Thursday, October 30, 2008

Three Thrilling Innings

Unable to get into Citizen's Bank Park at anything close to resembling a reasonable price, my wife, Debbie Veasey, and I ultimately decided to hunker down in the comfort and warmth of our family room to watch the conclusion of Game #5 of the 2008 World Series. The 52-inch TV, our dog Petey, our home cabinets and refrigerators with drinks and treats, my cellphone to text friends and family during the game, and our new video camera would be our companions through the night. Nowhere else that I would rather be, or anyone else that I would rather have been with, than Deb. She is a huge Phillies fan in her own right, and we enjoy watching games on TV and attending them together in person all spring and summer. Pre-game we decided to head out to a local Chinese buffet where we talked some about what we thought would happen when it re-started. With Game #5 having been suspended after 5 1/2 innings by incredibly horrid rain and cold on Monday night, the first time in history that an MLB post-season game was ever suspended, some unusual situations were set up. Phillies original starter Cole Hamels would be leading off the bottom of the 6th for the Phils, but since he would not be available to pitch on such short rest (two days of the delay), he would certainly be replaced with a pinch-hitter. Local radio sports talk hosts had speculated that the Phils would go with either pinch-hit king Greg Dobbs or slugging Matt Stairs. But I told Deb that I felt the choice would and should be Geoff Jenkins. It was silly to use Dobbs that early, you might need his clutch bat at the end. And Stairs is a one-trick pony who you needed to save just in case you needed that trick, a homerun, at some stage. This situation called for someone left-handed, since the Rays had a righty on the mound. Jenkins was the one left, and was the obvious choice to me. Apparently it was the right choice by Charlie Manuel (pictured, with the World Series trophy) as well, because Jenkins it was to lead it off, and he drove a 3-2 pitch to deep right-center field for a double. A sacrifice bunt by JRoll and a humpback single to center by Jayson Werth, and it was 3-2 Phillies right off the bat. But that was only the beginning, as this suspended 3 innings of play would pack in as much drama as most full games. In the top of the 7th, the Rays tied it on a homerun from Rocco Baldelli off of Ryan Madson. Later in the inning it would be up to Phils' 2nd baseman Chase Utley to provide the heroics with his glove, arm, and head. With two outs and Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett at 2nd base, Akinori Iwamura sent a ball bouncing up the middle. Utley ranged nicely to his right and behind the bag at 2nd, fielded the ball cleanly in his glove, transferred the ball to his bare hand, and pivoted as if to throw to first base. As Utley likely knew, there would be no chance to get the speedy Iwamura on this play. But he made it seem as if he was going through with the throw, fooling Bartlett into thinking this, and Bartlett never stopped in rounding 3rd, heading for home with the go-ahead run. Instead of actually throwing to first, Utley double-clutched, turned his body slightly, and fired a one-bounce strike to catcher Carlos Ruiz just slightly up the 3rd base line. Ruiz took the throw and dove out after Bartlett, who was diving around his tag attempt in trying to get to home plate. Ruiz stretched out and nailed Bartlett three feet short of the plate, and the Phillies were out of the inning still tied. Utley's heady play will go down in history as one of the greatest, if not the single greatest, defensive plays in the history of Philadelphia sports. And a nice assist to Ruiz on the other end as well. In the bottom of the 7th, the longest tenured Phillie, leftfielder Pat 'the Bat' Burrell, would lead things off. Burrell was the only Phillie to not get much involved thus far in the Series as he was hitless, and this could well be the final at-bat as a Phil since he is a free agent this coming off-season. Almost every Phils fan that I heard talking in the time leading up to the game was rooting for Burrell to do something special, and Pat didn't let us down. He got a hold of a fastball and drove it deep to centerfield, the farthest part of the park, for what looked like it was going to be a go-ahead homerun. But the ball crashed off the fence, missing that homer by just a couple of feet. As it bounced back to the turf, Burrell rolled into 2nd base, and the Phils had led-off their 2nd straight inning with a double. Eric Bruntlett came in to pinch-run for Burrell, who left to a tremendous ovation, and Bruntlett quickly moved over to 3rd base on Shane Victorino's bouncer to 2nd. Up to the plate stepped 3rd baseman Pedro Feliz, and he delivered the biggest hit of his career with a line-drive single right back through the box, scoring Bruntlett and putting the Phils back on top by 4-3 heading into the 8th. Again in the top of the 8th, the Rays kept coming. With a runner on first, Phils reliever J.C. Romero induced young Rays star B.J. Upton to ground a ball right to Phils shortstop Jimmy Rollins who flipped it over to Utley at 2nd for the forceout. In the same motion, Utley pivoted to turn the doubleplay as the runner barrelled down on him to break it up. But the Phils all-star 2nd baseman hung in under fire and made a strong throw, nailing the speedy Upton by a step to complete the twin killing. The Phils were held off the board in their half of the 8th, and so the game went into the top of the 9th with the team just three outs away from the 2nd World Series title in their 125-year history. Manuel gave the ball to closer Brad Lidge, who had become known as 'Lights-Out Lidge' by not blowing a Save opportunity all year. Lidge got the first batter, but then gave up a hit and a stolen base to put the Rays tying run at 2nd with one out. Nothing ever comes easy in Philadelphia. The next batter sliced a ball to the opposite field that looked off the bat like a game-tying single, but the rocket hung in the air and went directly at rightfielder Jayson Werth for out #2. The Rays brought up pinch-hitter Eric Hinske, who had homered in his only at-bat of the Series in Game #4. Lidge quickly got ahead, and as the centerfield clock at Citizen's Bank Park reached exactly 10pm, Lidge fired a slider that dove down under Hinske's swinging bat and into the glove of catcher Ruiz for a Series-clinching strikeout. As Ruiz charged the mound in celebration, Lidge dropped to his knees and looked prayerfully skyward. Ruiz grabbed him in a bear hug, and the two were immediately tackled to the ground by big 1st baseman Ryan Howard. The rest of the team was in hot pursuit, and the pile-on crushed those three as everyone else joined the celebration. The Phillies fans in the stands waved their 'Rally Towels' with glee, jumped up and down, hugged one another, roared, cried, and generally exploded with joy at the city's first professional sports championship in a quarter century. Back at home, Deb and I had been videotaping our evening and the game as it progressed on TV, and we were jumping around our living room with that same joyfulness. Deb grabbed a pot and big spoon, and ran out front to clang them in celebration with some neighbors. We watched the post-game shows both on Fox and local Comcast Sportsnet, as well as all the local news angles. The street celebrations quickly grew, and Deb and I decided to get dressed and head out. We drove around in Northeast Philly hot spots, honking our horns and cheering out the windows with other drivers and pedestrians, and even stopped at a local sporting goods store at 1am to buy some Phillies world championship shirts. The three innings that began with Jenkins' opening double, that included Werth's rbi blooper, Burrell's heroic double, Feliz' winning rbi single, Utley's defensive excellence, the Rays' persistence, and finally closed with Lidge's strikeout, were three of the most unusual but greatest innings in World Series history. And they ended with the Philadelphia Phillies as the world champions. It just does not get any better than this. Ever. As Deb said, thank you Tug McGraw in Heaven! And let me add to her sentiments both John Vukovich and John Marzano, who were surely watching over and rooting us on from above with the Tugger. And thank you, sweet Jesus! Thank you, God in Heaven! And last but not least, thank you to the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies, from Series MVP Cole Hamels, to all the players and coaches, up to the top of ownership, and down to the lowest employees on the organizational ladder. Today, you are my heroes. Thank you.

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