PHILADELPHIA — Elian Herrera stepped into the batter’s box to face Cliff Lee and the hostile crowd behind him.
The fans at Citizens Bank Park smelled blood. More than 40,000 were on their feet and screaming.
But Herrera was smiling inside.
“Thank you, God, for this moment,” he said.
Seven pitches into the eighth-inning at-bat, Herrera drove a ball off the left-field wall for a two-out, two-run double that reversed a one-run deficit, lifting the Dodgers to a 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday night.
The winning hit was Herrera’s second in as many nights.
Herrera swore he wasn’t afraid to face Lee, a former Cy Young Award winner, with the game on the line.
“It’s funny,” he said. “Nobody will believe me, but I was like laughing, smiling inside. I was not worried about what could happen. I was happy, happy to be in this situation.”
Because for Herrera to be here was in itself a triumph. When the season started, the switch-hitting utilityman was entering his 10th season in the Dodgers’ farm system. Over the last decade, the Dominican Republic native moved to a new country and learned a new language. He lived in small towns with host families. Never once was he called up to the major leagues or included on the 40-man roster.
In his three weeks as a major leaguer, Herrera has batted .304 with nine runs scored and nine batted in. He has started at second base, third base and center field.
The chance Herrera received to drive in Bobby Abreu and Dee Gordon was made possible in part by Chad Billingsley.
On a night when Lee was in top form, striking out 12 in 72/3 innings, Billingsley was his equal, or at least close to it. Billingsley (3-4) limited the Phillies to a run and six hits over seven innings to end a nine-start winless streak.
“Cliff, he was out there painting and throwing the ball extremely well,” Billingsley said. “I knew I had to go out there and throw up zeros, too, and pitch right with him.”
Billingsley encountered trouble in the first inning, which he later attributed to being overly excited. He gave up a leadoff double to Jimmy Rollins, who scored on a single by Hunter Pence.
The Dodgers trailed, 1-0, but the damage could have been worse. With men on first and second, Ty Wigginton hit a ball that was caught at the right-field wall by Andre Ethier for the final out.
“It stopped a big inning,” Billingsley said.
From there Billingsley settled down. Manager Don Mattingly turned to bench coach Trey Hillman after the second inning and told him, “Bills is going to throw a good one tonight. You can feel it. You can see it coming.”
Billingsley, who often experiences command problems, kept the score at 1-0 through seven innings, allowing six hits and walking only one.
Catcher Matt Treanor led off the eighth with a double but was thrown out at third base by Lee, who had fieldedTony Gwynn Jr.'s bunt. Gwynn then tried to go from first to third on a single by pinch-hitter Bobby Abreu, but was thrown out by right fielder Pence.
Gordon singled, setting up a two-on, two-out situation for Herrera, who was hitless in three previous at-bats.
With two strikes, Herrera took a ball and fouled off two pitches.
“In the first three at-bats, I was looking for some pitch, but he always changed,” Herrera said. “That one, I said, whatever he throws me close, I have to put it in play.”
The pitch came. It was a breaking ball.
“I was not looking for the pitch but when I saw it, I said, ‘It’s mine,’” Herrera said.
The improbable season continued — not only for Herrera, but for Lee as well.
Lee has a 2.92 earned-run average, but remains winless (0-3) more than two months into the season. In his nine starts, the Phillies have scored nine runs while he was in the game.