Sunday, October 26, 2008
It can't get any weirder for the Rays, can it?
By Jerry Crasnick ESPN.com
PHILADELPHIA -- Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies, is routinely referred to as "cozy" and "hitter-friendly" by the media. And opposing relievers forced to listen to fans who lean over the bullpen railing and hurl insults probably think of the place as "hostile."
After an exasperating, stunning loss in Game 3 of the World Series, the Tampa Bay Rays' hitters might prefer a different adjective.
The Rays fell behind against soft-tossing lefty Jamie Moyer but fought back behind the legs of Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton to forge a late tie. Yet it all came crashing down in a strange bottom of the ninth, when a swinging bunt by catcher Carlos Ruiz scored Eric Bruntlett to give the Phillies a 5-4 victory, a 2-1 Series lead and reason to go crazy as the stunned Tampa Bay players headed up the stairs to their clubhouse.
Even the serenity-based Rays, who pride themselves on their adherence to manager Joe Maddon's 30-minute rule -- which decrees that they have a half hour to celebrate victories or stew over losses -- seemed a bit taken aback by this one.
"It's just one of those days where the things that they did were right and the baseball gods were on their side," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "It's one of those games where everything goes right for the opposition."
Hey, he should know.
With the score tied at 4 entering the bottom of the ninth, the Phillies squeezed across a run straight out of Bizarro World. Tampa Bay reliever J.P. Howell started things off when he plunked Bruntlett in the thigh with a cut fastball.
Then, Maddon summoned strikeout artist Grant Balfour, who wild-pitched Bruntlett to second base. The ball caromed off the back wall to catcher Dioner Navarro, but his throw sailed to the right of second base and into center field, and Bruntlett easily raced to third to put the Phillies in great shape with nobody out.
Even with time to reflect, Navarro declined to question his decision to make the throw. He just lamented the lack of execution.
"I knew I had a bead on him," Navarro said. "I wouldn't ever second-guess myself there. I think I'm pretty accurate with my throws. Unfortunately, I made a bad throw at the wrong moment."
B.J. Upton went 0-for-3 with a walk, but he did steal three bases.
Two intentional walks and a typically inventive Maddon-conceived five-man infield alignment later, Ruiz hit a chopper to third base, and Longoria was unable to make the play in time to prevent Bruntlett from scoring the winning run. The only question was whether the ball might have rolled foul, and Longoria wasn't willing to take that risk.
"There are so many things running through your mind at that point," Longoria said. "But when it was all said and done, I came in here and thought about it and that was definitely a situation where the ball was going to stay fair. He couldn't have placed it any better.
"Especially in that situation, you can't bank on it going foul. You've got to try and make a play. If I stood there and watched it stay fair, I'd be in a bunch of news columns [on Sunday]. I'm glad I tried."
No one can question the Rays for lack of effort -- or energy. Upton, who spent the first two rounds of the playoffs hitting balls 400 feet, is now summoning his inner Rickey Henderson. In Game 3, he joined Lou Brock, Honus Wagner and Willie Davis as one of four players to steal three bases in a World Series game. Tampa Bay stole four bases on the evening to increase its postseason total to a record-setting 22.
The Rays also have mastered the art of the productive out. They picked up their three runs against Moyer on a Gabe Gross sacrifice fly and a pair of RBI groundouts in the seventh inning. Score one for resourcefulness.
But although Philadelphia's offense received the bulk of the scrutiny in the first two games at Tropicana Field, the Rays suddenly have some issues brewing. Carlos Pena and Longoria, Tampa's 3-4 hitters and principal power sources, are hitless with 10 strikeouts in 22 at-bats in the World Series. And even when they give the ball a ride, fate intervenes.
Longoria crushed a high fly ball to left field against Moyer in the sixth inning, but the wind knocked it down into Pat Burrell's waiting glove at the warning track. The Fox cameras caught Moyer sticking out his tongue on his way off the mound in a classic "Gee, I caught a break" relief shot.
True, Longoria and Pena have played only three World Series games. But time is of the essence here. Ask Alex Rodriguez, Dave Winfield, Barry Bonds and others how quickly futility can become magnified in October.
"We've had some pretty good at-bats, so I wouldn't jump to any conclusions," Pena said. "If anything, we're due. When the stock market is down, they tell you to buy. I have all the trust in the world in this lineup, and that's all that matters."
Trust, faith and optimism are great, but the Rays would just as soon have another win in the bag. The only good thing about Saturday's loss was that the Rays won't have much time to relive it. Because of the lengthy rain delay and three-hour, 41-minute run time, it was after 2 a.m. when they departed the clubhouse for the bus ride back to their hotel.
They can only hope this place treats them more favorably in Game 4 Sunday night. Things certainly can't get any weirder.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.