October 29, 2008

Because the Night Belongs to Us

They stole our perfect night.

Who is "they"? Major League Baseball. Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria. Bud Selig ("they" doesn't have to be plural). Mother Nature (or, a physical being of any sort).

They is everyone. They is no one. It doesn't matter.

The point is, the Philadelphia Phillies had a clinching game, in Citizens Bank Park, with Cole Hamels on the mound. And they didn't win.

The celebration, the euphoria, the game itself, were put on hold. It was going to be the greatest moment in recent Philadelphia sports history, and now it's just the punchline of what Peter Gammons has correctly dubbed "the worst World Series ever".

But it can be redeemed. They plan to play baseball tonight. We have 12 outs, they have nine. We have the best bullpen in baseball, and theirs is merely acceptable. They do have "Superstar" David Price, but something tells me that if he offers up a repeat of his "otherworldly" 2.33-inning, two-run performance that earned so much unwarranted praise in Game Two, the city of Philadelphia will be on fire (in a good way) by 10 PM.

There is no reason to assume that the momentum has swung towards Tampa Bay. While the Phillies failed to capitalize on many, many more opportunities in Game 5 Part 1, it took some extreme effort, luck and talent just for the Rays to tie in the game in the half-inning-that-should-never-have-been-played. The Phillies may have lost Cole Hamels and the lead, but they haven't forgotten that they're still the better team, that they still have four more offensive go-arounds to win it all in front of their home fans.

While Joe Buck and Tim McCarver sobbed about the Rays' poor fortune in being "forced" into playing those three outs that could end up saving their season, the Phillies waited, then steamed, then recalibrated themselves. No one has ever played a World Series Game, Part Two like the one that is coming up tonight, but in my opinion, it's going to be fitting, it's going to end up being the final bit of purgatory that Philadelphia fans have to suffer through before making it to the promised land.

I'm not nervous about tonight. I'm anxious. As per ESPN.com, the Phillies have been in a tie game, batting at home, 11 times this year. They've won 7 of those games. The odds are in our favor, and while the Rays claim to "love" being the underdog, someone should remind them that the house always wins. As Brad Pitt says in Ocean's Eleven, "You play long enough, never change the stakes, the house takes you." The stakes are the same. One more game to the World Series, and this house, Citizens Bank Park, is going to be as ready as ever.

And that other part of the quote? The part that goes, "Unless, when that perfect hand comes along, you bet big, and then you take the house." Well, the Rays got nothing big left to bet. Their wad has been shot. They're on their heels, because they have nine outs left, and we have 12. Play ball.

October 27, 2008

All I Want

Back when the Philadelphia Eagles were a perennial NFC powerhouse, I remember telling anyone who'd listen that I'd prefer a Philadelphia Phillies World Series over an Eagles Super Bowl. Most people disagreed, but I cited the intensity and importance of every pitch, the epic-ness of a possible seven-game series and the camaraderie built up between a team and its fan base over a 162-game season.

Well, we're here, and it's just as good as I thought it would be.

With Cole Hamels taking the mound for a possible Series-clincher in less than five hours, a lot of thoughts are running through my head. Mostly, though, I'm just happy for Philadelphia. I haven't been home for a second of the run, unfortunately, but everything I hear indicates that the hunt for Red October has enveloped every inch of the city. The City of Brotherly Love is a cauldron of sports nuts who've been steaming for a championship for more than two decades, and this team, this collection of cast-offs and superstars, plug-ins and ace pitchers, has endeared themselves to the town better than anyone would have thought.

Maybe because they're not perfect, either. Hell, about two months ago, they looked like they'd barely make the playoffs. However, I think that's the beauty behind it all. This team didn't look good on paper, and they didn't execute the way championship teams were supposed to execute, and they were streaky as all hell. But they had solid pitching and a marvelous bullpen, and they never gave up, and they were as tenacious a team as you'll find. They were an amazing combination of steadiness and erraticness, frustration and passion, and they found themselves in the perfect situation to make a serious run. And they took it, which, for all their flaws, is the one trait Philadelphia has longed for in their teams. The ability to be in the right place at the right time, to snatch the glory when someone else leaves it hanging. We've had talented teams since 1983, but no one with the ability to do that. Maybe this is the one.

There's no guarantees tonight; if the Rays have any semblance of pride, they won't go down without a fight. But the hope is that Cole Hamels doesn't give them an option, that he shows everyone why he's arguably the most important, if not the best, pitcher in baseball. Or at least the big-gamer we all hoped he'd become. He's 24 years old, he's in his first World Series, and he didn't grow up with the weight of a city on his back. While we were pining, he was out surfing. He's got ice water in his veins, and if the past is prologue like people say, tonight he's going to remind us all why we watch sports. Go Phillies.

October 14, 2008

Phuck Yeah

Greg Dobbs's uncensored post-game profanity says it all.

I hadn't turned the game off, but I'd essentially given up. The momentum seemed to have firmly swung the Dodgers' way, and that depressed me. A 2-2 NLCS series tie was going to erase all the hard work the Phillies had put in back at Citizens Bank Park. "At least we have Cole going on Wednesday," I thought. Leaving behind the HDTV in the living room, I laid quietly on my bed for what I thought were going to be the last few disappointing innings.

Ryan Howard's error in the bottom of the 6th sucked the life out of me, to the point where I didn't even see Chase Utley's (essentially) game-saving double play. Rather than watch how that inning would commence, I took the trash out, a chore that brought me more joy than most of the first seven innings had. Joe Blanton didn't exactly pull a Moyer, but he also didn't offer more than the bare minimum. Missed run-scoring opportunities in the first inning were coming back to haunt the Phillies, and Chad Durbin was already being fitted for a goat costume back in the locker room. To paraphrase Terrell Owens, if it looks like a loss and smells like a loss, well....

But I forgot the cardinal rule of following the Philadelphia Phillies - never lose hope. How many times has this team battled back in the late innings, stealing a game they had no business sticking around in? More times than I can count. That's what happens when you have a bullpen that keeps it close and a bunch of mashers who can drive the ball out in the blink of an eye.

Luckily, I did remember the vice-cardinal rule - keep your TV on. Sure, I might as well have curled up with a pint of Ben & Jerry's and a glass of pinot grigio while sobbing my eyes out, the way I was acting, but I was still watching. I was watching when Ryan Howard singled (finally!) and I was screaming when Shane Victorino took Cory Wade yard. I started thinking inappropriate thoughts when Carlos Ruiz singled, and I went absolutely berserk when Matt Stairs punished that Jonathan Broxton high fastball.

Simply put, I'll never doubt this team again. I'll never doubt what they're capable of, and I especially won't doubt the inescapable thought that this is really something special. Four teams make the Championship Series each year, and two make the World Series, but they don't all do it this way. Their centerfielder doesn't suddenly acquire the power stroke of their monstrous first baseman, their Mendoza-esque catcher doesn't remember how to hit in the nick of time, and their softball-slugger backup outfielder doesn't casually smack the biggest homer of his career (in Phillies postseason history?). This is the stuff that you watch over and over on World Series Champions DVDs. I'm not saying they're producing that particular item just yet, but let's just say they've already got most of the content they'll need.

Now, the Phillies are playing with NLCS house money. They've got three games to close out the Dodgers, one started by their ace and two in the safe confines of Citizens Bank Park. Unfortunately, they'll still be staring down Manny Ramirez, Rafael Furcal and the other pesky Dodgers that have pecked (or bashed) away at them all series. But right now, that doesn't matter. Last night was the kind of win that breaks hearts, even the wacky, child-like heart of Manny's. Teams don't just bounce back from such a devastating turn of events like that.

Of course, if anyone can get them back up again, it's Joe Torre. His biggest problem might be that it's too little, too late. What seemed like a dead-even NLCS a week ago now seems like a treacherous climb up a tall set of Stairs for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

October 2, 2008

Rock and/or Roll

So, Brett Myers wants to be a rock star?

He wants the ball in his hands with the game on the line?

He's got it.

When you go up against C.C. Sabathia, every pitch you make is with the game on the line. The man is a machine - I think he's started 12 times in the last 10 days. People have compared him to Bob Gibson, Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, William Howard Taft, etc., but in this era, there's no comparison. After last night, Cole Hamels is an ace by any and all definitions, but I can't see him even WILLING to string together two consecutive three-day starts. And that's no slight against Cole - he just doesn't have the strength for it. C.C. does.

And he's good. He's a lefty, and he'll almost certainly mow down Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Geoff Jenkins and any other lefties who are unfortunate enough to be matched up against him. Jayson Werth, Pat Burrell and our other "lefty killers" (all of whom are struggling at the same time, joy of joys) might have a prayer. At this point, though, I think most Phillies fans are rooting for C.C.'s arm to legitimately fall off of his body, because if it stays attached, he's going to be trouble.

So it's on Brett. The same way Cole dominated yesterday afternoon, Brett needs to dominate tonight. There's always a few 8-6 slugfests in a postseason run, but this probably won't be one of them. It'll be a pitchers' duel, as long as both men bring the requisite amount of bullets. Brett claims his problems in the last start were mechanical, and that he was able to identify them immediately after the game. Well, he's had almost a week off to confirm those suspicions, and he's had plenty of rest. He should be reloaded, he should be good to go. There's no excuses anymore; we've seen what he CAN do. He CAN match C.C.

And this is his game. The offense sputtered last night, and rationality and statistics (and a large black man) all point towards another sputter tonight. So, for maybe the first time in his career, Brett gets to be a full-game closer. Somehow, he's put the whole "wife-beater" thing behind him, and the fans are ready and willing to embrace him. Win tonight, and we'll put the first-half struggles behind us, too. Doors open at 6 P.M. for the show tonight, Brett. You're the opener AND the main event. Let's see you wail.