Saturday, October 23, 2010

October 23, 1993: Wild Thing

TORONTO - Usually, when a team brings in its closer with the lead in a World Series game, it's cause for celebration. They would be three outs away from the victory, and now their best reliever, if not their best pitcher, was coming into the game. For the trailing team, it was time to grip the bat handles a little tighter, to feel the hearts racing a little bit faster - they had to make a comeback against THIS guy?

But when the Philadelphia Phillies brought in their closer for the bottom of the ninth of game 6 of the 1993 World Series, asking Mitch Williams to get the three outs they needed to get to game 7, the Toronto fans stood and cheered. You could say that they were cheering as a way to drum up support for their offense, but they were also cheering because there was no pitcher they'd rather face than Williams.

Williams was nicknamed the Wild Thing because of his crazy delivery that left him tumbling off the mound and because of his lack of knowledge of where the ball was going to go. He even took the number 99 in honor of the other "Wild Thing," Ricky Vaughn from the Major League movies. He had been pretty good in 1993, effective enough to get the Phillies to the World Series despite his wild innings, but he had completely fallen apart in the World Series. He hadn't been able to find the strike zone at all, and when he had, Toronto's hitters had battered him. Now he needed to find a way to get three outs, and the Toronto fans were sure he wouldn't do it.

That he was able to pitch in a save situation at all was the result of a fantastic rally by his teammates, who had scored five runs in the 7th to take a 6-5 lead. Toronto had loaded the bases without scoring in the eighth, and now Philadelphia was handing the ball, and their season, to Wild Thing. It's probable the Phillies had all the confidence in the world in Williams. It's also possible that they wished they had scored more than the five runs in the seventh, that they had been able to give him more than a one-run lead.

Whatever the Phillies were thinking, the Toronto fans were full of confidence, and they erupted in cheers when Rickey Henderson led off the ninth with a four-pitch walk. Williams hadn't been close on any of the pitches, and now the tying run was already on first. The crowd was going crazy.

Williams ignored the crowd as best he could, getting Devon White to fly out after a nine-pitch at bat. One down. Next up was Paul Molitor, a future Hall of Famer like Henderson. Williams' first pitch was hopelessly wild. The crowd went wild again. Perhaps knowing he was losing control, Williams eased up just a bit on the next two. The first one Molitor fouled off. The second one he lined into center. The World Series-winning run was on first base.

Joe Carter was up next. Though he was Toronto's cleanup hitter, he may have been no more than their sixth best hitter. Having incredibly talented teammates surrounding him in the batting order inflated his numbers, making him look better than he probably was. Still, though, he was a threat to hit a home run at any time. Although, it's hard to hit a home run when you're trying to dodge a ball thrown at your feet. Carter didn't have to dodge the second pitch, but it was clearly high. At this point the crowd was delirious - the winning run on first, a pitcher who had shown no ability to get a ball anywhere near the strike zone, and a dead fastball hitter at the plate. This had to end well.

Carter wasn't going to swing at anything until Williams proved he could throw a strike, so he watched the 2-0 pitch go right down the middle. Then Williams proved why he was still, for the most part, an effective closer, cutting loose a slider. Earlier in the at bat, Carter had needed to jump out of the way of a slider. Now he was swinging and missing at one that came much closer to its target. It was a 2-2 count.

The next pitch was a fastball that ran inside, Williams hoping to jam Carter to get a double play ball. But Carter was a dead-red fastball hitter, was looking fastball, so he got the barrel of the bat out and pulled a line drive deep to left. Usually, balls pulled that hard off inside pitches end up hooking foul, but Carter's stayed straight as an arrow, landing just on the other side of the fence to end the series.

A jubliant Carter hopped around the bases, never coming close to jogging until he had already reached second base. His teammates swarmed the field, along with several dozen fans, congratulating him as he took his trip around the bases. Carter had become the second man to end the World Series on a home run, the first to do so while his team was trailing. It was celebration time in Toronto for the second straight year.

As Carter's home run cleared the fence, Williams walked off the mound, head down. He took off his hat, wiped his forehead with his sleeve, and walked down to the clubhouse, not even stopping in the dugout. All season long, the Phillies put up with, even embraced, Williams' Wild Thing persona. Suddenly, it seemed very old. A season's worth of great memories were erased with one bad inning. Williams never threw another pitch for Philadelphia.

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