Alex Rodriguez was right in the middle of another stirring postseason inning for the Yankees. A-Rod had an opportunity for the biggest hit of his career and it seemed more of a possibility due to Johnny Damon’s instincts on the bases.
It was a defining moment when Damon stole second, saw nobody was covering third and swiped that bag in the top of the ninth. It might have altered the pitch selection of Phillies’ closer Brad Lidge and when Damon scored on Rodriguez’s double, the Yankees took the lead and scored two more runs in a 7-4 victory that put them on the brink of their 27th World Championship.
Their initial attempt at a first championship since 2000 will be tonight as A.J. Burnett pitches on three days rest against Cliff Lee. The rally ensured that Burnett will be pitching an elimination game as opposed to the pressure of not letting the Phillies take a three games to two lead.
The Yankees were one out away from Phil Coke entering a tie game in a ballpark that already had been rejuvenated by Pedro Feliz’s two-out solo home run off Joba Chamberlain in the eighth. They were one strike away from that prospect but Damon refused to give in and on the fifth consecutive fastball from Lidge, he punched it into left field.
“The whole key of that whole inning was an unbelievable tenacious at-bat by Johnny Damon,” Rodriguez said. “This guy is just a great competitor, and then goes first pitch and then goes to third. (He) put us in a position to get a big hit there in the ninth.”
There was more to come.
Lidge went back to his slider but the first one to Mark Teixeira hit the dirt and gave Damon plenty of time to steal second. The Phillies had completely overshifted Teixeira, Feliz was nowhere near third and following a split second, Damon sprinted towards the unoccupied bag.
Third base coach Rob Thomson said it was all instinctive and Damon said that he had to see how Feliz caught the ball and that he expected Lidge to alter his pitch selection.
“It worked out because I felt like being on third base, it possibly takes away a slider – a tough slider in the dirt that I may be able to score on,” Damon said. “Alex got two fastballs and it did work out for us.”
“That’s instinct,” manager Joe Girardi said. “You’d better be sure because you’ve got Tex and A-Rod up behind and I thought it was a great instinctual play by Johnny Damon.”
The fastball also directed the inning towards Rodriguez when Lidge plunked Teixeira and two pitches later, a belt-high fastball was one-hopped off the left field wall. for a two-base hit that scored Damon.
It was Rodriguez’s 15th postseason RBI, tying him for the team record with Bernie Williams (1996) and Scott Brosius (1998). It also marked the seventh RBI that tied a game or was the deciding run.
“I have never had a bigger hit,” Rodriguez said after his second hit of the series.
Rodriguez’s hit might have been an insurance run had Chamberlain been able to put Feliz away. He was one strike away and already struck out Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez on pitches out of the strike zone but wound up the winning pitcher thanks to Damon’s instincts and Rodriguez’s clutch hitting.
If this had been a few nights ago, the game might have remained tied or the Phillies would have won in the ninth. But getting plunked twice in Game 3 apparently woke up Rodriguez after he struck out six times in the first two games.
“I will say this: that the one time I got hit in yesterday’s game, my first at-bat, kind of woke me up a little bit and just reminded me, “Hey, this is the World Series, let’s get it going a little bit,” Rodriguez said. “So it worked out.”
Pitching CC Sabathia on three days rest for the second time this postseason also worked out somewhat. On the same mound where he made his final pitch for the Brewers in 2008, Sabathia survived through 6 2/3 innings and allowed three earned runs and seven hits.
Sabathia never pitched from behind after the Yankees scored twice in the first off Joe Blanton but there were times when it could have quickly evaporated. It almost did in the fifth when the Yankees had built a 4-2 lead.
The left-hander gave up a single to Jimmy Rollins and walked Shane Victorino, giving the Phillies three opportunities to take the lead with one swing. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard popped out to Derek Jeter on off-speed pitches and Werth struck out swinging on a changeup.
Utley hit his third two-strike home run off Sabathia in the seventh and Damaso Marte pushed the Yankees away from the brink of disaster by retiring Howard. It was only a preview of future events for the Yankees, who consistently seem to come off the canvas.
“I’ve said all along, I’ve felt this club has been extremely resilient all year,” Girardi said.
WORLD SERIES BRIEFS:
When Rodriguez was plunked for the third time, both teams were warned by plate umpire Mike Everitt. Microphones picked up A-Rod saying, “It’s the third time, it’s a little obvious.”
Sabathia said that he was unaffected by the warning.
Replays showed that Howard never touched the plate when he knocked the ball out of Jorge Posada’s glove in the while scoring on Feliz’s single in the fourth.
Girardi said that he was unsure of what happened due to his vantage point in the dugout.
“I had actually heard about it later, but that’s just tough for me to see,” Girardi said. “I can’t tell, and I don’t have replay, and I’m not sitting up above high where I can see it. Whether he did or not, I still don’t really know for sure.”
Melky Cabrera left the game with a slight left hamstring strain following a sixth-inning groundout.