Baseball: Wild Thing makes those Phillie hearts sing: Philadelphia seek express relief from Mitch Williams to settle the National League Championship

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MITCH WILLIAMS sees tonight's first game of the National League Championship Series, in which the Philadelphia Phillies take on the Atlanta Braves at Veterans Stadium for a place in the World Series, as no different from any other. 'Every time I go out there, the game is pretty much on the line. So it's a play-off atmosphere whenever I take the mound,' he said.

Williams is the Phillies' closer, who sits on the sidelines 'watching the game like a fan' until, if his side are ahead, the call will come for him to blow away the last resistance with his 95mph fastball to preserve the win.

Closers are the SAS of baseball pitchers whose job is to conserve their energies before presenting an overwhelming show of force. 'I'll say one thing about Mitch,' Johnny Podres, the Phillies' pitching coach, said, 'he's got energy.

'Sometimes he has too much energy. He'll get to ball three, he walks people, he throws wild pitches. Sometimes he needs to slow down to really get up on top of the ball.'

It is no surprise to learn that the 28-year-old Williams is known in the Phillies clubhouse as 'Wild Thing', a nickname he picked up with the Chicago Cubs before he was traded to Philadelphia in 1991 to form part of this team of 'swaggering veterans and ageing castaways'. Other members of the 1993 Phillies, who have gone from worst to first in a year, are Head, Dude, Mad Dog and Dahmer (somehow the quiet, gentle Jim Eisenreich has to be named after a serial killer). They are throwbacks to a different era of baseball.

'Most players today come to the ballpark, collect their cheques and go,' Steve Stovall, a hotel doorman in the city, said last week. 'Not the Phils. They actually like each other.' They even sit around the clubhouse after a game drinking beer and, heaven forbid, talking baseball. As their pitcher Terry Mulholland put it: 'We lead the league in characters.'

Yet the Phillies know character alone will not be enough against a smoothly oiled Atlanta team who do not have a perceptible weakness anywhere. If they, and Williams in particular, need inspiration for the task ahead, they will find it in Philadelphia's only previous World Series victory, 13 years ago. That 1980 side had Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt and a hairy-faced Irish- American closer called Tug McGraw, who won one game, saved a couple and would slip easily into the current Phillies line-up.

In the ninth inning of Game 6 of that Series, on 21 October, the American radio commentator Vin Scully said: 'The time is 10.35 in the City of Brotherly Love and the Phillies are one strike away from winning the World Series.'

McGraw was pitching with a 4-1 lead to Kansas City's Willie Wilson, but the bases were loaded. McGraw recently recalled that moment. 'In that situation you feel a battle between positive and negative energy,' he said. 'The key to being a major league athlete in any sport is being able to keep two things in perspective: the fear of failure and the desire to win. And this battle creates tremendous amounts of adrenalin in your body.

'I remember looking round and saw the city's mounted police already on the outfield and the Canine Corps dog-handlers taking up position near the dug-outs, ready to deter a pitch invasion. I felt like I was at some soccer match in Chile.

'So I thought, 'I've got to find something positive here for the next pitch . . . Canine] . . . I need a K (strikeout).'

McGraw got his strikeout. But before the Philadelphia Police Department can go on triple alert again this October, Williams will have to survive several more such moments of unimaginable pressure.

He is in good hands. Podres has been there before, throwing two complete games in the Brooklyn Dodgers' World Series victory over the Yankees in 1955. 'No one knows what will happen in these play-offs,' he said, 'but I do know that Mitch is the kind of guy who has to be in there when the game is on the line.'

Williams has proved it this season with his 43 saves, a club record. But he has also blown six saves, or let six leads get away, suggesting that wildness is not always his best friend.

Rejecting McGraw's psycho-analytic speak, Williams' view of his art is brutally simple: 'Every time you go out there, either you're gonna get or you're gonna get got. Sometimes you don't feel on top of your game. But the bottom line is, the hitter's not gonna hit how you feel, he hits what he sees. So no matter how you feel, you've got to put everything aside and understand you've got a chance to get out of there alive.'

(Photograph omitted)