SportsProf

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Friday, October 03, 2008

At Citizens Bank Park on Thursday Night: Phils Win!

The entire family ventured to Citizens Bank Park last night to watch the Phillies-Brewers game. Parking was no worse than usual, the stadium no more crowded, as the Phillies sold out 50 of their 81 home games this year (and my guess is that they were pretty close to sold out for the other 31). The long lines at Tony Luke's for the roasted pork sandwiches with broccoli rabe and provolone remained, as did the lines at Chickie's and Pete's for their famous crab fries. At Tony Luke's, the line can be 75 deep and it can take you a half hour to get through; at Chickie's and Pete's, perhaps the same, but you can get through in about 15 minutes or less (it is, after all, easier to scoop fries and sprinkle them with Old Bay seasoning than it is to cook a roasted pork sandwich or a cheesesteak).


Anyway, I digress. (My son and I opted for barbecue sandwiches from Bull's Barbecue, named, quite lovingly, after one-time Phillies' leftfielder Greg Luzinski, a home-run hitter built like a linebacker at a young age, a run-stopping DT in his later years, and who field the position with all the grace of Charlie Manuel sprinting out to the field to check on an injured player).


As we walked in, Phillies' employees handed us the white and red Phillies' towels, which we gladly accepted. We then made our way to our seats in left centerfield, a far different vantage point from the one we had during the regular season (down the first-base line). People were excited and nervous, hopeful but skeptical, wanting the elation of victory but, as Philadelphia fans, bracing themselves for the crushing disappointment of defeat.

And there were signs:

1. Brett Myers was godawful in his last two starts.
2. Brad Lidge was starting to resemble Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams.
3. CC Sabathia, the best starter in the NL, was on the hill for the Brewers.

The game did not get off to a great start. Myers was wild, loaded the bases, walked in a run. The top of the first had "big inning" written all over it, but then the Phillies' starter induced Brewers' RF Corey Hart to hit into a 1-2-3 double play to end the inning. Suddenly, the fans emerged from their gloomy silence and erupted at the big play. Sitting in the stands, all of us were hoping that the game wouldn't end before the Phillies got to bat. Our prayers were answered.

The Phillies answered in the bottom of the second. Jayson Werth doubled, and then Pedro Feliz doubled him home. Carlos Ruiz grounded out, Feliz moving to third with two outs. And up came Myers, one of the worst-hitting pitchers in baseball. Sabathia was poised for the kill, quickly gettin the count to 0-2. But then the baseball gods visiting Citizens Bank Park. A combination of fouls and balls got the count to 3-2. By this time the crowd was roaring -- how could Sabathia not put away a guy who looked like Ralph Kramden drunk on Trixie's fruit punch at the plate? Sabathia threw his ninth pitch -- Ball 4. The stadium erupted, fans on their feet.

Brett Myers, you see, was, at the moment, the ultimate baseball player. He worked the count, he extended a must-be-tired pitcher's pitch count, and he worked a walk. Somewhere, Phillies' Hall of Fame centerfielder and former broadcaster Richie Ashburn was smiling.

You know the rest of the story. Unnerved, Sabathia walked Phillies' leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins. Then, he hung a 1-2 slider to CF Shane Victorino, who hit a grand slam. All of a sudden, the Phillies were up 5-1. After 3 2/3, Sabathia would be sent to the showers.

The rest of the game was relatively uneventful. The Brewers got a run back, the Phillies ended up leaving 10 men on base, left 3 men on third as an inning ended, and left the bases loaded twice. To those of us in the stands, the 5-1 lead wasn't enough, and we did worry that leaving the bases loaded twice could come back to haunt the team. But the Brewers seemed deflated, seemed to have too many guys who can hit for double-digit power but who don't walk enough or know the strike zone well enough. They just didn't get it done. 5-2, Phillies.

Brad Lidge revived himself after an iffy outing the night before to get the save, and as Shane Victorino caught the last fly ball to seal the victory, the fans erupted once again. The Phillies are up 2-0 on the Brewers, and in 54 division series, a team down 2-0 has only recovered 7 times to win the series. The odds (as well as the quality of the bullpen) favor the Phillies.

Here are a few observations:

1. Would you have predicted a Phillies victory if you were to be told that Ryan Howard and Chase Utley would combine to strike out 5 times, that the Phillies would strike out 10 times, and that they would leave 10 men on base?

2. Myers was awesome at the plate. In his two at-bats against Sabathia, he forced the portly portsider to throw 19 pitches, almost one-fifth of his total pitch count for the night. Myers' efforts at the plate were awesome, especially for him, and underscore the beauty of baseball -- the little things matter, and great contributions can come from the most unexpected sources. After the game, the media wanted to focus almost solely on his batting, especially his second-inning at-bat. Myers was funny, because at one point he offered, "hey, don't you guys know that I pitched tonight too?" The room laughed.

3. Victorino just beats you, an outfielder in the mold of a David Eckstein. Two doubles, a grand slam, and he's making a great case for a big award in arbitration if the Phillies don't sign him to a long-term deal in the off-season.

4. Charlie Manuel did a fine job, too, swapping Victorino and Jayson Werth in the batting order. Victorino shined hitting second.

5. J.C. Romero was great in the eighth. Ryan Madson got derailed, at least in part by Jimmy Rollins' error, and Romero came in with two out, two on and the tying run at the plate, a guy named Prince Fielder. On the first pitch, Romero broke Fielder's bat as Fielder hit a slow roller to Chase Utley. Inning over. Outstanding job.

6. Brad Lidge looked like the Fireman of the Year last night. A four-batter save, good location, and a great effort.

7. The fans were at the top of their game, from cheering loudly and waving their towels collectively to the guy on the first-base line who caught a foul ball with his hat. We saw it from afar, and it was a nifty grab.

All in all, a great night for the fans and home team at Citizens Bank Park. The collective nerves of the fans will remain, but the faithful left knowing that they have a dangerous team, a team that is clutch, and a team that can pitch. Their hoping now to win this series, get some rest, and then have a hard go as an underdog in the NLCS, where there will be hope for them, as some of the favorites at the beginning of the playoffs -- year in and year out -- emerge as also rans (and the Cubs and even the Angels are in that category right now).

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