Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Phillies- Rockies Game Four


Just wow. There have been a handful of baseball games that I've watched in my life that have left me exhausted and breathless at their conclusion. Game Seven of the 2001 World Series between the Yankees and Diamondbacks, when Luis Gonzalez' blooper beat the unbeatable Mariano Rivera, was one such game. Game seven of the 2003 ALCS, when Aaron Boone beat the Red Sox and sent the Yankees to the World Series, also comes to mind.

Game four between the Phillies and the Rockies is the latest entry to this list.

The game took on an even deeper level of anxiety and exhaustion for me, given that I had a rooting interest in the outcome, one that would legitimately sour my mood for several hours if the end result was not what I had wanted.

If you missed it, the Phillies defeated the Rockies, 5-4, on Monday night to advance to the National League Championship Series for the second consecutive season.

The game started out with a bang as the second batter of the game, Phillies centerfielder Shane Victorino, turned around an Ubaldo Jimenez fastball and launched it into the Rockies bullpen for a 1-0 Phils lead.

And 1-0 looked like it would hold up for awhile, especially given the dominance exhibited by Cliff Lee. Lee started game one against the Rocks, and threw a complete game that missed becoming a shutout by only one out, as the Rockies scored their lone run in the 5-1 defeat with two outs in the ninth.

Lee was not as sharp as he had been in game one, where he dominated by using a well located fastball and sharp cutter to get ahead of and put away Colorado hitters. Like game one, Lee got into trouble in the first inning, but was able to escape without any runs scoreing. He would go on to strike out five in the first five innings, while the Phillies added a run on a solo shot from Jayson Werth in the sixth.

Up 2-0 entering the bottom of the sixth, the Phils had missed a few opportunities to really put the Rockies away, particularly when they did not score after loading the bases with only one out in the third. The Rockies took advantage, with Todd Helton scoring ahead of a Troy Tulowitzki double to cut the lead in half, 2-1. With 'Tulo' on second and only one out, Colorado looked poised to tie a game they shouldn't have even been in, when Garrett Atkins rocket was snared by Pedro Feliz and Tulowitzki was doubled off second to end the threat.

Heading to the eighth with the score still tied at one, one got the feeling that this game was far from over. The Phillies then loaded the bases with one out for the second time in the game, chasing Franklin Morales from the game, and bringing on Rafael Betancourt. Phillie third baseman Pedro Feliz swung at and popped up the first pitch from Betancourt, setting off uncountable unsavory exclamations in the Delaware Valley. Carlos Ruiz followed with a good at bat, but ultimately grounded out to shortstop. For the second time in the game, the Phils came up empty after loading the bases with one out. Generally, pulling a stunt like that will come back to haunt you.

And it did. With one out, Dexter Fowler walked and Todd Helton hit a roller to Chase Utley at second. With the ball and Fowler arriving at Utley at the same time, Fowler leapt CLEAR OVER Utley to avoid a collision. Perhaps flustered by the leap, Utley tossed the ball to Jimmy Rollins, who dropped it. Two on, one out, Tulowitzki up, Cliff Lee and Raul Ibanez out, Ryan Madson and Ben Francisco in. Tulowitzki hits a sinking liner to left that is snared on a great diving catch by Francisco, a play that almost certainly would not have been made by the much slower Ibanez. Two outs, runners on first and second, Phils still leading 2-1. Jason Giambi pinch hits and flares a first-pitch bleeder inside the line in left to tie the game. Yorvit Torrealba follows with a double in the right-centerfield gap, scoring the slow Helton and Giambi. Rockies lead 4-2. Coors Field is going nuts. Huston Street is coming in. A winner-take-all game five in Philadelphia looks imminent.

Street came into the game to protect the Rockie lead, a goal he was successful in achieving all but two times in 2009. He struck out Greg Dobbs for one out, allowed a single to Rollins, and got an out when Victorino grounded into a fielder's choice. With two outs and a runner on first, Huston Street threw up all over himself. There is no nicer way to say it. He got scared and fell apart like a little girl.

Facing Utley in a big situation can be intimidating to any closer, particularly when he represents the tying run. But man up. Street threw six pitches to Utley, none of them closer than the outter black, clearly terrified to threw anything that Utley could hit. If you're a closer and you're scared, you're in a world of trouble.

Having not challenged Utley, Street now had to deal with Ryan Howard with the tying run on base, and continued to look scared, throwing away, away, away to Howard. Down 2-1 in the count, Street had no choice but the throw a strike, and Howard banged it off the wall in right, bringing in Victorino and Utley to tie the game. Werth followed with a great piece of bad ball hitting, putting a good swing on a pitch down and away and looping a single to short center that gave the Phils a 5-4 lead.

But with the Phillies bullpen this year, you can't count on anything until 27 outs are recorded. With the pitcher's spot due up followed by the top of the order Charlie Manuel called upon lefty Scott Eyre to start the ninth. Eyre retired two hitters, but allowed two to reach base, brining up Tulowitzki, Colorado's most dangerous hitter. At this point, Manuel went to the mound to bring in his beleagured closer, Brad Lidge. Lidge made no pretense about hit intent, throwing a slider for a called strike one. He then stayed with the slider exclusively, moving the count to 2-2. At 2-2, Lidge went with one more slider, which Tulowitzki realized a bit too late and could not hold up his swing, striking out to end the series.

Jubilation in Philadelphia. Deflation in Denver. This game four showed the resolve of a champion, but also the mettle of a worthy opponent.
Lidge has a long way to go to prove that he's completely back to his old self, but he looks better and saved two of the Phils three wins against the Rockies.

And now the Phillies head to the NLCS to take on the Dodgers for the second straight season. Get ready for another round of intense National League playoff games.

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