- The Washington Times - Monday, November 2, 2009

PHILADELPHIA — Forget about the 49 other guys in uniform. This is Alex Rodriguez’s World Series, and everyone else is just a bystander in the long-awaited arrival of baseball’s greatest player on its grandest stage.

The New York Yankees third baseman has been the center of attention since the regular season ended four weeks ago and the postseason began. And after A-Rod came through yet again in a crucial situation Sunday night, the Yankees now find themselves on the cusp of a World Series title.

With a line-drive double to left in the ninth off Philadelphia Phillies closer Brad Lidge, Rodriguez drove in the go-ahead run that paved the way for New York’s 7-4 victory in Game 4.

“There’s no question, I’ve never had a bigger hit,” the controversial star said.

A subsequent two-run single by Jorge Posada only padded the Yankees’ lead and made life easier for Mariano Rivera to finish things off in the bottom of the inning and send a crowd of 46,145 at Citizens Bank Park home disgusted.

Imagine how upset those same fans will be Monday night if the Yankees finish the series off and celebrate their 27th World Series title in the middle of the same diamond that hosted the Phillies’ championship dog pile one year ago.

“We take a lot of pride on being resilient and the way we bounce back,” Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel said. “Tonight is tough. At the same time, we’re down but we’re still breathing.”

If New York clinches in Game 5, surely Rodriguez will be front and center of it all, perhaps the biggest contributor to his team’s first championship in nine years and the first of his otherwise sparkling career. The slugger’s game-winning hit Sunday represented his 15th RBI of the postseason, matching the Yankees’ playoff record.

“He’s the reason why we’re sitting here,” said teammate Johnny Damon, who scored the go-ahead run after swiping two bases on one play earlier in the ninth. “Without him, who knows where our road may have stopped at.”

Rodriguez’s clutch hit came moments after his bullpen blew a 4-3 lead and allowed the Phillies to turn another pedestrian ballgame compelling again.

Clinging to that slim lead in the eighth following a solid-but-not-spectacular effort from ace CC Sabathia on short rest, the Yankees asked Joba Chamberlain to record three outs and get the ball to Rivera. The husky right-hander was downright dominant in striking out Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez on 96 mph high heaters, but he left another of those fastballs just enough over the plate for Pedro Feliz to knock the ball into the left-field bleachers and tie the game.

“Joba was throwing the ball great; I think it’s the best he’s thrown the ball in the bullpen for us thus far,” manager Joe Girardi said. “Then he makes a mistake to Feliz.”

No matter, because the Yankees stormed right back to recapture the lead. After Lidge retired the first two batters he faced in the bottom of the ninth, Damon battled through a nine-pitch at-bat before singling to left. Then he surprised everyone in the park by stealing second and proceeding directly to third upon realizing no Philadelphia infielders were covering the base while shifted around to the right with Mark Teixeira at the plate.

“I’m just glad that when I started running, I still had some of my young legs behind me,” said Damon, who turns 36 Thursday.

Perhaps rattled by the whole situation, Lidge then plunked Teixeira, setting the stage for Rodriguez to drive his double to the left field corner and further distance himself from his past October failures and his connection to performance enhancing drugs.

“I feel more relaxed,” the highest-paid player in baseball history said. “This has been a unique year for me, obviously, after spring training and all the stuff that I’ve been through. For the first time in my career, I’ve felt like an underdog.”

Some three hours before the ninth-inning heroics, Phillies starter Joe Blanton put his team into an immediate hole, allowing two Yankees runs before the game was five minutes old. Derek Jeter singled and Damon doubled, and both wound up scoring on productive outs.

The most intriguing moment of the first inning, though, came when Blanton plunked Rodriguez in the back on a first-pitch fastball. A-Rod, who had already been hit by two pitches the night before, stood at the plate with hands on hips before taking his base. The umpiring crew gathered in the middle of the infield for a brief discussion, after which plate umpire Mike Everitt issued warnings to Blanton and both dugouts.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s intentional,” Girardi said. “But Alex has been hit three times, and [Teixeira] has been hit twice. We need those guys.”

The Phillies weren’t fazed by the intimidating presence of Sabathia on the mound and jumped on the big lefty for a run in the first inning, with Shane Victorino blooping a double to center and Chase Utley (who homered twice off off him in Game 1) coming just short of another blast to right and settling for an RBI double.

Utley finally did get to Sabathia with a seventh-inning solo shot to right, knocking the Yankee starter out of the game and bringing some life back to the crowd.

“I felt good, I felt strong.” Sabathia said. “Sometimes too strong, trying to overthrow and trying to do too much.”

Ultimately, the Phillies were done in by an inability to take advantage of some earlier opportunities against Sabathia and an inability to play tight defense in a game that demanded it.

Utley, in particular, cost his team a run when he inexplicably tried to make a backhanded shovel toss to second on a grounder up the middle despite having plenty of time to make a routine throw and record the force out. Instead, New York’s Nick Swisher was safe at second and moments later safe at home on Jeter’s base hit. Another RBI single from Damon extended the lead to 4-2 and put the Yankees in control to close this game out and put themselves closer to a World Series title.

“I’d lie if I said I wasn’t going to go home and think about it all night,” said A.J. Burnett, who will get the ball for New York. “You dream about it. This is what you talk about growing up. I’m going to do my best to take full advantage of that.”

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