Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A long-awaited night for Philly, a bright future for the Rays


I know it lasted just five games, but what a great World Series this was.

Forget the poor TV ratings; forget the miserable Philadelphia weather; forget the 46-hour wait between the top and bottom of Game 5's sixth inning.

It was all worth it.

The Phillies and Rays put together a thrilling three innings of baseball in the frigid cold Wednesday night, with the Phillies emerging victorious 4-3. The end-game scenario couldn't have been more fitting:

There was Brad Lidge, Philly's perfect closer. Which is to say he doesn't blow saves, not one the entire season. But he does allow baserunners, which was the case as Fernando Perez, Tampa Bay's speedster, took a lead off second base. Eric Hinske, who was 1-for-1 in the Series with a home run entering the game, stood at the plate.

Then Lidge, appropriately, threw his nasty slider on an 0-2 count ... and Hinske had no chance. He swung at thin air. He missed badly. And the celebration was on. Ryan Howard, Philly's burly first baseman, nearly cracked a few of Lidge's ribs with a linebacker's tackle.

But he didn't. Not on this night. Not on the night that marked the first championship for the City of Brotherly Love since the Moses Malone-led 76ers improbably swept the Lakers in 1983. That was a half year before I was born, so now I'll get to hear about and read about, for the first time, all the arrests that are made as a result of Philly fans going absolutely chaotic all night.

They deserve to celebrate, that's for sure (well, legally at least). As any champion will tell you, each title should be savored, should be soaked up until it's bone-dry, because you never know if you'll be back. Even for teams with a grand-looking future, nothing is certain. For instance, after the Tigers' 2006 march to the World Series, I never thought, with the players they had returning, they'd be left out of the postseason the next two seasons.

Something tells me, however, that these Rays will be back in the postseason, that we'll be hearing from Tropicana Field's annoying cowbells in the years to come. The future of the franchise couldn't be brighter.

Their young everyday players, guys such as Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton, aren't going anywhere. That's also the case for members of their strong starting rotation. And it will only get better with the inevitable addition of 23-year-old David Price, who showed his great maturity by pitching brilliantly in the late innings of these playoffs.

And who doesn't love red wine-drinking, thick glass-wearing manager Joe Maddon. He's a great manager for his inexperienced team, and I'm 95 percent sure he'll lead them back to October baseball.

So while there was disappointment for the Rays Wednesday night — who wouldn't be upset after winning 105 games during a long season only to come three wins short? — there was also perspective. Carlos Pena, who has emerged their spiritual leader, talked positively. So did Maddon.

The lost Series will sting for a while, but well before February, the Rays will be focused and excited about the 2009 season. The Red Sox and Yankees will have a tough time overtaking them in the brutal American League East.

But back to the Phillies, because this was their night, their city's night.

The thing about this team was that it impersonated its city. As in, it didn't make anything easy. It never took the easy path to victory.

Consider how many runners the Phillies left on base in the World Series (48), consider how they fared with runners in scoring position (6-for-47 entering Game 5). They probably could have scored 10 runs in all four of their victories, instead of 3, 5, 10 and 4 runs. The Phillies let the games stay close, let the Rays fight back several times.

But then they threw the last punch. On Wednesday, it was Pedro Feliz's game-winning RBI single in seventh inning that brought home Pat Burrell, who had just knocked his first hit of the Series — a leadoff double.

When the Phillies really needed hits in the playoffs, when they were trailing or in a tie game, they stepped up and got the job done in a blue-collar manner their city appreciates. In the NLCS, the bigs hits were Shane Victorino's and Matt Stairs' two-run home runs in the top of the eight inning of Game 4. The blasts turned a two-run deficit into a two-run lead.

They devastated the Dodgers, put Philly up 3-1 in the series and paved the way for a trip to the Fall Classic that was realized two nights later.

Then came the big World Series hits. In Game 1, it was Chase Utley's first-inning, two-run jack that gave starting pitcher Coley Hamels an instant cushion en route to the one-run victory. In the wild, whacky Game 3, it was the eighth man in their order, catcher Carlos Ruiz, who fought off a tough inside pitch to dribble a roller up the third-base line. It was perfect for the bases-loaded situation in the ninth inning, scoring Eric Bruntlett for the game-winning run.

There was no drama in Game 4, as Howard joined the World Series party with a pair of HRs and five RBIs. The eight-run victory was a brief respite from drama for Philly fans, who, rightfully so, could never feel completely comfortable that the Series was in the bag. After all, it was the Phillies.

Which brings us back to Lidge, the closer, the man who put the finishing touch on 48 Philadelphia wins this season. The last time a Phillies closer was on the mound, it was Mitch Williams in 1993. And quite possibly, it was the most heartbreaking moment in the team's 125-year, morbid history. In Game 6 of Series against the Blue Jays, Williams gave up a walkoff three-run home run to Joe Carter. Toronto — a damn expansion franchise! — celebrated its second consecutive world championship.

But when Lidge threw his final nasty slider of the 2008 season, finishing off Hinske in a mere three pitches, 1993 was a distant memory. Even before the climatic moment, Williams had been forgiven. He's now a popular sports-talk radio host in the city. And Thursday, I'm sure, he'll get to spend his entire show talking about his former team. How right is that? He can't wash away the pain of '93, but how happy must he be?

The most joyous man, though, has to be Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel. Before Game 2 of the NLCS, Manuel learned that his loving mother, June Manuel, had passed away. He didn't have to manage that day, but that wasn't an option. Instead, he led the Phillies to a victory ... and then six more. And he knows June is celebrating wherever she may be.

Manuel is far from the most eloquent man. In fact, he's the polar opposite of Maddon, who speaks in such great detail, sometimes I mistake him for a professor. Manuel is more of a Philly guy, speaking succinctly and in generalities. And he doesn't hide his emotions. His words never come out smoothly, but you know they're from the heart.

On Wednesday night, after four seasons of criticism, after hearing people clamor for him to lose his job despite winning at least 85 games each season, he was the happiest 64-year-old on earth.

Good for Charlie.

And good for the rest of the Phillies. Their star ace, their MVP, was Hamels. Their de facto slugger was Howard. But their ride to the championship was full of performances from the other guys, from the players non-Philadelphia baseball fans may not be aware of.

The happiest 45-year-old has to be Jamie Moyer, who somehow found the strength to pitch six and one-third innings of three-run ball Saturday night in Game 3. He didn't get the victory that rain-soaked night, but his team did in a game pundits like myself thought it'd lose because of the starting-pitching matchup. He proved us all wrong.

It was an amazing performance from not only a man of his age, but also a man who had been brutally sick the night before the game. His wife said that Friday night, Moyer was a mess. He was his usual collected self Saturday.

The play that should stand out from Wednesday's clincher was made by Utley, Philly's do-everything second baseman. With the game tied 3-3 in the seventh inning, the Rays' Jason Bartlett stood at second base with two out. Akinori Iwamura grounded the ball back up the middle.

Bartlett, assuming it would get roll into center field or Utley would throw to first, jogged around the bases, not even looking back toward second as he rounded third base. After backhanding the ball behind second, Utley, knowing he couldn't get the speedy Iwamura, faked toward first then fired a one-bouncer to Ruiz. The catcher easily tagged out Bartlett to end the inning.

It was the kind of play World Series champions make, a defining moment. Rarely do you see a champion not make a similar heady play. A half-inning later, the Phillies were ahead for good.

And, it should be mentioned, J.C. Romero was the winning pitcher.

It wasn't the cleanest march to the championship. The Phillies needed some help from the Rays, who made their share of baserunning gaffes (like Bartlett's) and mistakes in the field during the Fall Classic. Philadelphia wasn't at its best all the time, either. There were at-bats when Howard, even Utley, looked lost, waving at three straight pitches.

I almost expected to hear boos after such at-bats. After all, that's what Philly fans are known for. But they're also known, maybe not as well, for being knowledgeable, for knowing everything possible about their team.

And Wednesday night, they knew — they could be sure of — that the best team in baseball, the guys in white and red rejoicing on the cold, windy field, were World Series champions.

The 28-year wait since the Phillies' 1980 title, the first in franchise history, was worth it. As was the 25-year major-sports championship drought. And the aggravating 46-hour wait to complete three stinkin' innings.

One word could sum up what transpired just before 10 p.m.

Finally. Or, I guess, "Phinally."

1 comment:

Sportsattitude said...

Estimated 2 million people saw at least some portion of the parade in Philly. Out here in the suburbs, people tried to get down there but train after train kept whistling by full with folks coming in from even farther west (Lancaster, Harrisburg). Those who did get down there certainly looked like they had a blast. I'm old enough to confess to going to the Flyers' celebrations in the 70's but from what I saw on the local news it was nothing like Friday past. We also had sporting goods stores that came under "attack" from folks angry they immediately sold out of championship merchandise they had loudly broadcast they would have. Philadelphia will not soon forget this season...until Spring Training of course, when we'll all have the attitude "what have you done for me lately!" Lots of decisions to be made in Philadelphia in the off-season. The GM replacement is pretty much a done deal (internal, Ruben Amaro has been the annointed one for awhile now) but keeping Pat Burrell and deciding how to replace the power letting him walk if they do that is on the front burner of the hot-stove league.