Power Propels Phillies to 3-1 World Series Lead Against Rays
Monday, October 27, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 26 -- For three games, the 104th World Series had served as an exercise in how to score runs and win baseball games without doing anything remotely dramatic or compelling -- and the awful TV ratings seemed to indicate it had succeeded. Between the RBI groundouts, the sacrifice flies and the walk-off infield hits -- not to mention the rain delays and 10 o'clock start times -- the World Series didn't need to grab hold of the American television viewer as much as it needed to wake him or her up.
And then, Sunday night in Game 4, it finally began to happen: Clutch base-knocks that actually left the infield. A game-breaking, three-run homer launched by the most prolific slugger of his generation, touching off a vicious display of offensive might that extended all the way down to the pitcher. And a story line as pure as it is timeless -- one team asserting its clear superiority over the other.
When it was over, the Philadelphia Phillies had claimed a 10-2 victory over the visiting Tampa Bay Rays in front of 45,903 towel-waving fans at Citizens Bank Park, giving them a 3-1 series lead and an opportunity to clinch the franchise's first World Series title in 28 years Monday night at home, with ace Cole Hamels on the mound.
"I've heard all about the losing," Ryan Howard said of his franchise's 124 titleless seasons in 125 years. "We're in position to change the face [of the franchise] and achieve the goal we set out when we first got to this organization . . . and that's [to] make this organization a winner."
Aficionados of safety squeezes and productive outs had three games in which to revel in the wonders of small ball, but Sunday night was for those who like their baseball legends writ large. Howard, the Phillies' hulking first baseman, homered twice -- including the three-run, opposite-field blast off Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine that broke the game open in the fourth -- and Jayson Werth and pitcher Joe Blanton each added homers.
"We're able to steal bases," said Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. "We get good pitching. We play good defense. And we have Ryan Howard to hit home runs."
For the Rays, Game 4 should have had the feel of an elimination game, even though it technically wasn't. Their loss now leaves them in the untenable position of having to beat Hamels on Monday night just to transport the series back to Tropicana Field for a Game 6.
However, Manager Joe Maddon gave an extraordinary amount of leeway to his starting pitcher, Sonnanstine, in the early going, sticking with him despite a clear lack of command, a mounting pitch count and -- in the pivotal fourth inning -- the looming presence of Howard a few batters away in the Phillies' lineup.
Maddon didn't get his bullpen warming up until after Rollins had led off with a grounder off glove of second baseman Akinori Iwamura -- harshly ruled an error -- and Werth followed with a walk. Long man Edwin Jackson was one of the relievers warming up. The other was Trever Miller, one of three lefties the Rays have stockpiled for the primary purpose of shutting down Howard, a left-handed hitter with a history of struggling against lefties.
But when Sonnanstine struck out Chase Utley, with Howard up next, Miller sat back down. Four pitches later, Howard delivered the game's crushing blow, a three-run, opposite-field homer on a misplaced curveball from Sonnanstine, boosting the Phillies' lead to 5-1. By the start of the next inning, Sonnanstine was gone.
"He struck out Utley, so at that point I'm saying let's ride with it a little bit," Maddon said. "Sonnie, he's really able to get through some moments. He made some nice pitches on Utley, so I thought he was okay."
After looking so confident and indestructible in vanquishing the Boston Red Sox in the riveting American League Championship Series, the youthful Rays now seem lost and overwhelmed amid the pressure of the World Series.
Sonnanstine, a world-class strike-thrower, was undone by his lack of command -- as well as his defense (Iwamura committed a pair of errors that both led to runs) and third base umpire Tim Welke, who appeared to blow a call when the Rays had Rollins caught in a rundown in the first. Welke called Rollins safe, despite the fact Evan Longoria appeared to swipe him on the rear with his glove, and with the bases loaded, Sonnanstine walked Pat Burrell to force in the Phillies' first run.
The Rays' most egregious disappearing acts, however, belong to their top power threats, Carlos Peña and Longoria, who have gone a combined 0 for 29 with a staggering 15 strikeouts so far in the series. In other words, they have been out-hit and out-homered by Blanton, the Phillies' pitcher, who went deep against Jackson in the fifth.
"We're definitely not swinging the bats like we can," Maddon said. "We've got to get better [Monday], fast."
When Pedro Feliz singled to left with two outs in the third inning, scoring Utley from third, the Phillies might have been inclined to stop the game and put the ball away for safekeeping, so rare a moment was it. Almost 30 innings into the World Series, that was the first time the Phillies had produced a base hit that left the infield with runners in scoring position.
But the time for dissections of clutchness, and specifically the Phillies' lack thereof, had officially passed. The World Series had now entered a new, awe-inspiring phase, and by Sunday night's end appeared close to crowning a champion.