Monday, October 12, 2009

Phils Prevail in Gut Check Game 3

Game Three NLDS-Colorado Rockies Host Philadelphia Phillies

Last night's (and this morning's) pivotal NLDS Game 3 was played in temperatures closer to the "frozen tundra" conditions of NFL lore rather than typical baseball weather. While this is good for chronicling the rich history of the NFL and at least manageable in the game of football, baseball is a game of finesse and even touch that is affected in more subtle ways. With temperatures in the 20's, falling behind early and many tense moments throughout the game, the Phillies stayed focused and persevered to victory in the coldest game in post season history.

The Phillies demonstrated a mental toughness, similar to that displayed in last year's less than optimal World Series weather, to fight through the frigid conditions and tense game situations to prevail 6-5 in Game 3. This is a quality that is often overlooked on a team filled with talented, charismatic players, but once again they proved that this is an important part of their success. Look no further than their remarkable season end runs to win the first two of three consecutive NL East crowns, their World Series play a year ago in the wet and cold, and last night's body of work.

Of course, players have to execute on the field, but surely some of this tough minded approach starts with their manager. Charlie Manuel shrugs off adversity, infuses confidence in his players and refuses to play scared. Once again, he demonstrated that prominently in the way he managed throughout the game. As he has done all series long, he went against conventional wisdom to make some bold moves, following his gut and not worrying about criticism that could come his way. And, importantly, his moves paid off handsomely.

No sooner than a few minutes after the TBS announcers had indicated that the weather conditions would make the long ball difficult, Chase Utley staked the Phillies to 1-0 lead in the first inning with a 400 foot home run to right-center. Unfortunately, starter J.A. Happ struggled all night with his command and quickly encountered trouble in the bottom half of the first. He allowed 4 hits and escaped with only 2 runs being scored when Ryan Spilborghs lined out hard to center.

The Rockies extended the lead to 3-1 when Garret Atkins cracked a two out double in front of the 415 sign in center to score Todd Helton, who had walked. Happ continued to throw a great deal of pitches, and could not seam to get strike calls on the inside corner or low in the zone. Home plate umpire Jerry Meals appeared to have a moving strike zone all night, yet another condition for pitchers and hitters alike to fight through on this bone chilling night.

Besides the solo home run, Rockies pitcher Jason Hammel was cruising until the 4th inning. Shane Victorino lead off with a walk and Utley lined a single to right. Ryan Howard roped a single to right-center, plating one run and sending Utley to third. Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez then showed great discipline to work walks, forcing in the tying run. With the bases loaded and still no outs, Pedro Feliz bounced to Hammel for a home to first double play. Carlos Ruiz picked him up, though, sending a single to left after a tough, 8-pitch at bat to make it 4-3.

With Happ having already thrown 76 pitches and showing no signs of getting locked in, Manuel opted to pinch hit for him after Ruiz in hope of putting some more runs on the board. Joe Blanton took the mound in his place, and surrendered a game tying home run to red hot Carlos Gonzalez.

Ruiz struck again in the 6th, singling up the middle to score Ibanez and give the Phillies a 5-4 lead. The Rockies mounted a rally in the 7th inning when Gonzalez ripped a double to center to lead off the frame. After Dexter Fowler bunted, pitcher Scott Eyre rolled his ankle and fell to the frozen turf, allowing everyone to be safe and sending him to the training room.

At this point, Manuel made the gutsy move of calling on Ryan Madson with the heart of the Rockies order coming up, rather than keep him for a save situation that might never occur if things blew up in the 7th. Madson proceeded to strike out Todd Helton on high heat. After blowing a couple similar pitches past Troy Tulowitzki, he left a cutter in the middle of the plate that was driven to left for a sacrifice fly. Madson then struck out pesky Yorvin Torrealba to end the threat.

The Phillies threatened with one out in the 8th with an Ibanez walk and Feliz double. Rafael Betancourt was able to strike out Ruiz and pinch hitter Matt Stairs, getting the benefit of several strike calls that appeared to be well off the plate.

After Chad Durbin threw an excellent 1-2-3 8th inning, closer Huston Street was called upon to face the Phillies in the 9th. Jimmy Rollins singled to center and Victorino bunted him over to second. Utley then bounced a swinging bunt, bolted from the box and was called safe when a close throw appeared to pull Helton off the bag. Replays appeared to show the ball ticking off Utley's leg, which would have made it a foul ball, but umpires did not see it. Howard then proceeded to jack a sacrifice fly to deep center to give the Phillies a 6-5 lead.

Manuel summoned Brad Lidge to close the pressure packed game. He quickly got Brad Hawpe to ground out, but then walked Gonzalez after fighting back from a 3-0 count and several foul balls on 3-2. Gonzalez stole second before Jason Giambi fouled out. Lidge pitched very carefully to Helton, who hit .325 during the regular season, and eventually walked him. With the crowd looking for a late winning rally like the Rockies have been delivering throughout the second half of the season, Lidge was able to get Tulowitzki to pop out to shallow left to preserve the victory.

It was a tough game in tough conditions, truly the gut check type of game that champions need to win. The Phillies, from Manuel through the entire team finishing with Lidge, they proved up for the challenge. Now its back to Cliff Lee in Game 4 today as they attempt to advance to play the Dodgers in the NLCS.

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