Mauch wandered over to a knot of his former players. "Hey, Gene," said Sievers. "Remember the time I tried for that inside-the-park homer?"
"I'll say," said Mauch, with a laugh. "I can still see you swimming those last 15 feet. Your hand came down this short of home plate."
Mauch held out his hands just inches apart. It occurred to this former Phillies fan that the two men had offered up a perfect metaphor for their 1964 season.
By mid-September, the preparations were under way in Philadelphia. The World Series tickets were printed. A bulldozer sat by the third-base dugout at Connie Mack Stadium, ready to move dirt to make room for additional field boxes. Amaro had written home to his family in Veracruz, Mexico: "We are playing the best baseball of both leagues and nothing will stop us now.... I will wire you the money for the tickets, but you better start packing." When the Phillies went to Houston on their next-to-last road trip, several players, confident that they would soon receive World Series checks, went out and bought expensive hunting rifles.
It was during that visit to Houston, from Sept. 14 to Sept. 16, that Mauch first decided to use one of his aces with two days' rest. Bunning had beaten the Colt .45s four times that season, and Mauch, pushing the pedal to the metal, asked him if he would mind pitching the last game of the series out of turn. Bunning liked the idea, but he was shelled in the fifth inning. The Phillies lost, 6-5.
By now, Philadelphia was playing without the slugging Frank Thomas. He had broken the thumb of his right hand on Sept. 8, diving back into second base on a pickoff attempt. Before the injury, Thomas, acquired in midseason from the Mets, had driven in 26 runs in 32 games and made the Phillies less vulnerable to lefthanded pitching.
Still, the Phils ended their road trip on Sept. 20 with a victory in Los Angeles and, carrying a 6½-game lead in their pockets, flew back to Philadelphia for their final home stand, against the Reds and the Braves. Two thousand fans met the team at the airport when they touched down at 12:30 a.m. The Phillies' magic number was seven.
The first game of the series against the Reds was still a scoreless tie as Ruiz stood on third with two outs and Frank Robinson at the plate. Mauch didn't have the slightest premonition that Ruiz might attempt to steal home, but then neither did Cincinnati manager Dick Sisler nor Reds third base coach Reggie Otero. When Ruiz broke for home, Sisler yelled, "No! No!," but Mahaffey threw the ball away, and Ruiz slid home with the only run of the game. Afterward, Sisler said, "If Chico hadn't scored, he'd still be running—all the way to San Diego." (San Diego was a Reds farm club at the time.)
Including that loss, here's a recap of the Phils' 10-game skid, with the starting pitchers:
Sept. 21—Reds 1-0 (Mahaffey)
22—Reds 9-2 (Short)
23—Reds 6-4 (Bennett)
24—Braves 5-3 (Bunning)
25—Braves 7-5 (Short)
26—Braves 6-4 (Mahaffey)
27—Braves 14-8 (Bunning)
28—Cardinals 5-1 (Short)
29—Cardinals 4-2 (Bennett)
30—Cardinals 8-5 (Bunning)