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In Los Angeles they split the first two games of the series with the Dodgers; then on Saturday night, September 19, in the ninth game of the road trip, they had the first real taste of what was in store for them. It came in the last half of the 16th inning in Dodger Stadium, with the score tied 3-3, and the game entering its sixth hour. With two out and nobody on, Willie Davis of the Dodgers lashed a line drive that bounced off First Baseman John Herrnstein's chest. Herrnstein recovered the ball and flipped it to Relief Pitcher Jack Baldschun, who was racing Davis to first. Davis and Baldschun reached first base simultaneously, and Davis' foot came down on top of Baldschun's. The Phils thought it was the third out, but the umpire called Davis safe. The Phillies argued in vain. Baldschun, angered by the decision and bothered by the injured foot, threw a wild pitch as Davis began stealing second, and the wild pitch allowed Davis to go on to third. Baldschun walked the hitter, Tommy Davis, and Ron Fairly, a left-handed batter, came to the plate.
Mauch called in Morrie Steevens, a 21-year-old left-hander, from the bullpen. Steevens only recently had been brought up from Little Rock for just such an emergency. Steevens' first two pitches were strikes—typical of the providential way things had been going for the Phils all year. Then Third Base Coach Leo Durocher whispered into Davis' ear, "I know you can steal home. Go ahead!" Catcher Clay Dalrymple gave Steevens the sign for a curve ball, but in the middle of his windup Steevens picked up the blur of Davis streaking for home. Fairly was flabbergasted at the sight of Davis coming down the line, and Dodger Manager Walt Alston jumped up in the dugout, shocked that Davis was trying to steal home with two out and two strikes on a left-handed hitter. Steevens threw a fast ball low and in the dirt on the left side of the plate. Fairly had already backed out of the batter's box, and somehow Catcher Dalrymple caught the ball. He dived into Davis' spikes without a full grip on the ball, and it spun away when Davis hit it. The Phillies' lead was still a comfortable five and a half games, but the Dodgers had won the ball game.
The next morning the Phillies slept an hour later than usual at Mauch's insistence. Most of them ordered breakfast from room service and, thanks to the three-hour time difference between Philadelphia and Los Angeles, watched the Philadelphia Eagles play the San Francisco 49ers on television. The Phils beat the Dodgers that afternoon, but a ground ball ripped off the top of Vic Power's fingernail. On the team's chartered flight home from Los Angeles to Philadelphia the injured nail bothered Power, and he wondered if he would be able to swing effectively.
In Philadelphia people had made plans to welcome the team at the airport. By the time the Phillies arrived at 12:30 a.m. the airport was packed, and the body warmth from the 2,000 people in the second-floor concourse of the air terminal caused the windows to fog up. Willie Passio of Sigel Street got up an impromptu band along with his brother Nick (on the snare drums), Bobby Vaco (on the bass drums) and Buster Verrecchia (on cymbals). They played Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here, and the fans sang right along. Candida Rojas, Cookie's wife, waited at the airport with a big smile on her face. "We are six and a half games in front," she said. "The magic number is seven. The way I see it we'll have the pennant clinched by Thursday night." Judy Amaro, Ruben's wife, told reporters that Ruben's parents were coming up from Veracruz for the World Series.
As the happy players came off the plane Mauch had a drawn, tired look. In 16 hours the Phils would have to be back at work in Connie Mack Stadium against the Cincinnati Reds—who had moved into a tie for second with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Phillies' magic number—the combination of Philadelphia victories and opponents' defeats needed to clinch the pennant—was seven, with only 12 games left. The Phillies had already won 90 games. No team in the Phillies' history had ever won more than 91.
The first night of the final home stand of the season was extremely cold, yet 21,000 people came out. What those people saw was the start of the 10-game losing streak and the beginning of the wildest two weeks in National League history. Chico Ruiz of the Reds stole home with two out and the score tied 0-0 in the sixth inning, at a time when Frank Robinson, the Reds' best hitter, was at bat. Art Mahaffey, the Philadelphia pitcher, saw Ruiz going but threw wildly and Ruiz scored easily. The Cincinnati manager, Dick Sisler, did not have the slightest notion that Ruiz would steal, nor did Third Base Coach Reggie Otero. But Ruiz had noticed that on Mahaffey's first pitch he had wound up slowly. Chico decided, "If he winds up slow again, I go!" When he broke for home Sisler jumped up, screaming, "No, no!" But it was yes, and that one run was the game. In the dressing room Mauch said disgustedly, "If anyone named Chico Ruiz tries to steal home for me with Frank Robinson at bat he sure as hell better be safe or..." and his voice stopped.
Twice in three games the Phillies had lost because of totally unorthodox steals of home.
The Reds were now within five and a half games of the Phils, and the Phillies' magic number was still seven, with 11 games to play. The following evening Cincinnati pounded Philadelphia 9-2, and in the Red dressing room Joe Nuxhall, the ageless left-hander who came up to the Reds a week or so after Abner Doubleday (or somebody) invented the game, pushed a make-believe button on the clubhouse wall. "The panic button," he said and, referring to Mauch, "The Little General will begin to push the button." But none of the Reds truly felt they had more than the slimmest chance of catching the Phils. "They lead by four and a half games, with 10 to play," said Sisler. "I'd like to be in that position."
Earlier that day, fans hopeful of receiving World Series tickets began to march to their post offices, and by 8 a.m. the following morning the North Philadelphia Station, which handles the Phillies' mail, had 52,500 requests. The tickets were printed in eight colors—green, red, purple, brown, orange, blue, yellow and gray—and each ticket bore a picture of the Philadelphia skyline. The Warwick Hotel was taking no more reservations for early October and expected to handle $50,000 worth of guests for the Series.
But a crawling panic began to move through the city the next night as the Phils lost to the Reds again, this time 6-4. When the Reds brought Sammy Ellis in to pitch in the seventh, the Phils seemed to be beginning one of their storied rallies, one that would bring them a desperately needed victory. After Ellis struck out one batter, he walked the bases full. Manager Sisler let Ellis stay in the game, and the 22-year-old right-hander looked in at Johnny Callison as 23,000 fans chanted, "Go, go, go!" Ellis was afraid. "I have never been so scared in my life," he said later. "My knees were shaking and my hands were perspiring." But Ellis struck out Callison on a 3-2 pitch on the outside corner of the plate and then threw a third strike past Tony Taylor. It was a magnificent performance and one that cut the Phillies' lead to three and a half games, with nine left. The magic number was still seven.