ST. PETERSBURG – Time to start a Tommy Pham Club.
First, who set this man on fire?
Who made him hungry?
Who made him an angry young Pham?
Answer: Does it matter?
Thomas James Pham, 31, arrived from St. Louis, a baseball mecca, last summer to play baseball in the village of Tampa Bay his way, hard, unflinching. He has never quite understood how this area couldn’t embrace this game as he and his teammates have. The answer is complicated, but so is Pham. He announced his presence with authority and has kept running through walls since, yeah, even when he gets thrown out running bases.
But it is October. Tuesday night, in Game 4 of the American League Division Series, the forever focused, driven and occasionally angry Pham, playing hurt, playing hard, playing designated hitter, zeroed in again and hit a solo home run in the first inning, the first chink in the armor of untouchable Justin Verlander, to start Tampa Bay on its way to a 4-1 win to tie this series with untouchable Houston.
Who made this man angry?
Most of us have run into Pham after games and sometimes we come away thinking we should swap licenses and registration with him. Metal bangs. One night, after Pham made a good decision on the base paths to bring home a Rays run. but he didn’t want to talk. “I’m done,” he said, and he was.
There was another night, late in the season as the Rays chased down a wild card, when the team was having fun with the rookies on a dress-up trip to Toronto. Pham nearly doubled over with laughter. He loves his guys and they love him. Then he vowed to a teammate that he was done with the rather nice shirt he had worn to the Trop that day.
“There’s no hits in this,” Pham said.
What makes Tommy the Pham of the hour?
Was it the fractured childhood, the father in prison, a man Pham doesn’t really know or ever want to know? Was it his mother gallantly struggling to lead the family? Was it welfare checks, an early life which screamed no way out? Or the eye condition that threatened to end his career? Or that long road, nine years in the minors?
Pham trampled down all that. He just can’t turn off what got him here.
“It comes,’’ Pham told Times baseball writer Marc Topkin during spring training this year. “from everything I’ve been through in life.’’
In his first full season with the Rays, Pham led the team in at-bats, hits, doubles walks. He was a 20-20 man, hitting 21 homers and stealing a team-high 25 bases. In the wild-card game in Oakland, he was one of the Rays who homered. He had three more hits Tuesday and is batting .412 in the postseason. He is rising to the challenge.
And it came in handy Tuesday.
“He’s dialed it in,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Whatever intensity level he gets to during the regular season, he’s got another one he can get to in the postseason. I got to be careful what I say to him sometimes during the game because I don’t want him to pinch my neck.”
“Yeah, me and him go at it,” Pham said.
How life shaped Pham, molded his inner fury, doesn’t seem to matter much at the moment.
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What means everything is that he is here and now and not backing down, from anything, and that includes the 107-win Astros. His teammates followed T. Pham’s lead. Pham has been beating odds his entire life. What was that 2-2 changeup from Verlander in the first inning compared to that?
First pitch, curveball," Pham said. “Then he started dumping sliders. And 2-2, he decided to throw the changeup. I mean, he pitches me tough. I just happened to put a good swing on that pitch.”
“Tommy knows one way: all the way,” Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier said late this season.
The Rays didn’t touch Verlander in Game 1. He threw seven innings, allowed just one hit and no runs. But he was pitching on three days rest, and someone had to tell him that it was going to be a different sort of evening. Pham was the first to speak up.
History beckons, a potential impossible Rays comeback in this best-of-five. They took down King Kong on Tuesday. All that’s left is Godzilla: 20-game winner Gerrit Cole, who shut the Rays down on four hits and 14 strikeouts as Houston seized a 2-0 lead.
The Rays have seized right back. Pham was the first to grab hold and give this series a shake Tuesday. Blake Snell came out of the bullpen to close it.
“Did you hear how loud they were playing his walkout (music)?” Pham said. Did you see me in the dugout? I was lit, Man."
It’s on to Game 5 on Thursday and all that comes with that.
The Rays are back.
Thomas James Pham is helping to light the way, all the way.
Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.