Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Blanton's Debut - A Report from the Game

(Your humble blogger can be seen here, center, outside Shea Stadium before the game. "Moe Loogham is coming" is the slogan of the upstate New York radio station that gave him a free ticket to the game. When a passer-by misread and asked him why his shirt said "Mo Vaughn is coming," though, he decided it might be canceling out the effect of his Phillies hat).

I suspected coming into last night's big game between the Mets and Phillies that I might be the only member of the phaithful politely asking to be heckled for my Phillies hat, but coming in I felt I was seeing almost more red-and-white than blue-and-orange. Eleven-year-olds tipped their caps and grunted at me in a sign of solidarity as I walked to my gate. Who could resist reciprocating? It was nice to know we were countering to some degree the Mets fans who attend the match-ups at Citizen's Bank.

My probable last ticket ever to old Shea Stadium - for which I paid the princely sum of nothing (let it never be said that connections with community media in Binghamton, New York will get you nowhere) - were in the upper deck and adjacent to first base. The view was good, as if to spite sports broadcasters for all the lines they have been asked to read about bad views at Shea Stadium in order to build unbearable excitement for the upcoming debut of Citi Field (which itself was admittedly looking pretty impressive and near-complete over the center-field wall).

As the Phillies were introduced the Shea crowd booed Jimmy Rollins loudly enough to compete with a Citizen's Bank assemblage, and I had to be the one to remind my Met-fan friend of Jimmy's "team to beat" comment when he asked why he was booing so hard. When Chase Utley got a similar reception I was left with "Him they're just booing because he's good." As expected, the crowd was excited by the Mets' recent gains in the standings and the growing rivalry.

Joe Blanton, in his first start as a Phillie, was given the trial-by-fire assignment of pitching in a vital division-rivalry game on the road against for Cy Young winner Johan Santana. None of the Met fans nearby had heard anything about him beyond, "didn't he have a terrible record with some other team?"

Fortunately, the Phillies gave him a one-run handicap in the first inning on consecutive singles by Pat "Met Killer" Burrell (eventually scoring a rare run from second), Ryan "Rally Killer" Howard (failing to live up to his nickname), and Jayson "Cold-Blooded Killer" Werth (being slandered for no discernible reason on a blog the next day). Santana settled down after this, though, and even though, and even though Blanton was looking impressive in his opening innings, everyone knew the Phillies would need more than a one-run lead. In the third the Mets' chance came and David Wright tied the game with a double, but Endy Chavez out at home on an accurate throw and a good play by Carlos Ruiz to keep the game tied. Before Blanton could escape the inning, however, Carlos Delgado homered to the right field corner. I missed it at the time, but Milt Thompson and Charlie Manuel were ejected from the game for contending that the home run should not have counted, as a checked swing at a previous pitch had really represented a third strike, leaving bench coach Jimmie Williams to manage.

Thus far both pitchers could be said to be pitching to their reputations, and the game sped by until the sixth when Blanton started to show signs of losing control. Blanton was due to bat in the next inning, though, and Williams left him in to surrender a walk, a home run to Ramon Castro, and a walk to Santana before escaping the inning. Shane Victorino cut the Mets' lead to 5-2 in the next inning, but it already felt a little futile.

The next inning, pitched by Rudy Seanez and J. C. Romero, saw the Mets threaten again, but it was diffused when Endy Chavez was satisfyingly thrown out at home for the second time in the same game. In the seventh, an amazing play by Chase Utley to save two runs received a gasp of admiration even from the home crowd. After the top of the order failed to achieve anything in the eighth inning, the other Phillies fan in our entourage wanted to leave early and avoid crowds on the subway, but I convinced everyone to stay the course.

Billy Wagner was unavailable for New York, but our Met-fan friend explained his absence at the time by saying the game wasn't close enough to need him. Duaner Sanchez finally relieved Johan Santana, and after Jayson Werth singled Greg Dobbs maintained his reputation as "pinch-hitter extraordinaire" by doing likewise. A third single by Shane Victorino loaded the bases. At this point the Met fans were getting restless, but the cognoscenti were not ready to gloat yet. At the plate in the bases-loaded, no-out situation was the Phillies resident master of hitting into double-plays, Carlos Ruiz.

Ruiz's weak grounder would usually have resulted in another demonstration of his specialty, but somehow the Mets miraculously failed to field it. It bounced, and Jose Reyes tried to take it to second, but Shane Victorino was running and "The Flyin' Hawaiian" reached the bag first. The umpire's "safe" sign was fleeting, but Victorino aped it in excitement. The crowd briefly assumed an out, but was consumed with confusion and then frustration at the call. The run scored and the bases remained loaded.

Here we knew something was keeping Wagner from entering the came, as Pedro Feliciano came on in relief. We knew we had the top of the order soon, but first the last spot had to be navigated. Williams pinch-hit with So Taguchi, who ran counter to his unproductive year with a double. Silence in the stadium as the score is tied. Even more silence when Rollins doubles and puts the Phillies ahead. When Burrell came up, we got a demonstration of the one problem with hitting him ahead of Howard. The Phillies intentionally walked him. The run that scored on his groundout made it 8-5.

The Phillies had THEIR star closer available, and the one run that Brad Lidge surrendered did not make a difference. It was hands down the most exciting game of the season for this author, not least for having seen it next to two Mets fans and one occasional baseball viewer who would root vociferously for any team which happened to be behind at the moment. I certainly got the maximum value for my $0. Do the math on that.


Brian Raab said...

All in all, not a terrible debut for Blanton. If Charlie Manuel had got his way and Delgado was called for his check-swing third strike (looked like he went around to me, though it was close), Blanton gives up only three runs and has a quality start. Despite the five runs, he still gave the Phillies six innings. Even on his bad days, he'll usually do that, keeping the bullpen rested. I'm also intrigued by his ability to hold runners. They mentioned on SNY that Blanton hasn't allowed a stolen base in about 170 innings. Watching him pitch, I could see why. His delivery is mostly upper body movement and he's very quick to the plate. No doubt that will come in handy against speedsters like Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez.

Charles Berman said...

Agreed. Blanton got booed a few times for throwing to first instead of the plate, but it did what it was supposed to.

He needs to be pretty reliable and keep the team in the game as a late-rotation starter, and that's what he did last night.

It'll be interesting to see how he does as a fly-ball pitcher in Citizen's Bank as opposed to Shea.