Monday, October 27, 2008

Joe Blanton Night

When most big league clubs send their #4 starting pitcher to the mound about the best they hope for is that the hurler keeps them in the game and gives the offense a chance to win. Seldom do they expect a gem, and even more seldom do they either expect or receive any kind of offensive production from him. Going into the crucial Game #4 of the 2008 World Series, both the Phillies and the Rays decided to go with their fourth starters. The Rays starter, Andy Sonnanstine looked uncomfortable from the get-go, was hurt by a bad umpire's call that allowed the Phils a 1-0 lead in the 1st inning, and continued to struggle mightily before leaving early. He did not give the Rays much of a shot when they desperately needed one. The Phils starter took the mound and commanded the game, pitching strongly into the 7th inning. He struck out 7, walked just 1, and allowed just 5 hits and 2 runs. Oh, and after allowing a pinch-hit homerun in the top of the 5th that cut his lead down to 5-2, he answered by pounding one of his own in the bottom of the inning (pictured), becoming the first pitcher to hit a homerun in the World Series in 35 years. Welcome to 'Joe Blanton Night' at the World Series. Way, way back in the final week of March, Blanton started the very first game of the 2008 Major League Baseball season for the Oakland A's over in Tokyo, Japan. In a different uniform a half a world away, he may have just pitched the next-to-last game of that same long season on the final full weekend of October. Phillies GM Pat Gillick, on his last go-around in a long and distinguished baseball career, pulled the trigger on a trade back in July that rescued Blanton from a struggling small-market A's club, plopping him down in the middle of a pennant race with the defending N.L. East champion Phillies. He immediately began to pay dividends by doing what the Phils had a hard time finding an extra starter to do: pitch quality innings at the back end of the rotation and give the team a chance every time out. The Phillies ended up going 5-0 in Blanton's starts, which were rarely dominating but were usually effective. In his final four starts, as the Phillies battled back to overtake the New York Mets and rallied for the 2nd straight season to win the east, Blanton went 3-0 to play a pivotal role. He pitched 23 innings down the stretch, allowing just 19 hits and 8 earned runs, pitching at least 5 innings in each start. In short, he did exactly what Gillick traded for him to do: he kept the Phils in games and gave them a chance to win. Last night, in the biggest start of his 27-year old life, on the biggest stage that there is, in the hitters haven that is Citizen's Bank Park, Joe Blanton starred in the game of his life. From the outset he threw strikes, moved the ball all around the plate, and kept the Rays young hitters off-balance. And then for good measure in the bottom of the 5th he did what he later described as 'swing as hard as you can in case you hit it'. Did he ever swing hard, and did he ever hit it, drilling a line drive no-doubt-about-it laser into the left field stands. The Rays have also been unfortunate to find that sleeping giant Ryan Howard has finally awoken, and just in time for the Fightin' Phils. After smashing a homerun in game #3, he blasted two more moon shots last night. His first was a classic Howard opposite-field blast to left, a 3-run homer that gave Blanton some breathing room at 5-1. His 2nd was a monster drive to right, a 2-runner that followed an earlier Jayson Werth 2-runner in the bottom of the 8th inning as the Phils put the game out of reach and won 10-2. The Phillies now have a commanding 3-1 lead in the Series, and will look to win just the 2nd World Series title in their 123 year history tonight in front of the home fans with ace Cole Hamels on the hill. If they do so it will largely be thanks to the efforts of their somewhat maligned 3rd and 4th starters the past two nights. First it was the Game #3 heroics of 45-year old hometown boy Jamey Moyer, and then last night it was Joe Blanton Night at the World Series. Go Phils!

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