Originally published on October 27, 2008
THEY GREW UP in places like California, and Illinois, and Florida, far from the bright lights and cool autumn breezes of a place like Philadelphia. They made their way to the majors through various outposts, some on the fast track, some on a path more circuitious. For the better part of their lives, they have existed outside the limits of a city starving for a professional sports title; perhaps aware, yet certainly isolated from the task with which they now find themselves charged.
Twenty-five men, one manager, and a coaching staff, all cobbled together from the various nooks and crannies of the country.
On a perfect autumn night, with the sky-scraping buildings shimmering in the background, they took one more step toward completing their own chapter in the history of one of America's oldest cities.
"This city's been good all year, and it's been a long time for them,'' rightfielder and Illinois native Jayson Werth said in the wake of the Phillies' 10-2 romp over the Rays in Game 4 of the World Series. "Hopefully, we can give them what they want.''
They took the next step in front of a packed crowd of 45,903, riding the right arm of Joe Blanton and the explosive bats of a rejuvenated lineup to their most lop-sided win of the postseason.
They now lead this best-of-seven World Series, three games to one, bringing themselves one win from their first title since 1980, and Philadelphia's first major sports championship in 25 years.
They did it the way they've done it all season: through hell or high water.
In the first three games of the series, the Phillies managed just two hits in 33 at-bats with runners in scoring position, escaping with victories thanks to a stellar effort from their ace lefthander in Game 1 and a weak chopper to third by their catcher in Game 3. They squandered leads, made baserunning blunders, watched their MVP shortstop go hitless in his first 10 at-bats.
But last night, all that changed. Against a young, overmatched righthander and a young, inexperienced lineup, the Phillies made their strongest argument yet that they are, indeed, the world's best team.
They outperformed the Rays on all levels - in the field, at the plate, and on the mound.
But most importantly, they made things happen, regardless of the circumstances. They reached base twice on errors. Jimmy Rollins kept the Phillies in position to take a 1-0 lead in the first inning by diving under the arm of third baseman Evan Longoria to escape a rundown. Blanton complemented his six solid innings on the mound by becoming the first pitcher since 1974 to hit a home run in the World Series.
"We have had chances like this in the past and we weren't able to [capitalize],'' said Rollins, who now has five hits in his last two games after starting the series 0-for-10. "But the characters, the players we have, everybody looking to do something, not relying on one guy being a hero - good things can happen, and that's what we're having.''
Champions don't always do it pretty, but they do it, and if the Phillies do indeed seize the opportunity they currently hold, if they do close out the series tonight with ace Cole Hamels on the mound, or Wednesday or Thursday at Tropicana, this likely will be their lasting image.
Just 4 days ago, questions about Ryan Howard's longest homerless drought of the season prompted his manager to come to his passionate defense.
"Take him for granted and start throwing to him,'' Charlie Manuel said. "See what happens.''
What happened last night was two home runs, the biggest of which was a three-run shot with one out in the fourth inning that gave the Phillies a 5-1 lead.
"Charlie is a player's manager,'' said Howard, who finished 3-for-4 and tied Milt Thompson's club record with five RBI. "To know that he has confidence in me, I think that breeds more confidence. You just want to go out there and just play hard and try to prove him right.''
In their first two wins of the series, the Phillies mustered just enough in one facet of the game - the mound, the plate, the clutch - to emerge victorious. Last night, all of it came together.
Their lineup rapped out 12 hits and four home runs: Rollins finished 3-for-5 with three runs; Werth hit a two-run home run in the eighth; Feliz finished 2-for-4.
Their bullpen pitched three scoreless innings, with righthander Ryan Madson striking out three of the four batters he faced in the seventh and eighth innings.
But most impressive was the performance of Blanton, the soft-spoken Kentucky native who joined the team just after the All-Star break in a trade with the Athletics. For the third consecutive start this postseason, the Phillies won when he took the mound. He established his fastball early, putting the Rays' young hitters into early holes, then finishing them off with a chilling cool. He pitched six innings, struck out seven, and allowed his only two runs on solo home runs by Carl Crawford and Eric Hinske.
Now, thanks to his arm, and his bat, and the opportunity he gave his teammates to excel, the Phillies are standing on the doorstep of history, their fingers on the bell.
"It's definitely not over until it's over,'' said Blanton, who is now 2-0 with a 3.18 ERA in three postseason starts.
"When you are facing a team like this, anything can happen if you let down your guard. I think the rest of the guys know that.''
Never before has a Phillies team led a World Series three games to one (the 1980 team, still the only champions in the franchise's history, split its first four games).
Forty-two times in World Series history has a team taken a 3-1 lead. Thirty-six times, they have gone on to win.
It is too early to label the Phillies champions.
But as the last of the players slipped into the dugout last night, you got the feeling that maybe, just maybe, this will be the year. *