Phillies are off and running
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Cole Hamels went a hard seven innings.
That, you saw.
Chase Utley hit the home run that initiated the World Series on a raucous Wednesday night at The Trop.
That, well, was clear.
And Brad Lidge, those were his sliders, the ones we’ve seen all season, that ensured the Phillies would play from ahead for at least two more games.
But there was something more that drove the knowing grins in the Phillies’ clubhouse afterward.
The lights are bright. The stage is ridiculously large. And still there are subtleties that win a game like this, that dress up a series for the games yet to be played.
Third in the National League in stolen bases in the regular season, that aggressive despite their tiny ballpark and muscle-up offense, the Phillies took every part of their game to the Rays in Game 1. They started runners at will. They stole three bases.
They made the young Rays defend on every pitch, made them lean and made them think and made them wonder where all this was coming from.
“We saw some things,” Phillies first base coach Davey Lopes said. “We can put some pressure on teams if they give us something to key off of.”
In the entire NLCS, the Phillies stole two bases. In the division series, they stole five.
But pitchers weren’t tipping their moves to first and second bases in those series. Scott Kazmir was.
So in the second inning, Shane Victorino and Pedro Feliz attempted a double steal, foiled when Carlos Ruiz fouled off a pitch. In the third, Jayson Werth ran on a 1-and-1 pitch to Utley, who two innings earlier had homered, meaning it wasn’t near worth the risk of being thrown out – unless Werth knew he would make it. In all, seven Phillies broke for the next base, the first five against Kazmir.
Utley stole two bases. Werth stole one. They had massive jumps. And while none of them scored, they’d set a tone for a series that apparently will turn on a run here and a run there, just as Game 1 did.
“I don’t want to say too much because we have games left,” Werth said. “I will say with Davey, we’re an aggressive baserunning team.”
It was Lopes who studied the tapes, who conferred with the five Phillies’ scouts who’d eyeballed the Rays for the past week, and saw opportunity. From the stretch, when he’s going to the plate and not to first base, Kazmir takes one look at the runner and then lowers his chin to his chest. That’s when the Phillies went.
“I don’t want to divulge too much,” he said. “But Davey makes us go. He was an excellent baserunner when he played. He’s a Hall of Fame third-base coach.”
Afterward, the Rays admitted they were surprised by how often the Phillies ran. The leads were big. The jumps were impossible to defend. Rays catcher Dioner Navarro threw to bases for the sake of throwing, or didn’t throw at all. Phillies runners at third base potentially served to take away the hard slider or splitter in the dirt, Rays’ pitchers unwilling to risk a wild pitch and further damage in a one-run game.
“It puts all kinds of pressure on the defense,” Werth said. “We’re constantly putting pressure on them that way. Just because we didn’t get anything out of it, in terms of runs, doesn’t mean it was meaningless.”
Indeed, at times it appeared the more experienced Phillies were simply forcing every Ray to field his position, to play the game in every corner. At times it appeared they had reworked their offense, gone small at a time Ryan Howard is not swinging a hot bat.
Either way, it worked. The Phillies scored just enough. They gave the Rays more to think about, more to contend with as the series winds toward a championship.
“We pick our spots,” Lopes said. “I tried not to get them to run just to be running. In the last series, the Dodgers did a good job of slide-stepping and stuff. The opportunities were just not there.”
Asked if the Phillies could run this into Game 2, against James Shields, and then beyond, Lopes shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t seen Shields. I’ll look at that tomorrow. If I can, fine. If not, we won’t. Whatever they give us, we’ll try to take. If not, we have to back off.”
The Phillies had six days between games, six days between real, live pitching. Utley got a fastball – down and in – in the first inning. A ground ball from Ruiz three innings later scored a third run. And Hamels pitched his usual October game, nearly identical to the one that eliminated the Dodgers a week before. Still working toward their offensive rhythm, the Phillies needed more. Kazmir gave it to them.
And in a tight game, there was just enough room for opportunity. In a loud ballpark, you almost could hear a chin drop.
And when it did, the Phillies were gone.