All they had to do was win Game 4 of the World Series, and they would have a chance to clinch Monday night with their ace, Cole Hamels, on the mound and more than 45,000 supporters at Citizens Bank Park ready to exult in the franchise’s first world championship in 28 years.
But this is Philadelphia, where a layer of nervous anticipation is always floating just beneath any hubris the sporting public might have. The Phillies’ lead in the series had been built largely without the help of the sluggers that usually do the heavy lifting. Pat Burrell entered the game without a hit, and though second baseman Chase Utley had hit two homers in the series, neither one of them had been the kind of cathartic blast Philadelphia fans expect from this lineup.
Most maligned of all might have been first baseman Ryan Howard, who hit a solo homer in Game 3 but was batting .231 in the series, the victim of a precise defensive strategy that loaded the right side of the infield with defenders and reduced him to an occasional contributor. The National League‘s home run champion had just one other extra base hit, and his homer was the only run he had driven in.
With two swings Sunday night, however, Howard assuaged Philadelphia’s playoff paranoia and set the Phillies squarely on course with a championship.
In a long-overdue explosion from the Phillies’ offense, Howard’s two home runs were the bookends and the building blocks for a 10-2 blowout of the Tampa Bay Rays that gave Philadelphia a 3-1 lead in the series and sent them into Monday’s Game 5 with a chance to win their first title since 1980 and the city’s first championship of any kind since 1983.
“To hit two home runs in the World Series, that’s the kind of stuff you dream about when you’re a teenager,” Howard said. “I’ve just been kind of hanging with it and been working.”
His three-run blast off Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine in the fourth inning put the Phillies up by four and helped them break out of a 4-for-43 slump with runners in scoring position. From there, the pressure was off, and the Phillies were free to start bombing away.
They slugged four homers in all, two coming from Howard in a five-RBI night that tied a team World Series record. Jayson Werth preceded Howard’s two-run shot in the eighth inning with a two-run homer of his own. Even starting pitcher Joe Blanton got in on the act, hitting a solo homer to left in the fifth inning to become the 14th pitcher to homer in a World Series and the first since Oakland’s Ken Holtzman in 1974.
Though Tampa Bay hit two homers, giving it an AL-record 25 in the postseason, the Rays’ overanxious offense couldn’t solve Phillies’ starter Joe Blanton, who was mixing four pitches well through six innings. Instead, the Phillies turned the game into a slugfest most predicted Tampa Bay couldn’t afford.
It would have helped if Sonnanstine’s start hadn’t been subpar. Ten of his first 14 pitches were balls. His cut fastball kept missing off the edges of the plate, and when he had to pitch from behind, it cost him.
“I had pretty good command in the bullpen, and then I come out there and I think my ball was moving a little bit too much,” Sonnanstine said. “I just tried to battle through it and do my best with what I went out there with.”
Sonnanstine issued his third walk of the game to Jayson Werth in the fourth. Rays manager Joe Maddon hurried to get left-handed reliever Trever Miller ready to face Howard, but Chase Utley struck out in just three pitches. That left a fading Sonnanstine in to face Howard.
It was an at-bat loaded with chances to become a cautionary tale. And four pitches in, it did.
Sonnanstine threw a curveball right into Howard’s wheelhouse - low and on the inside half of the plate. The shot was pure muscle, leaping off Howard’s bat and landing in the left-field seats - ironically enough, an opposite-field blast from the man who supposedly can’t hit the ball there.
“I don’t care if I would have gone 0-for the entire postseason,” Howard said. “You win that ring, you can say whatever you want. It’s a championship.”
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