Big blasts put Phillies on the brink of title
When Joe Blanton (!) hit a home run a couple sections over, you knew.
This is happening. It’s really happening. The Phillies are one win from their first World Series championship since 1980.
Blanton’s job in Game 4 was simple enough. Give his team a chance to win and pass the baton to ace Cole Hamels for the first possible title clincher since 1980.
(Do you think Hamels was watching all those balls fly out and wishing his teammates would save a couple for him tonight?)
Blanton did his job from the mound, which was all anyone could reasonably expect.
It was thoroughly unreasonable to expect the soft-bodied righthander—a career American Leaguer until being traded here from Oakland in July—to contribute offensively. In his at-bats with the Phillies, Blanton has looked mostly clueless.
In the sixth inning Sunday night, he looked Ruthless.
As in Babe Ruth.
With reliever Edwin Jackson simply trying to get the automatic third out wearing Blanton’s uniform, Joe the Pitcher became Joe the Slugger. He lofted a dare-we-call-it majestic fly ball toward left-center. Outfielder Carl Crawford, playing appropriately shallow, turned and ran toward the fence as if he’d heard a child call for help. Then he stopped abruptly, joining 49,003 fans and 24 stunned Phillies in wonderment.
Joe Blanton hit a home run.
The how-rare-was-that machine began pumping out factoids: It was the first World Series home run by a pitcher since 1974, when Ken Holtzman hit one for the Oakland A’s (Blanton’s old team). It was the first World Series homer by a Phillies pitcher, although Steve Carlton did hit a three-run bomb against the Dodgers in the 1978 National League Championship Series.
Not only had Blanton never hit a home run before, he’d never even managed an extra-base hit. He’s not a strong candidate for legging out a triple, but it’s not that unusual for a pitcher to drop a ball into the gap for a double. Blanton had exactly two singles in 33 career at-bats before stepping into the box against the now forever-scarred Jackson.
Blanton watched the ball go out with a strange expression on his face. He’d seen this before — indeed, twice on this very night — but he’d always been the guy on the mound.
“I just close my eyes and swing hard in case I make contact,” Blanton said. And when did he open them?
“When I went out and had to throw the first warmup at the start of the next inning,” Blanton said.
The homer completed an eventful night for Blanton.
He pitched superbly, moving the ball around the strike zone and mixing speeds and thoroughly confusing the Rays. He allowed a couple of home runs, which is the risk you run when you throw strikes and challenge hitters. But they were solo home runs because he threw strikes and challenged hitters.
The Rays found Blanton’s stuff so filthy, they thought perhaps the same was true of the baseball. After the second inning, Rays manager Joe Maddon asked plate umpire Tom Hallion to check the ball for foreign substances.
Seems Maddon, like the rest of the world watching on TV, noticed a dark patch on the bill of Blanton’s cap. Oh, and that Blanton seemed to touch his cap frequently. Oh, and that the ball seemed to be moving a bit more than natural.
“It’s nothing sticky,” Blanton said of the smudge. “They rub the baseballs. It’s just dirt from the balls that gets rubbed on my hat. Anyone can come and touch my hat.”
It couldn’t hurt that the Rays thought Blanton must be cheating. With that in their heads, it’s no wonder they struck out seven times in six innings.
After Ryan Madson struck out B.J. Upton to end the seventh and strand the last baserunner allowed by Blanton, the Fox cameras caught Blanton hugging Brett Myers.
You could make a case that Myers is the most valuable player of this Phillies postseason. He has pitched well in his starts. He was a hero at the plate in wins against Milwaukee and the Dodgers. But just as important, he has served as a kind of mentor to both Blanton and Madson—both of whom have been excellent. Now Blanton has even outdone Myers at the plate.
It must be noted: Maddon did not ask Hallion to examine Blanton’s bat.
There was a time you might not be thrilled to hear that Myers was taking guys under his wing. But it seems to be working out just fine this October. Come to think of it, everything is pretty fine this October. The Phillies are one win away from their parade, from your parade.
If Joe Blanton can hit a home run, then anything is possible.
Last updated: 10:37 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012