When this World Series started, most experts picked the AL Champion Yankees based on two factors: their relative imperviousness, on both sides of the ball, to the Phillies' lefty hitters and pitchers, and the enormous advantage they had at the back end of the bullpen with super-closer Mariano Rivera contrasted against agonizingly hittable Phillies closer Brad Lidge.
Four games in, the experts are looking pretty good. Yankee starter CC Sabathia and southpaw reliever Damaso Marte weren't quite as dominant over the Phils' lefty bats as Andy Pettitte in Game Three--thanks almost entirely to Chase Utley, who got Sabathia again for an RBI double and solo homer--but he kept Ryan Howard contained and had his way altogether with Raul Ibanez. And Lidge, after getting one strike away from sending the game to the bottom of the ninth tied, melted down yet again to allow three ninth inning runs. Rivera then came on to set down the Phils 1-2-3, and the Yankees drew within one game of the championship. Charlie Manuel, whose poor in-game tactics contributed significantly to the Game Three loss, bears much of the blame again for getting fooled by Lidge's chimerical success against the Rockies and Dodgers. That he had a few minutes of warning signs before the axe fell, and still didn't make the move, is salt in the wound.
To be fair, Manuel's first gut-call move tonight--starting Joe Blanton, idle for the better part of two weeks, rather than Cliff Lee on short rest--worked out far better than I expected it would. After a shaky start to the game with two Yankee runs in the first, Blanton set down 11 in a row and allowed the Phils to tie it up on Utley's first-inning double and a Pedro Feliz RBI single in the fourth. But a leadoff walk to Nick Swisher in the fifth proved costly: Melky Cabrera followed with an infield single, and after Sabathia struck out trying to bunt, Derek Jeter untied the game with a seeing-eye single. Johnny Damon followed with a bloop to score Cabrera, and the Yanks led 4-2. Blanton ultimately left after six solid innings, allowing five hits and two walks and striking out seven.
Utley's solo homer off Sabathia in the 7th--a near dead ringer for the second shot he belted in Yankee Stadium last Wednesday--drew the Phils within a run and chased the large lefty, who was impressive on three days' rest with 6 2/3 innings of seven-hit, three-walk, six strikeout work. Marte followed by retiring Howard, who went 1-4, to end the frame. After Ryan Madson held off the Yankees in the eighth, Joba Chamberlain came out for the bottom of the inning and struck out Jayson Werth and Ibanez, who had an awful night with three Ks among his four hitless at-bats. But Feliz battled back after falling behind, and re-tied the game on a full-count solo home run to left that briefly electrified South Philadelphia.
That brought on Lidge. Admittedly, he fooled me too at first: a popup of pinch-hitter Hideki Matsui and a rousing strikeout of Jeter. But after getting ahead of Damon 1-2, he couldn't close the deal: two balls and several fouls later, the veteran served a single into left. Then disaster struck: Damon took off for second, and with the Phillies infield in a shift for Mark Teixiera, Feliz fielded Carlos Ruiz's throw--and watched helplessly as Damon ran to third.
Now clearly rattled, Lidge hit Teixiera with a pitch, putting runners on the corners for Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez took a strike looking, then smashed a double to left that scored Damon. Jorge Posada followed with the coup de grace, a single to the gap in left-center that scored two more.
Manuel has gone with his gut and his guys--the guys we all love for what they did in 2008. But Cole Hamels faltered last night, and Lidge did tonight. Now the Phillies, needing a comeback that would be little short of miraculous, send their 2009 hero, Cliff Lee, to the mound for Game Five hoping to get one more train trip to New York.