In some ways, Brett Phillips is the perfect Tampa Bay Ray.
He’s a former Top 100 prospect acquired long after his prospect shine had worn off. He’s in his fourth organization in five years, a player considered expendable by other clubs again and again. He’s a gifted defender and impressive athlete, but he’s never been able to consistently produce at the plate.
The Rays acquired Phillips just before the trade deadline and gave him just 25 plate appearances in 17 games. They left him off their American League Championship Series roster entirely, although he remained on the bench and contributed in his own way with his famous white board and effervescent personality.
The Rays added Phillips to their World Series roster to be a pinch-runner and late-game defensive replacement. When he stepped to the plate Saturday night with the Rays down to their final out and the tying run on second base, it was his first plate appearance in 17 days.
Naturally, because this is the 2020 Rays, Phillips came through.
Down to the team’s final strike, Phillips hit the game-tying RBI single off Kenley Jansen in the bottom of the ninth inning and Randy Arozarena scored the game-winning run on a pair of defensive miscues on the play, lifting the Rays to a stunning 8-7 win over the Dodgers in Game 4 of the World Series. The series is tied 2-2.
Phillips’ single was his first career hit in the postseason. It was his first hit at all since Sept. 25, nearly a full month ago.
“For myself, it’s just having this unrelenting belief that I was going to come in and help the team win,” Phillips said. “Do a job like I’m asked. That’s why we’re here. We’re Major League Baseball players and we wouldn’t be here if we couldn’t do that. Everyone on the bench. I feel thankful and blessed the opportunity presented itself.”
Phillips’ hit and Arozarena’s mad dash capped a wild comeback for the indefatigable Rays. They trailed 4-2 in the sixth inning, 6-5 in the seventh and 7-6 with two outs in the ninth, and came back every time.
It didn’t even occur to Phillips that he would face Jansen. He entered as a pinch-runner in the eighth inning and took over in right field for the top of the ninth. When he trotted back to the dugout for the bottom of the ninth, he saw he was due up fifth and immediately went to get some quick swings in the cage. Phillips, a lefthanded hitter, figured the Dodgers would bring in a lefty if he got up to bat, so he brought a lefty to pitch to him.
Just the fact he was even in the cage during a game was an unfamiliar development for him.
“I don’t really swing during the game because I’m more running and getting my arm loose,” he said. “I took like 10 swings off our batting practice coach, which was lefty batting practice, because I had assumed that if I was coming up that I might have been facing a lefty just being fifth.”
He didn’t. Phillips stepped to the plate against Jansen in the ninth with Kevin Kiermaier on second and Arozarena on first, and quickly fell behind 1-2 after a pair of borderline strike calls.
Down to his final strike, and with the Rays staring down the barrel of a 3-1 series deficit, Phillips stepped into the box, got a 92-mph cutter on the inner half of the plate and lined it into center field.
Then, the chaos began.
Kiermaier raced home from second with the tying run. Dodgers center fielder Chris Taylor picked his head up a half-second too soon and bobbled the ball. Rays third base coach Rodney Linares, seeing the ball kick off Taylor’s glove to his left, picked up Arozarena flying toward third base and waved him home behind Kiermaier.
Arozarena made it about halfway down the line before he tripped over himself, tumbling forward preventing him from getting to the plate in time to score the winning run.
Except, with Arozarena on the ground and caught dead in the water, first baseman Max Muncy’s relay throw to the plate grazed the edge of catcher Will Smith’s glove, hit the umpire’s leg and bounced toward the backstop. Arozarena got up, retreated back toward third base, reversed course when he saw the ball get by Smith and slid headfirst into home plate for the winning run, slapping the plate repeatedly with his right hand for effect.
“I crossed home plate and I turn around and see Randy get snipered out of nowhere and I’m just thinking ‘Oh no,’ ” Kiermaier said. “And then he gets up and they threw it away…the baseball gods were on our side. I was the happiest man on the planet to see Randy score just so the game could be over with. I couldn’t have took any more from that point on. Just truly incredible. I’m at a loss for words.”
Phillips, who celebrated with an airplane run into center field, called it the best moment of his life, tied with his wedding. As he became trapped under a team dogpile in center field, he had to wriggle his way out because he was so out of breath he nearly passed out.
“It was just true, pure excitement and pure joy,” Phillips said. “I know there’s some guys out there with a really slow heart rate that have been in this situation probably many times before and it’s just another day for them. But for myself, it’s not, and I’m going to show all the excitement that I’m feeling on the inside. That’s what I’m portraying on the outside.”
Phillips has good reason to feel that way, beyond just the thrill of a game-winning hit in the World Series.
The 26-year-old outfielder grew up a die-hard Rays fan in Seminole, Fla., 11 miles from Tropicana Field. He was in eighth grade when the Rays went to the 2008 World Series and a junior at Seminole High School when the Rays won the AL East on the last day of the season in 2011.
He’s a major leaguer now, but that inner childhood Rays fan never left him.
Told that his winning hit now put him in the company of Dan Johnson, whose clutch home runs in 2008 and 2011 made him a Rays legend, Phillips beamed.
“To be mentioned with his name now, wow,” Phillips said. “That’s special and I feel blessed, especially in St. Pete, my hometown. Like, crazy.”
To add to it even more, Phillips’ walkoff hit came the day his wife, Bri, arrived at Globe Life Field.
Bri is the daughter of former Royals manager Trey Hillman. She and Phillips married last November in a ceremony that included Astros righthander Lance McCullers Jr. and Brewers lefthander Josh Hader, both former teammates of Phillips, as groomsmen.
Bri was unable to get work off for the first three games of the World Series. She arrived in Arlington, Texas in time for Game 4 and watched from the stands as her husband entered into World Series lore.
“What a moment for him to step up to the plate in the biggest at-bat of his life with the game on the line and come through for us,” Kiermaier said. “It’s a moment that no one will ever be able to take away from him. I’m so proud of him for coming up huge and winning the ballgame for us. Absolutely incredible. I’m at a loss for words.”
That Phillips, with his career .202 batting average and limited role as a hitter, would become a World Series hero seemed an unlikely proposition.
Then again, that’s the story of the 2020 Rays.
“Anyone can come up on any given night, especially with Tampa Bay Rays, and help the team win,” Phillips said. “We’re proven that since I’ve been here…that someone steps up every night to help this team win. I’m just glad I could be a part of that.”