Thursday, October 22, 2009

Phillies Earn NL Crown, Now Series Bound

Jayson Werth breaks his bat during game three of the NLCS in Philadelphia

This is a team on a mission. They came out swinging in the first inning and didn't relent at anytime, pounding long balls into the October night air energized by 46,000 fans anticipating a celebration. This 2009 Phillies team edition possesses a singular focus- end their season with a trip down Broad Street and stake their place in baseball history. The team took the next step on that quest by defeating the Dodgers to earn their second consecutive National League Championship.

After the team's 2008 magic run to a World Championship that still captivates an entire city, the players, coaches, manager and executives set their collective sights on repeating the same feat that has been rare in Philadelphia sports history. In the marathon that is a major league baseball season, as players bounce from city to city and game to game, the path to that goal can sometimes get blurred. The means to get there remains in the distance and the sense of urgency can be dulled. But, now that the path is clearly within their sights, the Phillies players are passionately launching towards it with intense focus and desire.

Last night, the Phillies quickly shook off Andre Ethier's first inning solo shot in the bottom half of the inning and never looked back. With two outs, Dodgers pitcher Vicente Padilla walked Chase Utley and then did the same with Ryan Howard, appearing to not want to give the red hot slugger anything at all to hit. That proved to be a treacherous tactic as Jayson Werth launched a 3-2 fastball into the right-center field bleachers for a 3-run homer. Knowing they had the Dodgers down after an 11-0 demolition and a heart breaking walk-off win, Werth and the Phillies quickly struck them to the turf again.

Phillies starter Cole Hamels surrendered another solo home run to James Loney leading off the second, but then seemed to settle down to retire 10 of the next 11 hitters. Meanwhile, his teammates continued their assault when Pedro Feliz homered to right-center to start the bottom half of the second frame to give the Phillies a 4-2 lead.

In the 4th inning, Werth smacked a hit to left and Raul Ibanez drove him home with a double between Matt Kemp and Ethier. Facing elimination, Manager Joe Torre elected to pull Padilla, who had dominated the Phillies just five days earlier. Unfortunately for Torre, his relievers struggled with their command, allowing another run via a walk and two hit batters.

When pinch hitter Orlando Hudson launched the Dodgers third solo home run of the evening, and Rafael Furcal followed with a double to left, Charlie Manuel was not taking any chances. He replaced last year's post season hero, Hamels, with J.A. Happ, just two outs away from earning the victory. This move clearly reinforced that the team is all about achieving its goal, and to Hamels' credit, he understood the decision and praised the work of the bullpen after the game. He was also stayed in the dugout and showered after the game.

Phillies hitters continued to pour it on, battering a Dodgers' bullpen that many pundits lauded as their advantage in the series. After the previous game's hero Rollins was hit by a pitch again in the 6th, Victorino drove a ball deep into the left field stands to increase the lead to 8-3. One inning later, Werth crushed a 410 foot homer to center, his second and the team's fourth of the night.

The Dodgers appeared to have the fight for one more run in them and put together a rally in the 8th inning that momentarily silenced the crowd. After Ronnie Belliard and Ethier singled off Chan Ho Park to open the inning, Ryan Madson walked Manny Ramirez. Kemp lined a single to center to plate one run and instill hope in his teammates. Madson pulled it together, though, setting the next 3 hitters down with blazing fastballs and a wicked change-up to escape further trouble.

A Rollins single and another Victorino smash that was touched by a fan a foot below the right-center field fence put them in position to score again with two outs in the 8th, and Rollins later crossed the dish on a wild pitch to make it 10-4. Manuel summoned Brad Lidge to pitch the ninth, who once again looked like the 2008 vintage, putting the Dodgers down 1-2-3.

Fireworks erupted, music blared, fans roared and Phillies players poured onto the field to celebrate. The team took another leap forward towards its goal, once again closing out the Dodgers in the NLCS 4-1 as they did a year ago. Although the Phillies celebrated happily, it was apparent that the team feels that they still have unfinished business and the real celebration awaits on the horizon.

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