Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Howard Homers Early and Struggles Late in Win

Phillies fans got a glimpse of what Ryan Howard can do for (and do to) their team in tonight's game against the Braves. Howard shined early on, belting a three-run homer in the third inning, but his sloppy fielding gave the Braves a chance to tie the game in the ninth inning. Instead, the Phillies survived and scored a 7-3 win over Atlanta, clinching their first series win since...the last time they played the Braves.

Once again, the Phillies took an early lead against in Atlanta. In the second inning, Chris Coste hit a two-out double that scored Pedro Feliz and put the Phillies ahead 1-0. Adam Eaton nearly added another run as he singled in the next at-bat. However, Coste was gunned down at home by left fielder Gerry Blanco. Then, in the third, the Phillies put runners on first and second for Howard, who took Jorge Campillo deep with his 21st home run of the year, opening up a four-run lead.

In the meantime, Eaton was, what one can only call wildly effective. Eaton put runners on base in all but one inning he pitched. In the bottom of the third, he loaded the bases on walks to Chipper Jones and Mark Teixiera, but escaped by inducing a Brian McCann fly-out. Pat Burrell gave Eaton a five-run lead in the fifth, as he hit a solo home run, but in the bottom of the inning, Ruben Gotay responded with his own solo shot, making it a 5-1 ballgame.

Gotay's home run seemed like a sign that Eaton's luck was about to run out and that ominous sign came to fruition in the sixth inning. Teixiera led off the inning with a double, and Eaton put the next two runners aboard to load the bases with no outs. Charlie Manuel turned to Chad Durbin to get out of the jam and Durbin made the best of a bad situation, getting Jeff Francoeur to ground into a double play that plated Teixiera. Durbin then struck out Mark Kotsay to end the threat.

Both bullpens were effective (Campillo also left after five innings) until the eighth inning, when J.C. Romero surrendered a solo homer to Chipper Jones, making it a 5-3 game. However, the Phillies responded in the top of the ninth. Pinch hitter Eric Bruntlett drew a walk off Blaine Boyer, who was then removed for Royce Ring. Jimmy Rollins greeted Ring with an RBI triple. Ring struck out Shane Victorino, but Chase Utley slapped a single to left to extend the lead to 7-3.

Brad Lidge came in to pitch the ninth, which seemed like little more than a formality considering the score and the dominance of the Phillies bullpen this year. True to form, Lidge started off by striking out Kotsay. Greg Norton singled to center in the next at-bat, but there was still little cause for concern.

Then things got interesting. Blanco hit a sharp grounder toward Howard that was apparently too hot to handle, as it squirted through his legs. Blanco was safe and the Braves fans were suddenly interested. Yunel Escobar worked a full count before Lidge got him looking on a fastball. Jones stepped in and drew a 3-1 count before hitting a grounder to the right side of the infield. Utley set up to field it and appeared to call Howard off, but Howard made a play for the ball anyway. The ball bounced off of Howard's glove and Utley had to chase it down to keep Norton at third. Howard's second error of the inning (ninth of the season) loaded the bases for cleanup hitter Mark Teixiera, who would represent the tying run.

Lidge's first pitch to Teixiera was nearly his last, as Teixiera crushed the ball down the right field line. Teixiera put his arms up in excitement and the crowd roared only to see the ball go just foul. After the umpire made the ruling, Lidge and Teixiera battled until, after eight pitches, the count had run full. Lidge reached back and threw a low slider for the ninth pitch and Teixiera waved at it and missed, recording the final out of a surprisingly close game.

The Phillies won, both thanks to and despite Howard's play. A win tomorrow would give them a sweep of the Braves and considerable momentum to take home with them as they prepare to face the Mets. They say wins like these build character. Maybe so, but I'm not sure how much more "character" I can take.

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