Girardi's Yankees are one step away

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, November 2, 2009

PHILADELPHIA

The Yankees and Phillies played one of those chilly, intense nerve- shredding games on Sunday night for which the World Series waits, breath held, from one season to the next. Please, give us one to remember, we ask.

And indeed they did in this Game 4, especially New York's Johnny Damon who, in a split second of instinctive base running in the ninth inning, stole two bases on one pitch. That instant of brilliance in a tie game, which seemed to unhinge Phillies reliever Brad Lidge, led to a trio of Yankee runs and a 7-4 win that probably swung the emotional pendulum of this series for the final time.

The Yankees, who'd seen a two-run lead erased by solo homers from Chase Utley in the seventh and Pedro Ruiz in the eighth, got their eventual game-winning hit on an RBI double leashed to left field by Alex Rodriguez, the goat of other October playoffs but now a hero in his first World Series.

"I've been hit by three pitches in this series," said Rodriguez, who has been drilled in the ribs twice and the thigh once by pitches that were either intentional or, at the least, relished by the Phillies who are determined to "pound him in" and if he gets drilled, too bad. But it is Rodriguez who, after six strikeouts in the first two hitless games, has now responded with a crucial two-run homer on Saturday and now a game-winner.

"I'm okay. The one yesterday kind of woke me up a little bit. I thought, 'Hey, this is the World Series, lets get going.' So it worked out," said Rodriguez, taking the low-key classy never-wake-up-a-great-hitter approach to being used as a piñata.

This was a night when the great proven Yanks of the past, and the exorbitantly rich but as yet unproven Yankees of the present, linked hands in a victory that brings them to the brink of their first World Series win in nine years -- an eternity in pinstripe regions.

Moments after A-Rod had delivered his blow off Lidge, whom many in Philly have begged Manager Charlie Manuel to demote, the Yanks' classy veteran catcher Jorge Posada, symbol of the four-time Bronx champs of '96-through-'00, smashed a two-run hit to left field to ice this frosty affair.

Amid all the twist of his taut game, one play will be remembered longest both for its importance and, to many of us, it's unique shock value. How do you steal two bases on one pitch? And how do you have the brass and bravado to do it in the top of the ninth inning of a 4-4 game in the World Series. Say hello to Damon, one of those wonderful you-never-know-what-they-ll-do "Idiots" who led the Red Sox to a title in '04.

When Damon came to bat against Lidge in the ninth, every iota of energy and momentum in Citizens Banks Park had swung to the Phillies. This was the game when Yankees Manager Joe Girardi had taken a huge gamble ¿ moving his whole rotation forward to work the rest of the series on short rest, starting with CC Sabathia, the key to the strategy, in this game. And it had failed.

Sabbathia, reduced to working out of jams with sliders and change-ups because he didn't trust a fastball that was several miles an hour slower, barely out-dueled journeyman Joe Blanton, leaving with a mere 4-3 lead after Utley's home run KO'd him in the seventh. When Feliz lit up Joba Chamberlain's 97 mph fastball in the eighth, sending it into the left field bleachers to tie the game, the crowd of 46,145 went appropriately nuts.

So, with the Yankees down to their last strike in the top of the ninth, a trademark Phils comeback win seemed imminent. Then, Damon fouled off pitch after pitch and finally poked a single. "Just an unbelievable at-bat by Johnny," said Girardi.

What happened next made unbelievable seem mild. The Phils, like many teams, shift on Mark Teixeira, forcing the third baseman to cover second base on a steal. So, who covers third base? In theory, the pitcher: he's got nothing else to do. Should be easy. But, usually, everybody just falls asleep because what base stealer tries to take two bases at once?

Answer: Damon. When Feliz had to make an awkward catch, Damon realized Lidge had not moved toward third base and he had a small head start in a race to third base with the slower Feliz. So, off he went. "I still had some of my young legs behind me," he said.

How subtle is baseball at its best? The reason Damon wanted to be on third base, rather than second, where he was already in scoring position, was because Lidge's best pitch is a sharp slider that often bounces in the dirt.

"I felt like being on third, it possibly takes away a tough slider in the dirt that I may be able to score on," said Damon.

Lidge, who'd been calm previously, but has had a soul-battering 1-8 season with 11 blown saves, got rattled fast, hitting Teixeira with a pitch. "Well, it did work out for us," said Damon. "Alex got two fastballs." The second one bounced off the leftfield wall.

Perhaps the only troubling Yankee figure was Sabathia, the $161 million free agent who gladly pitched on three days' rest, yet managed to last for only 6 2/3 innings, allowing three runs including a long double and a homer to Utley, who also had two homers off him in Game 1. If anything, CC's showing gave evidence that extra rest, especially at the end of a long campaign, may be on crucial value even to a 6-foot-7, 290-pound giant. He was in trouble much of the night and ended up surviving by pitching like a junk-baller with more sliders and change-ups than fastballs, since his heater had lost several mph.

Congratulate the Yankees all you want for their win. They deserved it. But, please, do not say that Girardi's grand strategy to start all his best pitchers on three days' rest for the remainder of this World Series was a big success.

All night, the tactic, almost never used by a team that is already leading in a World Series, was a potential exploding cigar sitting in the middle of the Yankees' mouths, waiting to be ignited by one Phillies swing. However, the world champions, in a clutch-hitting coma, never lit the match.

It's the Yankees whose hitters are under control and clutch, not swinging for the fences but using the whole field and showing the poise to master situational hitting. In this November setting, where low-scoring games are so often prevalent, the Yanks scored their first four runs on a groundout (Teixeira), a fly out (Posada) and two clutch singles (Derek Jeter and Damon).

The Yanks are on the verge of victory. But in every game from now one on, whether that is one game or three, they will be at a disadvantage, voluntarily assumed. In every game, the Yanks will send a short-rest pitcher against a fully-rest Phils counterpart.

If this is what knocking one day of rest off Sabathia's regimen does to a giant who often has a 97 mph fastball, what is it going to do to A.J. Burnett in Game 5 on Monday? "I'm not a big fan of it," Burnett has said. And, if this series gets that far, what will it do to 37-year-old Andy Pettitte in Game 6 and Sabathia, who would work a hypothetical Game Seven on back-to-back short rest.

That, however, is far away and a day the Phils may never see.

For one moment, albeit brief, this series may truly have hung in the balance. After Feliz's game-tying home run, if Lidge -- the weakest link in the whole Phillies chain -- had gotten past Damon, perhaps another postseason Phils ninth-inning win might have arrived. Or not.

But it didn't. Thanks to Damon and Rodriguez, the Yankees now have their hands firmly on the wheel of this series. And they have their three best pitchers lined up to finish the job.

If you're from Philly, maybe you say defiantly, "Yeah, but maybe they won't be as good on short rest, just like CC wasn't."

If you're from New York, you'll say, "They'll be good enough. And you've got to beat all three of 'em."

With A-Rod now a November hero and Brad Lidge, Mr. 48 for 48 last season, now a World Series goat, you know which way to bet.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company