Phillies win on rolling thunder
PHILADELPHIA – Eric Bruntlett thought back over those last dozen or so strides, the ones that carried them all a day further into late October and brought delirium again to South Philly, that brought World Series honor to a 30-foot roller.
“It feels like I should be running faster,” he said. “It feels like a long 90 feet at that point.”
Three outs shy of three games, the Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays had played to within those 90 feet of each other. They’d drawn in two cities and whoever else cared to watch. They’d endured distracted umpiring and periodically leaden bats, a 91-minute rain delay and a Game 3 that drifted entirely too near Sunday’s kickoff one stadium over.
It was then that Grant Balfour threw the pitch he believed would strike out Carlos Ruiz. And then that Ruiz swung, believing an entirely functional fly ball would follow. And then that Bruntlett, who’d come into the game to play defense and secure a three-run lead that dissolved anyway, measured his lead from third, not risking a pickoff but still desperate for every inch. He eyed the third baseman, Evan Longoria, and leaned a little more.
The score was tied. The bases were backed up with Phillies. Six Rays crowded Ruiz. A seventh, Dioner Navarro, squatted in his shadow.
What Ruiz swung for was hard contact. What he got instead was just enough contact, just north of center on that fastball, which spun into the wet grass at Citizens Bank Park, bringing Bruntlett and Longoria toward home plate together.
“It kind of feels like it’s all in slow motion,” Bruntlett said.
Only a series of incalculable events had gotten Bruntlett that far. The ninth inning began with Rays left-hander J.P. Howell missing the strike zone with two pitches, looping a curveball for a strike, then looping the next one into Bruntlett’s left hamstring. Balfour took Howell’s place and threw his second pitch off the brick wall behind Navarro. Bruntlett left first base for what he presumed would be an easy 90 feet. Except Navarro had the ball and was throwing toward second.
“I was a little nervous,” Bruntlett said.
Navarro’s throw tailed and rolled into center field. Bruntlett continued to third. Rays manager Joe Maddon had two batters walked intentionally to load the bases and summoned from the outfield Ben Zobrist, who changed to an infielder’s glove and stood between his second baseman and shortstop.
The final six pitches could have been played in an area the size of one of the clubhouses.
So, Ruiz swung. And so, a few seconds later, did the series. The Phillies have two more games at home. Cole Hamels will pitch the second of the two. And if the Rays didn’t think about that at that moment, they surely have by now.
Ruiz looked over his shoulder on the way to first base. Matt Stairs, who would have hit next, rushed to the dirt behind home plate, knowing he’d have to direct Bruntlett left or right. Bruntlett eyed Navarro, looking for a way to the plate, left or right. Longoria reached for the ball and looked for a way around Bruntlett, left or right. Navarro stood as tall as he could, knowing there was no left or right, just Longoria and the ball and Bruntlett, all in a row.
“So,” he said, “I just stood in the middle and waited.”
Bruntlett came. The ball, he knew, would chase him.
“Um, I mean, really just good fortune on their part,” Longoria said. “[Ruiz] couldn’t have picked up that ball and rolled it in a better spot.”
He shoved the ball toward Navarro.
Bruntlett caught a glimpse as it passed over his head, then Navarro’s, then Stairs’.
“As soon as the ball comes out of his hand, I knew,” Stairs said. “It was a great play, a hard flip. He almost makes an unbelievable play.”
Navarro knew he could not leave his feet, could not separate from the plate.
“If I could have caught it, it was going to be a really close play,” he said. “I don’t know.”
A second baseman-turned-catcher long ago, a transition gone well enough that he’s viewed as a defensive catcher, Ruiz stood 15 minutes later before his locker, sweat still beaded on his forehead. He’d homered in the second inning, long before his better-known and more powerful teammates – Chase Utley and Ryan Howard – had pushed the Phillies’ lead to 4-1 with back-to-back home runs in the sixth. They’d almost certainly made a winner of 45-year-old Jamie Moyer, who’d pitched magnificently. They hadn’t even needed a hit with a runner in scoring position – again – not with solo home runs and more solid pitching and just enough defense.
But what a thousand feet of home runs could not achieve, 30 feet of precision and circumstance had.
Ruiz swung hard and let Bruntlett run hard, just enough of both to make the Phillies 5-4 winners, to end a long day in the cool early morning.
“I was thinking about a fly ball to the outfield,” Ruiz said. “It didn’t work.”
Of course it did.
The Phillies had their second hit with a runner in scoring position in the three games. They had their 2-1 Series lead.
He thought for a moment of the ball that left his bat, how it seemed for that moment to not be enough.
“When I turned around, though,” he said, “it was a great moment.”