Thursday, October 23, 2008

Shields Defends Home Turft; Series Tied

It took 17 1/3 innings, but the Phillies finally delivered with a runner in scoring position. Well, sort of. Trailing 4-1 in the ninth inning, Jayson Werth hit a hard grounder to Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. It proved too hot to handle and skipped off his glove and into the outfield, allowing Carlos Ruiz to score from second base. It wasn't that elusive RBI hit with runners in scoring position, but at that point in the game, the Phillies and their fans weren't about to be picky.

Of course, it was too little too late. Rookie phenom David Price struck out Chase Utley in the next at-bat, then Ryan Howard grounded out to second, ending the game in a 4-2 Phillies loss.

On paper, it will look as if James Shields dominated the game and Brett Myers was, well, Brett Myers. But that doesn't tell the whole story. Myers was, in fact, arguably the better of the two starters. He surrendered 4 runs, 3 of them earned, over seven innings. He gave up seven hits, but not one extra base hit. Sheilds, meanwhile, held the Phillies scoreless through 5 2/3 innings, but allowed seven hits, including two doubles and was forced to get out of numerous jams.

The second inning pretty much summed up the Phillies' offense. Howard led off with a double, Pat Burrell walked, and after Shane Victorino popped out, both runners advanced on a wild pitch to Greg Dobbs. A well-hit out would have likely scored Howard, but instead Dobbs struck out looking and Pedro Feliz lined out to center. The third inning started with a Carlos Ruiz double...and ended with him stranded on third. And so it went. The Phillies put runners in scoring position in every inning from the second to the seventh. Yet the first run of the night came off an Eric Bruntlett solo home run in the eighth. The Rays had scored four runs by then and the Phillies were unable to rally in the ninth.

It didn't help that the Phillies fell victim to some poor umpiring. Two particularly heinous calls (or non-calls) stood out. In the bottom of the second inning, Rocco Baldelli checked his swing on a 3-2 pitch. The pitch itself was very close; Myers thought it was a strike. Either way, home plate umpire Kerwin Danley didn't seem to think Baldelli held up on the swing and appeared to signal him out. However, the first base umpire said there was no swing and Baldelli sauntered down to first.

That's all well and good, except that the home plate umpire has the ultimate authority and he called Baldelli out. Perhaps this was some kind of umpire coup d'etat. More likely, it was a bad call and one that resulted in a Rays run. Charlie Manuel was so befuddled by the whole thing (Charlie often seems confused, but this time who could blame him) that he did not even come out to properly plead his case.

Another missed call came in the ninth. After Ruiz doubled, Rollins took a pitch inside that clearly nicked his jersey. It wasn't the most obvious hit-by-pitch, but the replay made it pretty clear that contact was made between the ball and Rollins' jersey, but the umpire did not award Rollins first base. With no outs, a runner on second, and lefty-killer Jayson Werth due up, this could have changed the complexion of the game. Joe Maddon would have had a very difficult decision with Werth at the plate, representing the tying run, then with Utley and Howard to follow. Instead, the pitch was ruled a ball and Rollins would eventually pop out to shallow center.

Both these calls were extremely frustrating to any Phillies fan, but it's worth noting that the Phillies had plenty of opportunities beforehand and had they executed then, the Rollins HBP no-call might not have mattered. No, it's not worth blaming the umpires for this loss.

At the same time, I'm not prepared to label the Phillies as a bunch of choke artists who can't get the big hit. They had plenty of hits, but just could not string them together when they needed to. Generally that amounts to little more than dumb luck.

Hopefully that luck subsides, as the series heads to Philadelphia. The Phillies will need to get the bats going, as the next two pitching matchups clearly favor the Rays. Based on the regular season, Game 3's Jamie Moyer-Matt Garza matchup is a toss-up, but Garza was excellent in the ALCS and Moyer has been hammered in two postseason starts. However, it should be noted that both of Moyer's starts were on the road, where he struggled in the regular season as well. Also, it's not unreasonable to think that a young, somewhat undisciplined hitting team like the Rays could succumb to the wily veteran.

Whatever happens on the mound, the Phillies' luck at the plate is bound to turn at some point. Let's just hope it's not too late.

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