Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Braves Get Base-on-Ballbusting

The first few innings of today's game were somehow very familiar. The sight of a somnolent Phillies offense seeming to take very little interest in scoring against an Atlanta Braves team that was battering its starter couldn't help but remind one of, well, the previous -- and only -- two other games of the 2009 season. The opening innings, following Philadelphia's last two dismal games were depressing -- but they were followed by an improbable and thrilling comeback. The bats in the Phillies' potent lineup sprang to life as if trying to make up for every scoreless inning these last two games, and if a win like today's doe snot galvanize the team, nothing can.

Before the game, everything bodes well. A ring ceremony for 2008's world champions (with Pat Burrell's presence graciously welcome) has to auger well, and the pitching match-up pits the Phillies' late-2008 hero and hot spring picther Joe Blanton against Atlanta's perennially unreliable Javier Vazquez. Moreover, the Braves' best hitter -- Chipper Jones -- has been scratched from the lineup on account of a sore thumb and replaced at third by Omar Infante.

The Phillies begin another game by generously allowing the Braves their customary two-run handicap today, as Joe Blanton surrenders a two-run home run with two outs in the first that was very nearly a foul ball. He gets through the next inning 1-2-3, however, with an uncomfortably long fly ball the only potentially worrying sign.

In the second we take back our handicap when Ryan Howard doubles to deep center with a misplayed ball that a better-practiced Howard or some warmer weather would have sent over the fence, and Raul Ibanez homers him in with a very deep shot to right field. Welcome to Philadelphia, Raul. We hope that impressive shot can be remembered as the moment a key piece really arrived. He has to make himself a key piece though. Next Feliz and Ruiz walk -- showing some important sometimes much-missed patience at the plate -- and Joe Blanton shows off his baseball fundamentals by bunting the runners over the second and third.

Omar Infante singles to left in the top of the third and is pushed to second on a walk drawn by Kelly Johnson. A sinle almost draws him home but a good throw from Jayson Werth keeps the run from scoring. For naught, though, as Brian McCann moves everyone over one base with an RBI single, and after Blanton manages one strikeout, Jeff Francour bests him with a two-run single to center.It is now 5-2 Atlanta. From here on Philly's game seems to disintegrate. Matt Diaz wins himself two RBIs with another double. 7-2 Braves. Joe Blanton has officially been hung out to dry.

In the third Shane Victorino gets his offensive season started with a triple, and is scored by Chase Utley, but the rest of the Phillies cannot bring Chase home from second.

From here Joe Blanton seems to have settled down seven runs too late, and manages a couple of scoreless innings before J. A. Happ entered the game to relieve him in the fifth. The perfect timing of Charlie Manuel's use of the bullpen is demonstrated once again when Happ walks Diaz and gives up a two-run homer to the brand-new hero of all Atlantans, rookie Justin Schafer. 9-3 Braves.

Happ remains fine until the seventh while Phillie bats remained futile until he is replaced by Chad Durbin, who allows a double and two walks before walking a a run in when he faces Omar Infante. This causes him to be pulled for Clay Condrey. 10-3 Braves.

Just as Phillie-fan heads may be dropping into Phillie-fan hands at the sight of a forced-in run, that particular humiliating play is about to be their salvation. Eric O'Flaherty, first in a carousel of pitchers in the Philadelphia seventh, gets Victorino out, then allows Utley to get his second hit -- a solid single to center field. When he walks Ryan Howard, Pete Moylan replaces him. He too is infected by a similar loss of control, and walks Werth. Ibanez, looking better and better as a new acquisition raps a very solid RBI single which propels his team to a paltry six runs behind. Pedro Feliz, getting hot lately, keeps the rally going with a single of his own. Phillie fans can hope a little bit now. Five runs is a little bit less insurmountable.

Moylan has no control. Matt Stairs pinch hits for Carlos Ruiz and draws a bases-loaded walk. 10-6 Braves. Also walking is Bobby Cox, who approaches the mound and pulls Moylan for Blaine Boyer. Boyer has been drinking the same water as Moylan. He walks Chris Coste, hitting for the pitcher. 10-7 Braves. Fans laugh and cheer with equal enthusiasm. Then Jimmy Rollins comes to bat and things get really absurd: Rollins draws a walk. 10-8 Braves.

Here Bobby Cox walks again to send Jorge Campillo to the mound. Campillo has his work cut out for him following up Boyer's performance and, just as required of him, does not walk the next batter. Instead, he gives up a clean single to Shane Victorino, scoring the slow Stairs. 10-9 Braves. Still one out. Chase Utley up. Wait for it -- he draws a walk. Tied 10-10. Jubilation.

Ryan Howard bats next, and joins the RBI party by grounding a run in. By the time Jayson Werth, who has already batted in the inning, flies out, the Phillies are inconceivably in the lead 11-10.

An amazing diving grab by Ryan Howard with a stunning flip to Ryan Madson starts the eighth inning with a play that will live on in the highlight reels of the future, and in the Philly half of the eighth they add an insurance run on -- by now hysterically -- a walk to Raul Ibanez, a double by Pedro Feliz, and sac fly by the Phillies' only remaining bench player, Eric Bruntlett.

Lights-out Lidge was not quite lights-out today, giving up a solo home run to Matt Diaz, but it didn't matter. The Phillies won 12-11 after trailing 10-3 in the seventh. It was a spectacular comeback, assisted by a spectacular collapse of the Braves' bullpen with a surrender of four bases-loaded walks. There were a lot of welcome good signs from the Phillies' bats today, and it is to be hoped that they stay this alive consistently, but it is equally to be hoped that, as much as this victory electrifies the team, the starting pitching settles into a better rhythm. Though eight-run innings can't bail them out of every game, this one was a thrill to watch on its own -- for those who hadn't already turned it off.

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