Everyone has seen variations of the double steal. Runners on first and third, the runner from first breaks for second, the catcher throws to second and the runner from third takes off for home and scores. Or runners on first and second and both advance a base on the same pitch.
Then there was Johnny Damon‘s double steal on Sunday night at Citizens Bank Park. This wasn’t just any double steal. It was a one-man double steal. Damon pulled off the mean feat of stealing two bases on one pitch, helping to spark a three-run rally in the ninth inning that gave the Yankees a 7-4 victory over the Phillies in Game Four of the World Series and put them within one victory of their 27th championship.
The Yankees hold a 3-1 series lead and can close it out tonight on the home field of the defending champions when A.J. Burnett starts Game Five against Cliff Lee. “I’m just glad that when I started running I still had some of my young legs behind me,” the 35-year-old Damon said with a smile.
Damon needed not only young legs, but also the experience of a 15-year veteran to steal two bases at once. Damon stepped to the plate with two outs, no one on base and the scored tied at 4-4. He battled Phillies closer Brad Lidge, who had not allowed a run in the postseason, for nine pitches before climbing out of a 0-2 hole to slice a full-count fastball into left field for a single.
“I kept chasing that slider down and I was able to force it to 3-2, and then I kept sitting slider and he kept throwing the fastball,” Damon said. “They really don’t teach you to do it that way. They normally always tell you to look fastball because if you look slider it would be too tough to catch up to a fastball. But I felt his slider made me look silly on a couple of pitches, so I kept sitting slider and just reacting to the fastball. So after the third 3-2 count, he threw three fastballs and fortunately I got enough of it to get it over the shortstop.”
Damon showed some moxie in the batter’s box but it was nothing compared to the instincts he showed on the bases once switch-hitting first baseman Mark Teixeira stepped to the plate. The Phillies, as they have done throughout the series when Teixeira has batted from the left side, employed an infield shift with shortstop Jimmy Rollins positioned on the right side of second base and third baseman Pedro Feliz playing behind the second base bag.
Damon took off on the first pitch to Teixeira and beat catcher Carlos Ruiz‘s throw to second base. However, Damon didn’t stop when he saw third base was uncovered, since Feliz had been forced to take the throw at second because of the shift. Damon coasted into third, as neither Ruiz nor Lidge covered the base.
“Evidently there was some miscommunication there,” perturbed Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. “That’s the first time we’ve had it happen to us this year, but somebody has got to be covering third base. Usually it’s the catcher who tries to get down there.”
One pitch, two steals, and that was all for Lidge, as he fell apart after that. He hit Teixeira with a pitch and Alex Rodriguez followed with a Damon-scoring double to put the Yankees ahead 5-4, and then Jorge Posada singled home another two runs. Mariano Rivera needed just eight pitches to set the Phillies down in order in the bottom of the ninth.
Now the Phillies will need to become the first team since the 1985 Royals to overcome a 3-1 deficit in order to become the first National League team since the 1975-76 Reds to repeat as World Series champions. Furthermore, they would have to win the final two games in New York.
Damon said he had thought about trying the two-steals-at-once trick throughout the season while hitting in the second spot in the Yankees’ order, directly in front of Teixeira, who usually sees the infield shift. However, Damon never felt the timing was quite right until the ninth inning Sunday night.
“I know I still have some decent speed in the tank and I also know Pedro’s speed,” Damon said, referring to the lead-footed Feliz. “I mean, if it was (Angels third baseman) Chone Figgins, that might have been tough. I just went on instinct, and fortunately it worked out.”
Yankees manager Joe Girardi was certainly glad it did. “You’d better be sure you’re going to make it because you’ve got Tex and A-Rod up behind you,” Girardi said. “It was just a great instinctual play by Johnny Damon.”