Joe Posnanski
Monday November 2nd, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- Ninth inning, tie game, two outs, World Series, and Johnny Damon noticed something: The pitcher was not covering third base. This was an interesting discovery. New York and Philadelphia were tied, 4-4. Damon had moved into scoring position -- a single could make him the winning run. But third base ... it was open.

Here are just a few of the calculations Damon had to make instantaneously:

1. He had to calculate if anyone was close enough to cover third base if he decided to run over there. (Negative.)

2. He had to calculate who had the ball. (Third baseman Pedro Feliz had the ball -- the Phillies had put on a shift for New York's Mark Teixeira so Feliz covered second on the steal. That's why he had the ball and why no one was covering third.)

3. He had to calculate Feliz's speed. (Not too fast.)

4. He had to calculate his own speed. (Damon's not as fast as he used to be -- but who is?)

5. He had to calculate the risks. (If he got tagged out trying to steal third, he would be the third out of the inning. And the Yankees would not get the chance to send Teixeira and, possibly, Alex Rodriguez to the plate. Teixeira and A-Rod are about $450 million in hitting talent.)

6. He had to calculate the rewards. (If he got to third base, he could score on a wild pitch. And, more to the point, Phillies reliever Brad Lidge might worry about throwing a wild pitch. Lidge's best pitch is his slider -- a pitch that has skipped past catchers with some regularity. So it could make a big difference for the upcoming hitters.)

7. He had to calculate if he would make it. (It looked promising, but you never know.)

Johnny Damon had to think about all of those things. And, of course, he also had to think about none of them. Because the greatest plays in baseball are not a product of thinking. They are a product of instinct and experience and a sense of what's possible. It's like what Bruce Springsteen says about writing a song -- you are aware of it but you don't really think about it. Your experiences all just end up inside the words.

And Damon's experiences -- well, he has made his living for 15 years now playing the game unconventionally. He's a corner outfielder with a weak arm. He has never hit 25 home runs in a season, and he has only hit .300 once in his four years with the Yankees. He strikes out more than he walks, and no longer has the speed he had when leading the league in stolen bases back in Kansas City in 2000.

What he does have -- what he has always seemed to have as a big league ballplayer -- is this ability to come up with something that helps him win the moment. He has scored 100-plus runs 10 times -- as many times as Pete Rose and one fewer than Ty Cobb -- and he has reached base almost 3,500 times, and he has a real chance to become the only living man to win a World Series as a starter for the New York Yankees AND Boston Red Sox.

How does he do it? Soccer writers have told me that there is something that great goal scorers have, something indescribable, a sense for the angles and the surroundings and the corner of the net. That's Damon too. He has talent, of course, but he has a knack for breaking down a pitcher and seeing openings and blooping balls just beyond the shortstop's reach.

Take his at-bat against Lidge in the ninth. There were two outs. Lidge got ahead in the count 1-2. And then Damon, realizing that Lidge would try to put him away with that famous slider of his, decided to look only for that slider. "They really don't teach you to do it that way," Damon says. "They normally tell you to look fastball because if you sit slider, it would be too tough to catch up to the fastball."

But Damon just sensed that his best shot was to wait for the slider and hope for the best. He fouled off a slider, then another. Lidge tried to throw a couple of fastballs -- one was called just off the outside corner (Damon was beaten on the pitch -- the umpire could have called it either way), and the second was outside. Full count. Damon kept waiting for the slider. He fouled off a fastball. He fouled off another fastball. And finally, he hit the fastball for a single to left field.

It was remarkable stuff -- "Just an unbelievable at-bat," Yankees manager Joe Girardi would call it -- and then Damon realized that he could steal second base on Lidge. You know the guy in your neighborhood basketball game, the one that plays ruthless defense, never-ending defense, in-your-face defense and you want to yell at him "Just STOP already." Yeah, that's Damon too.

He stole second base, and then he saw third base was open and in an instant he ran through all those calculations and decided to go for it. At first, Feliz reached out and looked like he had a chance to tag Damon. But he could not. Damon pulled away. "I'm just glad that when I started running, I still had some of my young legs behind me," Damon would say.

Damon made it to third base. We'll never know for sure if his play spooked Brad Lidge ... I think it's a fair guess to say that it did. Lidge promptly hit Mark Teixeira with a pitch. And then he threw two fastballs to A-Rod -- one of the great fastball hitters in baseball history -- and A-Rod ripped the second to left for a double. That scored Damon. Jorge Posada followed with a single that scored two more runs, and that was that.

Now, the Yankees have a stranglehold on the series. It's hard to come up with a scenario where the Phillies come back from this. They do have Cliff Lee going tonight, which gives them a fair shot at sending the series back to New York. But they're standing at the base of Mount Everest. And they know it. The Phillies really had to win Sunday night, and they played exactly the kind of gutsy game that it takes to win. They came from behind. They scored a late run to tie the game. They were at home, and Lidge seemed to be throwing well, and it all looked good.

But then Johnny Damon had the at-bat of the Series and he pulled off what might have been the first one-man double steal in World Series history. It was one of those plays that you never forget. The Phillies never quite recovered from that.

"I kinda had to see all that stuff develop," was how Damon explained his play. Then he shrugged his shoulders because, hey, he isn't really sure he saw any of it. He ran. His mind told him to go. Things just seem to work out for the guy. He's lucky that way.

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