Sometimes our greatest athletic moments are defeats. We acknowledge the courage of the underdog who put up way too great a fight just because he didn’t know any better, or the dehydrating, draining, exhausting struggle of two implacable foes pressing the limits of skill, artistry and endurance, the kind of game that must produce a loser for no reason other than only one man can win.
The Phillies in 1993, the Flyers in 2010, the Sixers in 2001, the French in the 2006 World Cup, the Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV, the Indians in the 1997 World Series. The 2003 Fiesta Bowl, the 1990 Loyola Marymount Lions, the (SPOILER ALERT) Twins from Little Big League and the Permian Panthers from Friday Night Lights.
Sometimes we celebrate our losses because the fight itself was so laudable. That’s a very long-winded way of saying my favorite game of the year was a Phillies loss.
My favorite games are tense, low-scoring affairs, because I’m not a child and I don’t need big, flashy run totals to entertain me. Which was good, in this case, because this was the queen mother of low-scoring affairs. It was a virtuoso performance by two of the best pitchers in the game, a masterpiece of efficiency that produced bewilderment not only at the virtuosity of the pitchers, but at how much they were able to accomplish in so short a period of time. I remember, it seems, five innings passing in the time it took me to check my email.
The Phillies and Giants played 11 innings in 2 hours, 27 minutes. That’s how long it takes for Jonathan Papelbon to decide he wants to shake off his catcher. But it’s what you’d expect when two fantastic, fast-working starters face two offenses capable of otherworldly feats of offensive indiscipline. Cliff Lee went 10 innings, Cain 9, and both starters probably could have gone more. Bruce Bochy pulled Cain after only 91 pitches, and through 10 innings, Lee had thrown only 102 pitches, of which 81 (EIGHTY-ONE!) were strikes.
For further reading, Jonah Keri of Grantland put down most of the finer points of that game in a post the next morning, which I am totally linking to here for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that he cited me in the post.
But more than a spectacle, this game was a microcosm. The Phillies couldn’t hit. Matt Cain put on a clinic (in his previous start, he’d struck out 11 in a one-hit shutout win over the Pirates, plus that other game he had in June). The Giants got lucky breaks. Charlie Manuel refused to use Jonathan Papelbon in a non-save situation and paid for it with a loss. Cliff Lee pitched lights-out ball and continued his absurd and hilarious winless streak. This was the Phillies’ season (and the Giants’ for that matter) in the running time of a middling Spielberg movie.
It wasn’t the most fun I had watching the Phillies this season (that three-game sweep of the Brewers was), and Paul bogarted the moment that put the biggest smile on my face. But sometimes, win or lose, when baseball shows you something truly remarkable, you have to acknowledge it for what it is.