Phil Sheridan: Victorino plays the heavy in L.A.

Posted: October 14, 2008

LOS ANGELES - He is the unlikeliest of villains, this most likable of Phillies.

And yet Shane Victorino has emerged as the target of the fans' wrath in Milwaukee and Los Angeles. Indeed, loathing of the good-natured and chatty Victorino may be the only thing those two cities have in common.

He arrived in Brewerstown as the guy who had blown a four-run hole through the mystique of Milwaukee ace CC Sabathia. Victorino's grand slam almost single-handedly won Game 2 of the first-round series and set the Phillies up for advancement to the National League Championship Series with the Dodgers.

And tonight, he gave L.A. fans someone to boo as he hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning of a 7-5 triumph in Game 4. The Phils lead the best-of-seven series, three games to one.

Victorino arrived in L.A. only as a vaguely recalled Dodgers prospect whom the Phillies had stolen away in the Rule 5 draft. He didn't draw any real attention from the fans here until a baseball sailed over his head in Game 3 Sunday night.

From the moment he gestured angrily at pitcher Hiroki Kuroda - Throw at my body, not at my head, you dummy was the gist of his message - Victorino became a lightning rod again. And when his confrontation with Kuroda near first base led to both dugouts and bullpens emptying, the deal was done. Victorino was booed louder and longer than even the Phillies' biggest stars whenever his name was announced.

Early today, Victorino learned he was among seven players and coaches fined by commissioner Bud Selig for his part in the near-brawl.

That made Victorino's eighth-inning, two-run shot into the Phillies bullpen all the more delicious. Once again, the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Hawaiian did what his bigger, stronger, better-known teammates have struggled to do. In a clutch situation, in a game that was getting away from the Phillies, he crushed a low, inside breaking ball over the fence to tie the game.

When Matt Stairs delivered the second two-run shot of the inning, the Phillies had a 7-5 lead.

The distance between a tied series and a three-games-to-one lead is about the same as the distance between home plate and the right-field bleachers where Stairs' titanic shot landed.

A few innings earlier, Victorino had been in the middle of a tense managerial duel between Charlie Manuel and Joe Torre. He came to the plate with runners on first and second and nobody out.

Victorino bunted the runners over, a move that is in the official manager's guidebook and atlas. It is also a move that sucks the air out of a rally. As his slam off Sabathia and his later home run proved, Victorino is more than capable of delivering a big hit off Clayton Kershaw in that situation.

Yes, the bunt moved the runners over. It also cost the Phillies an out. Technically, it was a good move because Ryan Howard was able to score on a wild pitch. But that was all the Phillies could manage as pinch hitters Pedro Feliz and So Taguchi popped out weakly to right field.

It was a tense inning, filled with the kind of National League small ball that lets managers look busy. Relievers trotted in from the bullpens. Pinch-hitters were sent out of the dugout to loosen up with weighted bats. Some of them even made it to the batter's box.

But it is the players, not the managers, who decide these things. That point was made rather dramatically when Casey Blake led off the bottom of the sixth with a home run to wipe away all the Phillies' clever maneuvering in the top half.

And that point was made even more loudly and dramatically by Victorino and then Stairs in the eighth.

Down two, with Howard on first and one out, there was no thought of having Victorino bunt this time. He hit reliever Cory Wade's first pitch, a curveball, into the bullpen.

With that shot, Victorino established himself as perhaps the Phillies' most valuable player of this postseason. Along with his two vital homers, he made a terrific catch against the fence in center field to secure victory in Game 1 of this series. In Game 2, Victorino tripled and drove in 4 runs in an 8-5 victory.

His postgame celebration was ruined when he found his father waiting for him in the clubhouse with news of his grandmother's death.

After taking a few minutes, Victorino stood at his locker and answered waves of questions from reporters. He handled a difficult, delicate situation with the kind of grace and class that would make any grandmother proud.

If there is one thing Victorino truly gets, it is baseball and how it is meant to be played. He was willing to take the payback pitch after some Dodgers were hit and brushed back. He just wasn't willing to take that pitch in his head. That's not baseball.

The fans booed Victorino even harder when he came to bat again in the ninth. He didn't seem to mind.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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