Thomas Boswell: Phillies' Main Men Are Taking Charge

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, October 28, 2008

PHILADELPHIA Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

Before this World Series began, Rays Manager Joe Maddon talked about the mystery of which players will or will not rise to the pressure, the spotlight and the lifetime station in the game that a great or awful performance here is certain to bring in tow.

"Sometimes I see Pat Borders in the offseason in the store and I ask him, 'How did you ever get to be World Series MVP?' " Maddon said of the 1992 Toronto standout.

Little did Maddon know that his own young Rays, so pressure-proof all season and through two rounds of playoffs, were about to meet an underdog Phillies teams that had exactly the kind of veteran stars who can pass this excruciating annual examination. While the Rays themselves, apparently, do not.

After a 10-2 win in Game 4, built around two scalding home runs and five RBI by mammoth slugger Ryan Howard, the Phils now find themselves one win from a world title. The main turbines in their powerful engine have done the job. Howard, who'd gone a month without a home run, came to life with a homer in Game 3. Chase Utley's homers were central to wins in Games 1 and 3. The Phils' 2007 NL MVP Jimmy Rollins, also ice cold, has ignited for five hits in two games. And, most ominous for Rays of hopes, southpaw ace Cole Hamels, 4-0 with a 1.77 ERA this postseason, got the call to try to clinch the Series on Monday night.

"I call Cole 'Hollywood' because he likes it when the lights are on," Rollins said. "And tomorrow the lights will definitely be on."

That's October: the best-lit baseball field on earth. Who likes it? Who doesn't? The Phils sputtered early in this series but, slowly, starting with a line drive double off the center field wall in Game 2 in Tampa Bay, Howard has found his ignition switch. "Everybody has cool spells," said Howard, now 6 for his last 13. "But I think everybody would rather have me hot now."

"You know how these big guys are," Maddon said. "They come in bunches."

In stark embarrassing contrast, the Rays sluggers who were so spectacular earlier this month have now fizzled completely and, by the end of this game were pitiable.

In the regular season, Carlos Peña and rookie Evan Longoria hit 58 homers in just 938 at-bats. In the postseason, before this series, they hit nine more homers with 21 RBI. In this Game 4, however, they were undressed to a degree that no fine player deserves. The pair is now 0 for 29 with 15 strikeouts, perhaps the worst slump for a No. 3-4 hitting combo in Series history. Philly fans have serenaded Longoria with chants of "Eva, Eva," turning him into a wild-swinging curve-chasing mess.

"I don't even want to talk about those guys making outs," said Phils Manager Charlie Manuel, scared they'll find the same mysterious hitting switch Howard flipped.

In truth, the whole Rays team looks like it has forgotten its lines, realized where it is and "gone up" frozen in the stage lights. Second baseman Akinori Iwamura made five errors all season, two in this game.

"We did not play very well overall," Maddon said. "We gotta get better tomorrow fast."

The Series has always been a star's stage, as it should be, ever since Cy Young won twice in the first one in 1903. Every October, a skimpy list of no-names and journeymen, such as Borders, Bucky Dent and Rick Dempsey, who've been MVPs, is dragged out to plead otherwise. But it's the main men who make this month sing, give us our memories and bring us back each autumn.

Our lifelong Series imagines are of Mickey Mantle or "Reg-gie! Reg-gie! Reg-gie!" or Manny Ramírez hitting .412 to take the Red Sox over the top to a title at last. Power pitchers such as Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling and The Big Unit, posting ERAs half their weight, dominate the event.

Surprise role players may emerge. But the players who carried you all season better take you to that million-person parade. Or not. The teams whose proper heroes step up now receive the rings. Clubs with no heart in their order shrivel.

First on the list now is Howard. "There's a difference between great hitters and real, real great hitters," Manuel said. "Howard, he's a carrier. He can put you on his back and carry the whole team."

"I've just been hanging with it and working with the [hitting] doctor over here, Mr. Rollins," said the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Howard, who has averaged 51 homers and 144 RBI for the last three seasons, emerging as the game's unchallenged preeminent slugger.

For the Rays, even B.J. Upton, who had seven homers previously in this postseason was 0 for 4 and does not have a Series extra-base hit. Only Carl Crawford, with his second Series solo homer in this game, has chipped in a bit.

This romping stomping towel-waving night in Citizens Bank Park, which even included a solo home run from chubby winning pitcher Joe Blanton, puts the Phils just one win away from the second title in their history (which began in the Mesozoic era) and their first since '80, when Veterans Stadium was barely home to a single rat.

And who, pray tell, is set to pitch for the Phils in the potential coup de grace? Why the perfect man, elegant ace Hamels, the preeminent pitcher of this postseason.

"Every pitch he throws, everything he does, he looks like he's on point right now. He really has everything going right now," said the Rays' Scott Kazmir, who lost to him, 3-2, in Game 1 but must now meet him again. "So it feels like every pitch you throw is going to be crucial. You want to throw up zeroes. If you don't, it's going to be tough to get a win."

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