head and off the wall!”

Ignoring hamstring problems that hamper him at season’s end, Furcal rounds second base and digs for third as the ball bounces off the forest-green padded wall at the white 398-foot sign. Victorino’s throw caroms off the cutoff man, second baseman Chase Utley, but is retrieved quickly by Rollins, who is backing up the play. Furcal slides headfirst into the bag and is safe under third baseman Placido Polanco’s tag.

Halladay gets two quick strikes on the next hitter, Skip Schumaker, but sees his next two pitches fouled off. Doc just misses on a breaking ball on the black and Ron Darling, who joins former fellow pitcher Smoltz in providing color analysis in the broadcast booth, tells viewers that catcher Carlos Ruiz’ movement may have caused home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom to take away a crucial called third strike.

Realizing he needs a strikeout or pop-up to hold Furcal at third, Halladay goes after Schumaker hard. The at-bat turns into the first of several classic duels this night. Halladay tries to bring down Schumaker with breaking pitches; Schumaker counters by fighting off each offering. LaRussa can almost hear the sound of Schumaker’s grinding above the raucous roar of the crowd.

Prior to the game, Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire offers advice to his team on how to beat the great Halladay. Doc won the Cy Young the season before, was runner-up in 2011, threw a perfect game in the 2010 regular season, no-hit Cincinnati in the 2010 playoffs and beat the Redbirds in Game 1.

McGwire tells Cardinals hitters there is nothing is more irritating to a craftsman like Halladay than fouling off pitches. It gets pitchers angry and sooner or later, McGwire states, Doc will leave a pitch up in the zone.

Schumaker fouls off six breaking pitches and on the 10th pitch of the at-bat Halladay, just as McGwire predicted, leaves a pitch up in the zone, a 78 mph curve hanging over the heart of the plate. Schumaker pulls it into the right-field corner for an RBI double.

Moments later, Utley’s heady play on Albert Pujols’ fielder’s choice cuts down Schumaker at third. Lance Berkman reaches first base on catcher’s interference before Halladay gets Matt Holliday to pop out to Polanco and Yadier Molina to ground to Rollins.

Halladay labors through the first inning, throwing 34 pitches. Stockton tells viewers that for Halladay to surrender a triple and double and yield only one run is “amazing.”

LaRussa believes Doc did what the great ones do – elevate their game and get out of the inning. He also knows his hitters did what they were supposed to do. Furcal, ahead in the count, was looking for a pitch to drive since he knew Halladay didn’t want to fall behind 3-1. Furcal got the pitch he wanted and executed expertly. Schumaker followed with what LaRussa sees as one of the great at-bats of the series.

Carpenter, who has thrown more innings – 237.1 – in 2011 than anyone in the NL, climbs the hill in the bottom of the first. He dismisses the Phillies’ vaunted top of the order in brisk fashion – Rollins on a fly ball to Schumaker in center field; Utley on a swinging strikeout; Hunter Pence on a groundout to Furcal at shortstop.

Carp is on his game from the get-go, LaRussa thinks. He was ahead of all three hitters, including 0-2 on Rollins and Utley. In contrast to Halladay, Carpenter needs just 11 pitches to retire the side. LaRussa sees the first inning as Carpenter sending a message to the favored Phils. This is not the same Carpenter who struggled on short rest in Game 2. This is the great Carp, as LaRussa calls him, the ace in the Cards’ deck, flashing the form that earned him the 2005 Cy Young.

Halladay returns to the Cy Young form he showed in 2003 and again in ’10, retiring the Redbirds in order in the second. In the bottom of the inning Victorino lashes a line drive double to right. Carpenter cools the Phils by inducing Raul Ibanez to pop out and Polanco to ground out.

The two aces sail through the third before the Cards threaten Halladay in the fourth. Molina grounds a two-out single to center and steals second. Halladay slams the door with a swinging strikeout of David Freese.

The Fightin’s rally in the bottom of the frame. Trying to establish the inside part of the plate, Carpenter clips Utley with an 0-2 pitch. Pence and Howard do Carpenter favors by flailing at first-pitch offerings and are retired. Victorino smacks his second hit, a single to right that puts runners on the corners. Carpenter battles Ibanez, a powerful and polished hitter, and gets him to fly to right to end the threat.

The Phillies keep the pressure on. Utley singles with one out in the sixth but is cut down by Molina trying to steal second. The clutch throw is one more reason why LaRussa believes that in his 50 years in baseball, Molina is the best catcher he’s seen.

From the Parisian redesign of Rittenhouse Square to the William Penn statue at Broad and Market; from South Street to the Mexican and Asian influences of Washington Avenue; from the African-American neighborhood of Point Breeze to the hipsters’ hangout in Northern Liberties; the atmosphere in the city is electric. Phillies fans feel the tension of this taut 1-0 affair, and the anxiety increases with every pitched ball and each passing inning. The high drama has Cardinals’ general manager John Mozeliak feeling he’s watching one of the greatest games he’s ever seen.

Stockton calls Game 5 a “huge matchup of two pitching greats,” and the aces cut similar figures. Both are big men – Carpenter 6-6, 230, Halladay, 6-6, 225. Both bear stubble on their jaw and pull the bill of their caps low on their eyes. Both are laser-focused and as LaRussa notes, neither Carp nor Doc are afraid to pitch inside. They love to get ahead of hitters, and if a batter isn’t ready to swing, Carpenter and Halladay will be 0-1 in the count and working the corners.

Halladay, nicknamed “Doc” years earlier by Blue Jays announcer Tom Cheek after Old West gunsel Doc Holliday, confronts Cardinal hitters with a wide array of pitches – cut fastballs that are the hardest in the game in 2011, averaging better than 91 mph; four-seam fastballs; two-seam sinking fastballs; curveballs; and his strikeout pitch, a split-change that is a combination split-finger fastball and change-up.

Carpenter counters with cutters, curves and sinkers. He confronts the Phils’ portside power – Utley, Ryan Howard, Ibanez, et al. – with four-seam fastballs and change-ups. He’ll show Phillies hitters one thing, mix it two or three times, then show them something different.

Halladay is the sensei; Carpenter the student. On this night, they personify poetry in motion.

Doc faces Carp to lead off the Cards’ eighth. Carpenter singles and Furcal follows by reaching on a Ruiz error. Halladay walks Pujols intentionally, setting up a force out at any base and potential double-play. Doc drills down, fanning Berkman and getting Holliday to fly to left.

It’s the final pitch for Halladay, who has thrown 126 in all.

With his friend and fellow ace finished for the night, Carpenter soldiers on. Ross Gload, pinch-hitting for Halladay, takes first base on a dropped third strike. With two outs, Rollins ropes a hard-hit ball back through the middle but Carpenter, showing skills he has as a former hockey player, deflects it to second baseman Nick Punto. Punto’s quick release beats the speedy Rollins and this classic will come down to one final epic encounter: Carpenter versus the heart of the Phillies’ fearsome lineup – Utley, Pence and Howard – in the bottom of the ninth.

LaRussa believes the three sluggers compare favorably to any middle-of-the-lineup in baseball; believes, too, their matchup with Carp with the season on the line befits this classic contest.

Carpenter’s first pitch is a sinking fastball that Utley re-directs to deep center field. As thousands of Phillies fans leap to their feet and emit a riotous roar, Jon Jay, a mid-game replacement for Schumaker and young gun not overwhelmed by the moment, gives chase on Utley’s drive and gloves the ball at the base of the wall.

Two pitches later, Pence grounds out to third. It’s fitting that with a berth in the LCS hanging in the balance for both teams, it’s Howard who is striding to the plate to face Carpenter. It was Howard who helped deliver a Game 1 win to Halladay by blasting a three-run home run to turn the game in the Phils’ favor. LaRussa looks toward his pitcher and sees Carp smiling. The Cards’ ace wants to be out there, wants the challenge of facing the Phils’ fierce slugger. With the crowd standing and twirling rally towels, Carpenter runs the count to 2-2. He is one strike away from completing a three-hitter, one strike away from joining the Yankees’ Ralph Terry and Minnesota’s Jack Morris as the only MLB pitchers to throw a 1-0 shutout in a deciding game.

Howard assumes his trademark stance – right arm extended and black bat pointing menacingly toward the pitcher – and Carpenter cuts loose with his 110th pitch of the night, a curveball. Howard grounds to Punto in short right field for the final out and shockingly crumples to the ground along the first base line with a ruptured Achilles.

The symbolism of Howard’s collapse is not lost on Philly fans, who have been stunned into silence. As Stockton reminds his viewers, the Phils were built for the World Series. The Cardinals? They were 10 ½ games behind the Braves in the summer, but it’s never-say-die St. Louis who is heading to the LCS.

From the Parisian redesign of Rittenhouse Square to the William Penn statue at Broad and Market; from South Street to the Mexican and Asian influences of Washington Avenue; from the African-American neighborhood of Point Breeze to the hipsters’ hangout in Northern Liberties, Phillies fans of all ages, all races, all backgrounds and all vocations watch and wonder – What might have been? – as their winter of discontent settles in.

The Cardinals go on to win the World Series and join the San Francisco Giants as the league’s premier powers. The Phillies descend into despair, their rock-star Rotation lasting just one memorable, if unfulfilled, summer.

More than a game hung in the balance that brisk night. The fate of two proud franchises was on the line. Rollins tells USA Today two years later that he still thinks about Game 5. It had such a huge impact, J-Roll states. “Really, it changed everything.”

Rollins says St. Louis was the only team that could stand in the Phillies’ way of the World Series in 2011. Hamels says the Phils were confident they could run the table if they got past the Cards. When the Fightin’s lost, they felt numb. They felt old.

Mozeliak believes that had St. Louis lost, the future of their franchise would have changed. Winning Game 5 established a springboard for them, creating confidence for players in the Cardinal organization. The injection of youth St. Louis had in 2011 created the pillars of the powerful club that would win another pennant in 2013.

Game 5, Mozeliak tells USA Today, “meant everything to us.”

History shows it meant just as much to the Phillies. Hamels believes the Phils’ future would have been completely different had they won. The organization would have kept its core players in place, added free agents and not worried about the luxury tax as the team continued to build a dynasty. The Phillies, Hamels opines, would have become like the Yankees.

Their classic encounter leaves a lasting impact on the two aces as well. Carp and Doc left it all on the mound that night, and Carpenter isn’t certain the 2011 postseason didn’t prematurely end his career. His body never recovered and he pitched his final game the following season. He sees his World Series ring as representing the ultimate prize for his sacrifice.

Halladay, too, never returned to the same heady heights. He was out of baseball within two years, and tragically passed away last November at age 40 in a private plane crash.

“He was an amazing pitcher, competitor, teammate and friend,” Carpenter says at the time. “I have so many memories of him…”

Their epic postseason pitching duel, on which hung the fate of two franchises, no doubt ranking high among them.


One Response to “The Epic Pitching Duel That Changed the Future of Two Franchises”
  1. Joseph T. Bonanno says:

    An excellent and insightful article recapping a pivotal game in baseball history.

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