Mitch's high-wire act scares all but Phillies

October 11, 1993|By Bob Klapisch | Bob Klapisch,New York Daily News

ATLANTA -- That's Mitch, the Philadelphia Phillies said, and they all looked at each other, knowing no other description was necessary. The Atlanta Braves had runners on first and second in the ninth inning, nobody out and Mitch Williams was ready to turn Game 4 of the NLCS into something awful for the Phillies.

At least, it seemed that way to anyone who doesn't really understand Williams -- the guy who needs anarchy, who lives on panic, who cannot succeed unless all those around are drowning in their own sweat. That's Mitch.

"I'm pretty much used to all of it by now. If something bad can happen to me on the baseball field, then it'll happen to me," Williams said.

He spoke in measured, even tones after last night's 2-1 win over the Braves, talking about a daylong war with food poisoning, as if that ninth inning really wasn't so difficult after all.

Jim Fregosi just laughed and said, "Honestly, that was nothing. Shoot, Mitch didn't have the bases loaded this time." But it was a crisis, one created by -- who else? -- Mitch. Asked to protect a one-run lead, Williams first allowed Bill Pecota a broken-bat single to start the inning.

Never mind that Williams brought his heat at 90-something, and that it absolutely devastated Pecota's bat. With wood splintered everywhere around the batter's box, the ball somehow landed softly in shallow center field, and suddenly Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium started thinking of what the Braves have done in October, this one and the last two Octobers.

Forget what Fregosi said, the fake calm, the forced smiles afterward. The Phillies were terrified at the sight of Williams misplaying Otis Nixon's bunt in front of the mound. Even Williams admitted "it was pretty stupid on my part" to attempt a barehanded grab, thinking he could nail Pecota.

Plan A failed because Williams rushed. He went to Plan B, which was getting Nixon at first. That evaporated too, because Williams not only let the bunt slip through his fingers, he bobbled it once it was on the ground, too. Finally, his intelligence prevailed, Williams deciding, "at that point I knew I wasn't going to get Otis."

Now there were runners on first and second, nobody out and Fregosi was on the mound talking to his corporation of wild men. There were muscleman Darren Daulton, and the unkempt John Kruk, and Williams himself. All that was missing from the summit was Lenny Dykstra, and no matter how perfect the Braves are, you had to admire the Phillies.

They're like the National League's Beavis and Butt-head, treating October with no respect. Don't the Phillies realize the Braves are the best team, with the best postseason tradition in this decade, boasting the best home run threat (Fred McGriff), the best-looking swing (David Justice), the best home-to-first time (Nixon), the best pitching mechanics (John Smoltz) and even the best overrated player (Deion Sanders)? Don't the Phillies know the NLCS isn't much more than a warmup for the Braves?

Dave Hollins said: "That stuff doesn't bother us much, because nobody ever thought we'd get this far. Nobody really takes us too seriously." A team that did too much thinking about itself never would have survived last night's ninth inning -- because, if you thought about it, the Phillies were history.

Williams had no business fielding Jeff Blauser's bunt just to the right of the mound, and getting an out at third base, even though Williams threw "a palm ball" to Kim Batiste. "Really, I thought that ball was headed into left field," Williams said. But Batiste caught it, stretching grotesquely to make sure the ball stayed glued in his glove, and all that was left was Ron Gant.

This where Williams paused for a breath. He was all adrenaline now, hoping it would carry him for two more outs. Williams had lived through a private hell yesterday, starting about 5 a.m. when he realized he'd eaten spoiled pork at a local restaurant. Grimly, he said, "I got up to go to the bathroom, and after that, it was a track meet between the bed and the bathroom."

Pause.

"All day," Williams said.

He got to the ballpark at 5 p.m., slept until 7:30 in the trainer's room. Williams walked around the infield, realized it was no use and headed back into the clubhouse. There was no need to eat -- nothing stayed down. Finally, in the seventh inning, Williams had his first meal of the day, half a Snickers bar, and here he was in the ninth inning, looking for a way to deal with Gant.

Gant caught a good hunk of the ball, but right at Mickey Morandini. He stepped on second base himself, then fired to Kruk. The double play happened so fast, it was almost impossible to digest it at first. Williams had survived. The Phillies had won. It was ugly, terrifying, full of scars -- but the Phillies smiled to themselves. That's Mitch.

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