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Stairs' home run moves Phillies within a victory of World Series

LOS ANGELES -- The game was tied 5-5 in the eighth inning. A baserunner was on first. One of the game's hardest and most intimidating throwers, Jonathan Broxton, stood on the mound. None of that mattered. Pinch-hitter Matt Stairs stepped up to the plate in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series with the same approach he's had over his itinerant 16-year career: Swing for the fences. "Look at me: I'm short, I'm chubby," Stairs said on Monday night in the visitor's locker room at Dodger Stadium. "Being 5-foot-9, I can't shortchange myself. I have to swing as hard as I can. All I can do is swing for the fences."

Broxton unleashed a 94-mph heater on a 3-1 count, and the barrel-chested 40-year-old, anticipating a fastball, bludgeoned the ball high into the cool Southern California night. Dodger Stadium went silent. The only thing Stairs could hear as he rounded the bases was the howling of his teammates from the visitors' dugout. "We call him La Bomba, because when he hits it, he hits it," says Phillies reliever J.C. Romero. "We see bombs like that every day in batting practice. But of course, this wasn't batting practice."

No, it was not only the biggest home run of Stairs' career but also the biggest in recent Phillies' history. After a thrilling 7-5 win over the Dodgers in Game 4, Philadelphia is now one win from the World Series. Of the last 11 teams to go ahead 3-1 in the NLCS, only two -- the '96 Cardinals and the '03 Cubs -- went on to lose the series.

Until the fateful eighth inning, it all looked so promising for the Los Angeles. The home team was up. CaliforniaDreamin' blared on the loudspeakers. Penny Marshall was dancing in the aisles. Chants of "Phillies Suck!" echoed across the ballpark.

And Derek Lowe, working on three days rest, was cruising. Lowe had started six regular season games in his career on short rest, posting a 4.78 ERA in the starts while averaging 5 1/3 innings. In the first inning it looked like it was going to get real ugly real fast for the sinkerballer: the Phillies opened with three straight hits, and took a 2-0 lead. Lowe was struggling to locate his slider, but a double play ground out by Shane Victorino stopped the bleeding. Lowe settled down, threw four scoreless innings. Then he was suddenly pulled after having thrown just 74 pitches. As Ryan Howard put it after the game, "He was pitching really well."

JoeTorre's postgame defense of the move wasn't convincing. "It looked like he was fighting his emotions the whole game. He said he felt fine," Torre said of Lowe. "We were probably going to get only one more inning out of him, pitch-count-wise, so I just decided to make the move there."

Torre was also saving Lowe for a possible Game 7, but it was too early to take out the righthander for Clayton Kershaw in the sixth with a one-run lead. Still, Charlie Manuel helped Torre's cause in the inning. The Phillies looked poised for a big inning after Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell singled to left, but Manuel ordered a sacrifice for centerfielder Shane Victorino, handing Kershaw a free out when the 20-year-old was so clearly struggling. The Phillies scored just one run in the inning, on a Chan Ho Park wild pitch.

Torre made another misstep when he yanked Hong-Chih Kuo for Corey Wade in the fateful top of the eighth. Kuo looked in total control before allowing a single to Howard. Torre then went to Wade, who hung a breaking ball that Victorino drilled into the Phillies' bullpen in rightfield for a two-run homer. "We all jumped up when we saw the ball off the bat," says closer Brad Lidge. "The ball missed [backup catcher Lou] Marson's helmet by about six inches." Suddenly the Phillies were tied, 5-5. Four batters later, the improbable hero, a mellow Canadian who coaches high school hockey in the offseason, stepped up to the plate and crushed the hopes of the record 56,800 packed into Dodger Stadium.

Though it backfired, Torre's decision to go with his Broxton, his best pitcher in the bullpen, with two outs in the eighth inning of a tie game was the right move. For the first time this October, Broxton struggled. "He can throw 100 and has a nasty slider," says Howard. "He's about the last person you want to come off the bench and see. But Matt got the job done."

And so did the Phillies, now overwhelming favorites to win the series. In Game 5 baseball's best starting pitcher this October, Cole Hamels, will take the mound. The Dodgers, meanwhile, are counting on Chad Billingsley, who lasted 2 1/3 innings in Game 2, to turn their fortunes around. "We expect him to be at his best," said Howard. "It was a great night for us, but there's still a lot of work to be done."

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