Monday, November 2, 2009

One Win Away

It figures it would take an Idiot to help erase one of the more painful memories from the 2004 ALCS.

Johnny Damon stole second and third on the same play in the ninth and scored on Alex Rodriguez's double as the Yankees went on to a 7-4 victory over the Phillies in Game 4 of the World Series Sunday in Philadelphia.

The Yankees lead the series 3-1 with Game 5 set for tonight. A.J. Burnett will get the ball on three days' rest and face Cliff Lee with a chance to send the Yankees to their 27th World Series championship and first since 2000.

But before the Yankees could get there, they needed to pull out Game 4, a game that seemed to be theirs for the taking as they jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first and carried a lead into the eighth.

Joe Girardi brought in Joba Chamberlain to bridge the game to Mariano Rivera and Joba seemed up to the task, using a blazing fastball to blow away Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez. He seem poised to blow away Pedro Feliz, jumping ahead 1-and-2, but Feliz worked the count full and hammered a 97 mph fastball that got too much of the plate and sent it over the wall in left to tie the score at 4.

The Phillies suddenly had momentum and properly brought in closer Brad Lidge to get through the ninth and give their offense and chance to win it.

The problem is Lidge, despite his 16 career postseason saves, is not Mariano Rivera. Lidge is vulnerable and the Yankees got to him.

Using a filthy slider that dives down into the dirt and a strong, but not dominant fastball, Lidge got pinch hitter Hideki Matsui to pop out and then struck out Derek Jeter.

That brought up Damon, who worked the count full before lining a soft single to left on the ninth pitch.

Damon then came up with one of the most heads-up plays in World Series history.

With Mark Teixiera up and batting left-handed, the Phillies employed a shift, swinging the shortstop to the right side of the field and moving Feliz, the third baseman, into the shortstop hole. That means on a steal, Feliz would have to cover second and either the pitcher or catcher would have to rotate to cover third.

Damon took off on the first pitch to Teixeira, a slider in the dirt that was a tough pitch for catcher Carlos Ruiz to handle. Ruiz came up with the ball and got off a poor throw to second that bounced a couple of times and had no chance to get Damon. Feliz fielded the ball in front of the base and step on the first-base side of the bag.

Damon slid into the bag with a pop-up slide and noticed no one was on third. With Feliz taken out of position on Ruiz's throw, that was the opening Damon needed. Damon took off and outraced Feliz, Lidge and Ruiz to swipe third as well.

It was the most important postseason stolen base since Game 4 of the ALCS, when Kevin Millar led off the ninth against Rivera with a walk and pinch runner Dave Roberts stole second before scoring the tying run on Bill Mueller's single. Damon was a member of that Red Sox team, known at the "Idiots," which went on to rally to win the ALCS and the World Series, as the Yankees became the first baseball team to blow a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series.

Damon's stolen bases Sunday may go down as the turning point in the series. Had the Phillies pulled that game out, they would have been back in the series with their ace on the mound tonight and a chance to take a 3-2 lead. Instead, Lee is hoping to the Phillies alive.

That's because with a runner on third, Lidge couldn't be as aggressive with that slider. If one were to get away from Ruiz, the go-ahead run would score. To that point, Lidge had thrown 21 pitches: 11 sliders, 10 fastballs. He would throw nine more pitches, seven of which were fastballs and only two sliders.

Lidge then hit Teixeira, bringing up the slumping Rodriguez.

A-Rod had been 1-for-13 with seven strikeouts to that point, looking very bad as he continually chased offspeed pitches out of the zone.

But against Lidge, A-Rod kept it simple and seemed to slip back into that mind-set that allowed him so much success in the ALDS and ALCS this year. He knew a single would be enough to get the Yankees the lead and didn't try to do too much.

A-Rod took a first-pitch fastball for strike one, but turned on a second straight fastball, lacing it down the left-field run for a double that scored Damon to make it 5-4.

That normally would be enough for Rivera, but Jorge Posada made sure there would be no doubt in the bottom half by following A-Rod's double with a two-run single to make it 7-4.

And with a three-run lead, the game was essentially over. Rivera has never blown a three-run lead in the postseason and was not about to start, getting Matt Stairs to ground out, Jimmy Rollins to pop out and Shane Victorino to ground out for his 39th career postseason save and 11th in the World Series.

To say this was a must-win for the Yankees would be an overstatement. Had the Yankees lost, there still would be three games left, two at Yankee Stadium. But it was clear that with ace CC Sabathia on the mound against journeyman Joe Blanton, the Yankees felt they had a big opportunity to take control of the series and didn't want to let that opportunity slip.

Heck, in team history, the Yankees are 13-1 when they take a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven series. We all know the one loss. And as a result, we know the Yankees still have a lot of work left to do in this series.

Jeter and Damon made sure the Yankees got off to a fast start as Jeter singled to lead off the first and Damon doubled to put runners on second and third. Teixeira brought in Jeter with a sharp grounder to first.

Blanton then hit A-Rod, causing the umpires to issue a senseless warning just because it was the third time in two games that A-Rod had been hit. Blanton wasn't trying to hit A-Rod in that spot and even if he was, the World Series would not be the place the Yankees would want to seek revenge. That will wait for spring training.

Posada then followed with a sacrifice fly left to score Damon and give the Yankees the 2-0 lead.

But the Yankees would end up needing more because Sabathia wasn't his sharpest.

With one out in the bottom half, Victorino and Chase Utley, who homered twice off Sabathia in Game 1, hit back-to-back doubles to cut the lead to 2-1. But that's all the Phillies would get as Ryan Howard and Ibanez struck out with Werth receiving an intentional walk in between.

Sabathia retired the side in order in the second and third, but ran into trouble again in the fourth.

Howard led off with a soft single to center and surprised everyone by stealing second. Werth then grounded out to third and Ibanez flied out and Sabathia was on the verge of escaping the jam. Feliz, however, lined a single to left, driving in Howard, who plowed over Posada and scored, even though he failed to touch the plate to tie the score at 2.

The Yankees, though, answered right back. Nick Swisher led off the fifth with a walk and went to second on Melky Cabrera's single. Sabathia then struck out while attempting to sacrifice, but Jeter and Damon picked him up.

Jeter grounded a single through the hole between short and third to bring in Swisher and Damon hit a soft single to right that Cabrera got a great read on, allowing him to score ahead of the throw from Werth to give the Yankees a 4-2 lead.

Blanton, however, escaped further damage, getting Teixeira and A-Rod to fly out to end the innings. Blanton had a solid start for a No. 4 starter, allowing four runs on five hits and two walked in six innings. He struck out seven threw 58 of 94 pitches for strikes.

The Yankees, however, needed Sabathia to deliver the lead to the bullpen, and he did, escaping a first-and-second, no-out jam in the fifth by getting Utley and Howard to pop up before striking out Werth.

Sabathia, however, wouldn't get through the seventh, allowing a two-out, 1-and-2 homer to Utley. Against Sabathia in the World Series, Utley has three homers, a double and four RBI. He's done nothing against any other Yankee in this series.

Still it was a good start for CC, allowing three runs on seven hits and three walks, two intentional. He struck out six, threw 67 of 107 pitches for strikes and left in position to get the win.

The hope is we won't have to see Sabathia on the mound again this year and the Yankees can close out the Phillies in Game 5 or 6.

Unfortunately, it's likely we won't see another Yankee this season. Cabrera injured his hamstring while running out a grounder in the sixth and was forced to leave the game. Brett Gardner replaced him and will start in center tonight.

Runners In Scoring Position
World Series
8-for-27 (.296)
Game 4
4-for-11 (.364)
Game 3
3-for-7 (.429)
Game 2
1-for-5 (.200)
Game 1
0-for-4 (.000)
12-for-64 (.188)
6-for-17 (.353)
Regular Season
419-for-1,543 (.272)

Up Next
World Series Game 5
Monday at Phillies, 7:57 p.m., FOX

Burnett (13-9, 4.04 ERA; Postseason: 1-0, 3.55 ERA in four starts)
vs. Lee (14-13, 3.22 ERA; Postseason: 3-0, 0.54 ERA in four starts)

Lee allowed one unearned run and six hits as the Phillies won Game 1. Burnett allowed one run in seven innings as the Yankees bounced back in Game 2, however, he'll be going on three days' rest, though that may not be a bad thing. In his career, Burnett has made four starts on short rest and has gone 4-0 with a 2.33 ERA, 1.074 WHIP and 24 strikeouts in 27 innings.

The key to this game is going to be whether Burnett can match Lee pitch for pitch, just as he did against Josh Beckett at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 7 in a game the Yankees won 2-0 on A-Rod's homer in the 15th.

If Burnett can do that and the offense can grind out some at-bats and make Lee work, the Yankees will have a chance to finish off the Series tonight.

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