If the Rays win the 2020 World Series, the lasting image may well be Brett Phillips running around in the Globe Life Field outfield, arms outstretched like an airplane.
Phillips didn’t invent that celebration — he’d seen his teammate Kevin Kiermaier do it. But it was Phillips executing it on the biggest stage in the most unlikely of circumstances Saturday night. A list of why Phillips was the last position player on either roster you’d expect to have the hit that led the Rays to walk-off Game 4 could be 5,000 words long (no, this isn’t that long). But because it’s October, and because the baseball gods are hopeless romantics, and because sometimes sports need no explanation but rather just appreciation, it was Phillips delivering nonetheless.
Here’s what made Phillips so unlikely to both be in that spot and deliver.
Brett Phillips grew up a Rays fan
Phillips grew up in Seminole, Florida as a fan of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They’d been a perennial loser until 2008, when Evan Longoria carried Tampa Bay all the way to the World Series. Phillips, 14 at the time, was hooked.
When Phillips was growing up, his grandmother took him to the first-ever Devil Rays fan fest. Phillips acknowledged after Game 4 that every young baseball player dreams of heroics in the World Series. In those dreams, and then in real life, Phillips wore a Tampa Bay uniform.
“I definitely want to extend some advice to all the kids out there,” Phillips said after Game 4. “Keep dreaming big. These opportunities, they’re closer than you think. They can come about. Just keep dreaming big, kids, of an opportunity like this, having an unrelenting belief that it will happen. And it does. Things like this happen.”
Three organizations got rid of Brett Phillips
Phillips was a sixth-round draft pick by the Houston Astros in 2012 out of high school. He became the type of player with enough talent to warrant inclusion in trades but not quite enough talent to break through.
Three times, Baseball Prospectus listed Phillips as a top-100 prospect on its preseason lists (2016, 2017, 2018). But Phillips also moved teams three times to wind up with Tampa Bay. First, he was part of the package moving to Milwaukee from Houston to acquire Mike Fiers and Carlos Gomez. Then he went from Milwaukee to Kansas City for Mike Moustakas.
The Rays acquired Phillips ahead of the 2020 trade deadline for minor-league shortstop Lucius Fox, and Phillips saw 25 plate appearances for Tampa Bay in the final month of the season.
Brett Phillips spent the ALCS as a cheerleader
The ALCS in 2020 was set up as a seven-games-in-seven-days marathon. That meant bullpen depth was at a premium, which meant Kevin Cash and the Rays left Phillips off their ALCS 28-man roster. Phillips remained with the team and sat in the dugout during games, where he became a de facto cheerleader.
Armed with a white board and a pen, Phillips wrote messages of encouragement for his teammates. A popular one was an anagram for Randy Arozarena’s first name: Rakes All Night Day Year.
Phillips was added back to the World Series roster thanks to two built-in off days that would give Phillips the chance to lend value with his speed and defense.
Brett Phillips only hit at all because of two substitutions
The Rays’ tendency to chase every little advantage is why Phillips was in the game at all Saturday. Right-handed hitting Mike Brosseau started in favor of Ji-Man Choi against the southpaw Julio Urias. When Urias came out, so did Brosseau, for Choi. But then a late lead for Tampa Bay saw Phillips inserted as a defensive replacement, with Choi heading to the bench. The Rays couldn’t hold their leads, though, meaning they got a chance to hit in the bottom of the ninth.
For Phillips to even get up, Kevin Kiermaier needed to hit a broken-bat single and Arozarena needed to hold off on a borderline 1-2 pitch with two outs before working a walk. Phillips took the first three pitches he saw, falling behind 1-2. Then, a liner into right field and madness that’s already been dissected in every possible way. At the end of it all, Phillips was on the bottom of a dog pile, nearly passing out.
More fun Brett Phillips facts
- His middle name is Maverick
- He named his dog Rowgy, after the second syllable in the word ‘pierogi’
- His last hit before Saturday came Sept. 25
- He’s got a way with words: “Man, baseball’s fun. Wow.”
- And in the words of Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci: “(Brett) Phillips is the kind of person who if the sun decided not to rise one morning would happily fill in and nobody would notice.”