PHILADELPHIA-It was almost time for breakfast when the last of the Phillies‘ players exited the home clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park this morning. Rain delayed the start of Game Three of the World Series on Saturday night until 10:06 p.m. ET, the latest a first pitch has ever been thrown in the history of the Fall Classic. When the game ended with the Rays playing a prevent defense and the Phillies finally getting their first big hit with runners in scoring position in the series (if you can classify a hit that traveled no more than 50 feet as big), it was 1:47 a.m., 13 minutes before last call in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
While the Phillies didn’t make it in time for a celebratory libation in any Broad Street establishments after their 5-4 victory over the Rays put them ahead 2-1 in the series, that was OK-they had battled the Rays into the wee hours and won, which was enough. “It’s late, real late,” Phillies utility player Eric Bruntlett said with a smile as he stood in front of his locker, still in full uniform at 2:20 a.m. “The thing is, you’re not looking at the clock when you’re out there playing. You know it’s late, but you don’t worry about it. The adrenaline is flowing, and you don’t get tired like you would be if you were just sitting at home and watching television until way past midnight. It’s the World Series and you’ll play all night if you have to.”
The Phillies and Rays didn’t have to play all night, but it seemed like the game might go on until dawn when the Rays tied the score at 4-4 in the eighth inning when B.J. Upton singled, stole both second and third, and then scampered home on catcher Carlos Ruiz‘s throwing error. “I felt terrible” Ruiz said. “I was hoping I would have a chance to make up for it.” Ruiz did make up for it in the bottom of the ninth, when his bases-loaded single with none out off of Grant Balfour drove in the winning run and capped a half-inning filled with managerial machinations.
Left-hander J.P. Howell put the Rays in immediate trouble when he pelted the light-hitting Bruntlett with a pitch to begin the ninth inning. Manager Charlie Manuel had inserted Bruntlett into the game in the top of the seventh to replace iron-gloved left fielder Pat Burrell, after consecutive home runs to start the sixth by Chase Utley and Ryan Howard off of Rays starter Matt Garza had given the Phillies a seemingly safe 4-1 lead. The Rays had other ideas though, and drew within 4-3 on consecutive run-scoring ground outs by Gabe Gross and Jason Bartlett in the seventh, before Upton used his legs in the eighth to tie the game. Bruntlett was then thrust into his game-shaping at-bat, despite hitting just .217/.297/.297 with a .217 EqA in 238 regular-season plate appearances.
Rays manager Joe Maddon called on Balfour, the hard-throwing right-hander, to face Shane Victorino. Balfour uncorked a wild pitch as Victorino squared to bunt, and the ball rebounded off of the brick facing behind home plate to catcher Dioner Navarro, who threw wide to the first-base side of second, allowing Bruntlett to advance to third on the error. Maddon then summoned his entire infield to the mound for a lengthy conversation, signaling for right fielder Ben Zobrist to join in. Zobrist, normally a shortstop, switched from his outfielder’s glove to his infielder’s glove as Maddon stationed him one step to the right of the second-base bag for a five-man infield alignment. Howard, the Phillies’ hulking first baseman, thought for a moment that the Atlanta Falcons were holding a walkthrough in preparation for their game with the Eagles this afternoon across the parking lot at Lincoln Financial Field. “I thought they were coming with a blitz there,” Howard cracked.
Maddon decided to have his linebackers and safeties stay at home, though, and instead intentionally walked both Victorino and Greg Dobbs (pinch-hitting for third baseman Pedro Feliz) to load the bases. That brought up Ruiz, who hit a little dribbler down the third-base line. Third baseman Evan Longoria barehanded the ball and made a wild underhanded flip toward home plate that Navarro had no chance of catching as Bruntlett slid home with the winning run. “That’s a really tough play for a third baseman to make, and I knew Longoria was going to have to make a perfect throw,” Bruntlett said. “I saw the ball sail over my head, I heard the crowd go crazy, and I figured something good happened. It was a great feeling.” Bruntlett then smiled and admitted this wasn’t exactly the Fall Classic hero’s scenario that had played over and over in his mind through the years. “When you’re a kid playing in the back yard, you’re always pretending that you’re getting the winning hit or scoring the winning run or making the game-saving catch in the World Series,” Bruntlett said. “You don’t exactly dream of scoring the winning run on a nubber up the third-base line, but that’s OK, I’ll take it. It was still a thrill, certainly one of the biggest thrills of my lifetime.”
Ruiz, whose solo home run in the second inning snapped a 1-1 tie, was thrilled as well, particularly since it looked as if he was going to end up being the goat after Upton ran wild on him. “All I’m thinking there is I want to make contact,” Ruiz said. “I felt if I could just put the bat on the ball that something good would happen. It wasn’t the best hit I ever had, but it got the job done. To get the game-winning hit in a World Series game is something you only dream of. I’ll remember this night for the rest of my life.”
It was easy to second-guess Maddon’s strategy; Balfour is not a ground-ball pitcher, but the Rays’ manager felt that cutting down the winning run at the plate with the bases loaded was more realistic than having Balfour try to strike his way out of the inning with a man on third and none out. “You have to take your chances right there,” Maddon said. “We’ve talked about it, we’ve worked on it. With Zobrist being in the game, we had a legitimate [fifth] infielder there. We got the ground ball. If it’s hit in a firmer manner, we’re in pretty good shape there. It’s just unfortunate the way it came out.”
It was quite fortunate for Ruiz however, who had been much maligned while hitting .202/.303/.269 in the first half of the season, and booed mercilessly by Phillies fans who wanted backup Chris Coste to see more playing time behind the plate. Manuel, though, stuck with Ruiz, and that move is paying off in the World Series as he has gone 4-for-5 with two walks in the last two games. “Ruiz has always been a good defensive catcher, and he throws well,” Manuel said. “He was having trouble with his hitting. Coste was definitely hot at times on offense, but we started winning games with Ruiz in the lineup and that’s why I stuck with him. I’ve always had faith in him. I’ve always had confidence in him. If you follow the way I manage, I always go back and give the guy a chance. I don’t give up on a guy as long as he doesn’t give up on himself.”
Ruiz’s hit was just the Phillies’ second in 32 at-bats with runners in scoring position in this series. It was also the first that drove in a run. The Phillies now have the upper hand and have put themselves in position to capture just their second championship in the franchise’s 126-year history (the other coming in 1980) if they can win the next two games at home, with Game Four set for tonight with Joe Blanton pitching for the Phillies against Andy Sonnanstine. “We got breaks there in the end, and we capitalized on them,” Manuel said. “It might have took a little squib roller down the third-base line, but at the same time, it’s better to be lucky sometimes than to be good.”
Neither team has been exceptionally good in this series, though all three games have been intriguing and competitive, decided by two runs or less. “So far, it’s been a good series,” Manuel said. “We’re up 2-1 and actually we could be up 3-0, or Tampa Bay could be up 3-0. The games have been close and there have been chances for both teams to win all the games. So far, it’s been an outstanding series, and we feel glad to be ahead.”
Even if the Phillies had to stay up long past their bedtime to gain that advantage in the wee hours, hardly anyone in the crowd of 45,900 left early in this first World Series game to be played in the City of Brotherly Love in 15 years. “We knew going in what the weather was going to be,” Howard said. “A day like today is not an easy day to try to be up for a game, well, at least not in the regular season. But this is the World Series, and everybody was ready to go. We knew we were going to wait it out and go out and play the game. We would have played any time they wanted us to play.”