PHILADELPHIA — This is a city that expects the worst, especially with its sports teams. So you know, as 62,000 Philly fans watched Curt Schilling battle Roberto Alomar in the eighth inning Thursday night, watched one pitch after another come smoking in only to get fouled off, another pitch, another foul, another pitch, another foul, you knew what they were thinking:

Schilling’s arm. It’s gonna fall off!

That’s the way they think here. They could envision the whole thing. At the most crucial moment, he’d throw a fastball, and the damn arm would just detach and lay there on the mound like a chicken wing. And then what?

“No . . . no . . . NO!” the fans screamed, “don’t even say b-b-b-bullpen .
. . “

They would rather swim in the sewer. Forget it. Schilling was the last man on the ship, the lone tank in the enemy battlefield. It was him or basketball season. The Phillies’ pitching staff had been reduced to ashes, nobody trusted it, not the fans, not even the manager. The night before, pretty much every Philly pitcher had his lunch handed to him. The team lost, 15-14, in the longest and perhaps worst-pitched World Series game in history.

Now they were one defeat away from going home for the year. And if that happened, well, damn it, it wasn’t going to happen with relief pitchers. Superstitious? I saw a kid glance over at the bullpen, and his father grabbed his head and spun it around.

“Don’t look! You’ll turn to stone!”

Absolutely no relief in sight

So it was Schilling or nothing. He started the game, and he lasted beyond the third inning — which is more than you can say for some of the Phillies’
“aces.” As the game went on, and the Phils nursed a two-run lead the way a wallflower nurses a beer, the question was simple: Would his arm last? Could he go all the way? Every time he threw the ball, 50 plane tickets to Toronto went up in the air.

And here he was, eighth inning, two men on, two men out, and Alomar, a Series MVP candidate, at the plate. Schilling’s pitch count was already up in pinball range. One hundred and thirty. One hundred thirty-one. How many fastballs did he fire only to see Alomar nick them into the foul-line seats?

You could feel exhaustion dripping off the mound. Before the inning began, Schilling’s catcher, Darren Daulton, came to him and said, “We may have to use mirrors out there.”

Translation: You’re losing velocity.

But with the World Series resting in the balance, Schilling found something extra. He finally got Alomar to hit into a groundball out, and the entire stadium roared with relief.

Captain Curt to the rescue.

“I think that’s the first time that I had two men on that late in the game, and I looked down to the bullpen and saw nobody was up,” Schilling said after he got the Jays 1-2-3 in the ninth and won the game, 2-0, to force a return trip to Canada for Game 6. “That made me more psyched. I knew we were either going home or going to Toronto based on what I did.”

Or, as relief pitcher Mitch Williams put it: “We won because we followed rule No. 1: Don’t put me in the game.”

Mission accomplished. He kept the Phillies from pholding

Interesting that Schilling, 26, was the hero, a captain on this ship of Phillies Phools that has come to be known more for hairstyles and whiskers than baseball prowess. Schilling, not that long ago, was a wild man himself. He went to college in Arizona and was so slovenly his coach had to tell him to at least, please, tuck your shirt in now and then. That same coach also said, “Curt, there are classrooms and libraries here. Make yourself familiar with them.”

But life changed for Schilling in 1988, when his father, Cliff, who had been his biggest supporter and fondest fan, died of a heart attack. Curt missed him terribly. In one of the more touching tributes a ballplayer can pay his father, Schilling left tickets for his departed dad every game he pitched. Here in the postseason, he uses one of his allotted 12 tickets for an empty seat for his dad.

“I think of him when I’m pitching. When things get really tough, he’s what gets me through.”

And thanks to that kind of determination, the Phillies are still alive. This was really the most amazing game, after the debacle the night before. A shutout? A complete game? Maybe both teams were so exhausted from scoring all those runs the night before they had nothing left.

Or maybe this is the script. Here was a masterful performance by a pitcher determined not to lose and a team determined not to go away. Winning a game when you’re down 3-1 in a World Series is damn difficult because this little voice in the back of your head keeps saying, “It’s impossible. Winning three in a row? Almost nobody does it. Give up.”

That voice was drowned out Thursday by 62,000 nervous screams — and the steady thud of the ball in the catcher’s mitt.

When Schilling got Paul Molitor for the final out — his 146th pitch of the night — the crowd erupted. And the loneliest man on the battlefield raised his arm one last time, to acknowledge the applause.

Here’s the good news: It didn’t fall off.

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