LOS ANGELES -- "Until you do it," Dennis Eckersley said, "you just don't know what it's like."• NLCS Game 3: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET/8 CT/6 PT on TBSThis was only weeks ago: The Hall of Famer was talking about relief pitching, about the feeling of it all, of coming in
LOS ANGELES -- "Until you do it," Dennis Eckersley said, "you just don't know what it's like."
• NLCS Game 3: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET/8 CT/6 PT on TBS
This was only weeks ago: The Hall of Famer was talking about relief pitching, about the feeling of it all, of coming in the game at that moment, with everything on the line, the crowd freaking out, the nerves dancing like the Florida A&M marching band inside your chest. He was talking about the day Kirk Gibson took him deep for one of the most memorable home runs in postseason history.
"You really don't know how you're gonna calm yourself," Eckersley said.
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John Lackey stood on the mound Sunday, Game 2 of the National League Championship Series presented by Camping World, 1-1 score, the Dodgers' potential winning run on second base. A kid named Chris Taylor stood at the plate. A packed house of Dodger Stadium fans were going out of their heads.
Why was Lackey there? That's simple: He was there because Cubs manager Joe Maddon had called him. It was not for Lackey to question the logic. Lackey's job was to get the third out.
Getting outs in the big leagues has been Lackey's job for more than 15 years. The first out he got was against a player named Mike Lamb. The second was against Ivan Rodriguez, now a Hall of Famer. Lackey has retired seven Hall of Famers in his career. He has won 188 regular-season games, plus eight more in the postseason, and he has done it with fire and fury, refusing to give in. This is why Maddon bet on him.
"I knew the crowd would not affect him," Maddon said. "And it didn't. … I really thought John would not be affected by the moment."
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"I used to always try to act like, 'I got it. I got it,'" Eckersley said. "I played it. I used to play it with body language, even though I was flying. You're just thinking: 'It's do or die.' I used to think it was life or death. I'm not kidding. That's what it feels like."
It no doubt felt that way on Oct. 15, 1988 -- 29 years ago to the day, when Eckersley's A's faced the Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series at Dodger Stadium.
Eckersley walked Mike Davis, who promptly stole second. That might have been the first sign that something wasn't right. Eckersley never walked anybody. After the walk, pinch-hitter Gibson walked out of the dugout. He took his time, but he had to; he could barely walk. Gibson had two injured legs, and nobody thought he would play.
"He took about a half an hour to get from the dugout to into the batter's box," Eckersley said. "And everybody was going crazy. And I guess I understood why."
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Lackey started Taylor off with a strike, a juicy four-seam fastball over the heart of the plate. It was a veteran move, throwing a cookie over the plate like that to start things off. Lackey knew the kid would be taking a pitch. Lackey knows everything about these moments. Taylor was just 11 years old when Lackey made his first big league pitch.
After getting the quick strike, Lackey tried to get the kid to chase. That was the second part of the plan. He threw a cutter just below the strike zone, then threw a couple of curveballs that dove into the dirt. Lackey has faced more than 12,000 batters, thrown some 45,000 pitches, and he knows that with the stuff he has left, he needs to get batters to chase.
But Taylor did not chase. He kept his nerves in check. And with the count 3-1, Lackey knew that the time for ploys and tricks had ended. He reared back and threw the best fastball his arm had, a 92-mph two-seamer that broke in. Taylor swung through it. Strike two.
The crowd unleashed that special baseball sound, something that sounds like "ahhhhhhh-OHHHH," the hyphen being right when the ball hits the catcher's glove. Lackey breathed out. The count was full.
"I have all the respect in the world for him because he's taken me deep before," Eckersley said of Gibson. "But he was half a guy up there."
Eckersley went right after him, firing a fastball that Gibson fouled off -- almost falling over as he followed through. The second pitch was more of the same, another fastball, another foul that had Gibson looking as if he might collapse from the strain. This was a mismatch. Everyone could see that. Up in the Dodgers booth, the normally evenhanded Vin Scully found himself thinking a little prayer for Gibson, not that he would hit a home run or anything like that, but that he not embarrass himself after such a wonderful year.
On the third pitch, Gibson dribbled a feeble ground ball toward first base that rolled foul. Two pitches later, Gibson hit another foul ball and hopped around in pain after the swing.
"Everybody's seen that at-bat," Eckersley said. "It was weak foul balls, this and that."
And then the count was full.
Lackey stepped off the rubber and listened to the crowd boo. It was obvious what he was hoping to do. He was hoping to spook the kid by making him wait. Another bit of sleight of hand. They will be wondering for years in Chicago why Maddon decided to pitch Lackey in this situation, rather than All-Star closer Wade Davis. Lackey made only his third career relief appearance on Saturday in Game 1, and he had never pitched on consecutive days.
Maddon, though, was gambling that Lackey had learned some bit of magic along the way that could get the Cubs out of this mess. They were in this mess not because of their pitching but because their vaunted offense that overpowered baseball in 2016 has gone numb this postseason. The Cubs have scored just three runs in the NLCS.
Maddon could have gone to his best reliever, Davis. But Davis was available only for one inning, and Maddon determined he would only pitch Davis if the Cubs had the lead.
There were other options -- Hector Rondon and Mike Montgomery -- but Maddon went with his heart. He went with the pitcher he has called a warrior, a pitcher who has come back from injuries and disastrous seasons, a guy who has won World Series games and lost them, too, a pitcher who has walked every road.
Lackey stepped off the rubber a second time, and the crowd booed louder.
Lackey stepped off the rubber a third time, and the boos shook Dodger Stadium, and you could almost feel Lackey nodding inside. This was exactly what he wanted.
Then he threw his sixth pitch in the at-bat, the best fastball he could muster.
It was in the dirt, a foot outside. Taylor never considered swinging at it.
And up came the Dodgers' best hitter, Justin Turner, and everybody knew.
"It's a lonely feeling," Eckersley said. "Everybody's waiting for you. You're the guy. All eyes are on you, so I think it's awesome."
Everybody remembers what happened on the 3-2 pitch to Gibson. Eckersley pitched and Gibson turned on it, somehow flicking his bat in such a way that he hit the ball with backspin, and it carried into the right-field bleachers.
"She … is … gone," Vin Scully sang in the booth, and then he stopped talking and let the crowd noise tell the story.
"It was an incredible moment for the game," Eckersley said. "It really was. But not for me."
You never know what will happen in a baseball game, of course. But across America, everybody did know what would happen Sunday night. Even Maddon had a bad feeling. He had wagered that Lackey could get Taylor out, and hopefully the Cubs could provide a 10th-inning lead for Davis.
"Once that walk occurred against Taylor," Maddon admitted, "all bets were off against Turner. Nobody is a really great matchup against Turner. So it just did not work out."
This happened 29 years to the day after Gibson hit the home run off Eckersley, but it wasn't like that homer at all. The Gibson homer was miraculous. This one was as anticipated as any game-winner has ever been. Lackey led the league in home runs allowed this year. He was pitching on no rest in an unfamiliar spot. He was facing one of the best hitters in baseball.
On the second pitch to Turner, Lackey threw a 92-mph fastball, middle-middle, the sort that Turner sees in his best dreams. Turner crushed it over the center-field wall -- a 416-foot blast, according to Statcast™. Los Angeles went mad with joy, and Lackey walked off the mound.
"Bad location," Lackey summed up, "probably bad pitch selection."
When Gibson hit the homer, Scully waited for the crowd to quiet before saying words that he thought were a gift from heaven: "In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened."
Those would not have been his words on Sunday. This wasn't impossible. The Dodgers lead this series, 2-0, but now it goes back to Wrigley Field, where the Cubs have the second-best home record in baseball the last three years … behind only the Dodgers.
"I know we'll be fine," Maddon said.
Meanwhile on the other side, Turner smiled. His first baseball memory, he has often said, was being in his grandma's house when Gibson hit that home run. Turner was 3.
"I can't put it into words right now," he said. And then he shrugged. "We have a lot of work left to do."
Joe Posnanski is a columnist for MLB.com.