Before Game Three, I was thinking about how we really didn’t know what the story was. The World Series was down to a best-of-five, and given the pitching matchups and home-field situation, essentially in the same place where it had stood Wednesday afternoon. From that point, it’s a matter of waiting; there are storylines in advance of a game like that-will Ryan Howard and Alex Rodriguez contribute, can Cole Hamels pitch well, how will Nick Swisher bounce back from a benching?-but the overall story of the series is on hold until we know who wins the next contest.
Tonight, we have the story. The Phillies, down in a series for the first time since 2007, take the field tonight in what is close to a must-win situation. They do so against CC Sabathia, the big lefthander who has pitched superbly in four postseason outings, including seven innings of two-run ball in Game One. The Phillies won that game in part because their ace, Cliff Lee, was even better, throwing eight shutout innings on his way to a complete game. They won’t have that option tonight, as Charlie Manuel has chosen to not match Joe Girardi by bringing back his best starter on three days’ rest.
This decision is defensible, even with the Phillies down 2-1; Lee has no experience going on short rest, and while I think we make too much of the difficulty of doing so, it’s up to the player and his manager to know the pitcher’s capabilities. It helps Manuel that Blanton is an above-average starter, much better than Girardi’s second option of Chad Gaudin. The Phillies are giving up a little by starting Blanton, and their hope is to get more back by having Lee on regular rest. Manuel was asked about it again this afternoon, and appeared tired of the topic.
“You’re asking Cliff Lee to do something he’s never done before,” said Manuel. “But we’re also asking him to do it in a very big, important place, and that’s in the World Series. I didn’t have to think very long about that.”
Joe Blanton is a notch above an innings guy, almost never missing a start and pitching to an RA a notch above league-average. He’s a flyball pitcher, and since coming to Philadelphia in a trade last July has allowed 40 home runs in 266 innings, about twice the rate at which he’d allowed homers (69 in 790 2/3) as an Athletic. A much improved strikeout rate has enable him to keep his run prevention in about the same place. Blanton has never had much of a platoon split-abit more power allowed to righties-so starting him against the lefty-heavy Yankees isn’t a big deal. As an over-the-top guy who works vertically rather than horizontally, his mistakes tend to come high in the zone rather than on one side of the plate or the other.
Four weeks ago, no one would have given a second though to Joe Blanton starting Game Four of the World Series. It’s only an issue now because of how well Cliff Lee has pitched and the Phillies position in this series. As Steven Goldman so eloquently put it, history dictates that Lee start tonight, but I think the decision is a close one, and I’m willing to give Manuel the benefit of the doubt.
Whoever starts the game for the Phillies is going to need runs, and in fact, it’s the eight guys batting in front of Blanton who should be the focus. With Sabathia pitching, the Phillies can’t expect to get much from Ryan Howard, which means Jimmy Rollins-who after a .297 OBP in the regular season has been in the middle of many of the team’s rallies in October-has to be on base. Jayson Werth, after two homers last night, has to have that kind of night tonight, as he’s the team’s one true lefty-crusher. Chase Utley has to have a good night, to in part make up for Howard’s deficiencies. The Phillies probably have to score four or five runs tonight to win, and they probably can’t do that unless two of those three players get to Sabathia.
There’s no value in trying to predict the outcome of a single baseball game. The story, though, is that for the Phillies to have a reasonably chance of repeating, they have to win tonight with their #3 starter on the mound, against the ace of the best team in baseball, who throws with the arm that shuts down their biggest power bat. The story, is that this series is going to be either a classic or a dud based on what happens in Philadelphia tonight.