A second part in the Baseball FOMO series, following Seth Rubin’s earlier account of a game between the Mets and Angels.
Never leaving a baseball game early is a rule passed down from my father – although in all reality, I came to the realization a few years ago that he probably has left a game or two early. Especially all those years in the mid-90s when he was taking me and my brother to Phillies games at The Vet. Back when games in South Philadelphia were played in a concrete doughnut with turf that reminded me of that thin green carpet you used to see in screen rooms in the summer. As I reached my early twenties, I vowed to follow this rule as a baseball fan, because hey, you could always see something you’ve never seen before.
This story begins in Game Five of the National League Division Series in 2011, when the Phillies’ season ended on a ground ball as Chris Carpenter out dueled Doc Halladay and Ryan Howard didn’t even make it out of the batter’s box, tearing his achilles tendon and ending the most productive part of his career. After that night, the Phillies would not be the same as they’d be missing their $20 million dollar first baseman for much of the year in 2012; but it would also be a signal that the window of success, which seemed to be held open by the arms of Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, was suddenly closed. At best, fans could hope the team hover around .500 until Howard made his way back and even then, the team would need a lot to go right to return to the playoffs.
Things wouldn’t break right for the team; Halladay couldn’t replicate his magical 2011 season, the front office started selling pieces at the deadline dealing Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino. They entered September six games under .500, hopes of making a playoff run were low.
The date was September 19th, 2012 as the Phillies were playing at Citi Field in Flushing Meadows against the hapless Mets. I had recently moved from the Philadelphia area to North Jersey and decided to get tickets to see the two teams play with one of my good friends, Mark. Hamels would be on the mound against a Mets lineup that featured Ike Davis, Kelly Shoppach, and Scott Hairston for a team 15 games under .500. As a fan of strong pitching, I thought this was a good choice: to go see the Phillies remaining ace one last time for the season. On the mound for the Mets in his last start of his rookie season: Matt Harvey. I’d heard of Harvey, of course, but in no way expected to see him dominate on this night.
Future Phillies Wall of Famer Jimmy Rollins led off the top of the first inning with a home run, so it looked like Mark and I were in for a good time. Harvey was in his first season and had a few months in the rotation. This was his tenth and final start of 2012, but I had come to see Hamels dominate and he’d have the lead after the first.
After Rollins’ leadoff home run, my buddy and I didn’t see the Phillies get another hit all night. Harvey shut the Phillies offense down as the Mets tied the game on a single in the third and then a took the lead on a David Wright home run in the sixth. The Mets’ future ace was making the Phillies look silly at the plate through six.
September games in the Northeast are odd when it comes to the weather. At first pitch, with the sun still out, it is warm enough for a light jacket, maybe even no jacket at all. But by 9:20 PM, it usually is pretty chilly, especially with the cold wind on this night. Mark and I looked at each other in the bottom of the sixth and decided if the offense couldn’t muster a hit in the 7th, we’d bail. After the Phillies hapless offense couldn’t put anything together in Harvey’s final inning of work, Mark and I arose from our seats in the 500 level and began our commute home on mass transit from Citi Field back to Jersey.
During the 25 minute ride back to Penn Station on the 7 train, Mark and I talked about our decision to leave and vowed that it was the right decision. It was also remarked how impressive Harvey looked against a team that was still playing for slim playoff hopes. Having been disconnected from the game on journey back we ran into another Phillies fan that made the same decision we did. Excitedly, he asked “Did you guys see? Howard hit a home run in the top of the 9th?! The Phils are ahead!” I said something along the lines of “Get the hell out of here”, and he showed me the score on his phone. Indeed, with two outs in the ninth, Ryan Howard hit a two run homerun off Josh Edgin. Their win expectancy was just 7% when Howard came up to the plate. And, as he did many time before in his career, the Big Piece changed the outcome of this game with one swing.
We watched the rest of the game with the help of our phones on the floor of New York Penn Station as we waited for a train back to New Jersey. Papelbon would get the final out and a small group of Phillies fans let out an excited yelp as this game put the team over .500 and only four games behind the Cardinals in the Wild Card race. Hope was still alive, albeit slim.
In the end, the 2012 Phillies would finish 81-81 and miss out on the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Howard’s two-run, go-ahead home run in the ninth would probably be the last big moment of his career, as the team wouldn’t come close to the playoffs over the next few seasons, troubled by high-priced, long-term contracts to a number of aging veterans. And I would never leave early again, even a game in 2015 at Camden Yards that saw the Phillies lose 19-3 and allowed Jeff Francoeur to throw 48 pitches.