World Series is turning on the tiniest events

PHILADELPHIA – By Sunday morning here, the clouds were gone.

The baseball lingered, though.

From the muggy western coast of Florida to the cooling eastern edge of Pennsylvania, the venue changed but the spirit of this World Series did not.

Three games are spent, and the next meaningless at-bat will be the first.

The concluding half innings of each game have seen 12 plate appearances, 11 of them taken with a chance to tie the score or take a lead. Or win a ballgame.

And so we get reliever Tampa Bay Rays reliever Grant Balfour extending his hand to a fallen Evan Longoria, hoisting the third baseman from the infield grass at Citizens Bank Park early Sunday morning after he’d vainly tried to throw out Eric Bruntlett at home plate, just as bars all over town were raising their lights.

We get Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard rolling again into the teeth of a defensive shift in Game 2, wondering when the swing will come, and then having it arrive two nights later.

We get the Rays, one by one by one, swinging over the top of Brad Lidge’s sliders in Game 1, when a single run would grant them life again.

The Phillies lead, two games to one. They play again Sunday night amid the white hankies; the puddles gone, the Rays healing.

The Rays are batting .200. Their on-base percentage is .255. Yet, until now, it was the Phillies who’d had to explain the disappearance of a reliable offense, which has two hits – neither of which left the infield – with runners in scoring position.

They have 10 runs apiece.

And they have another game coming, Joe Blanton against Andy Sonnanstine, the Phillies regaining their power strokes, the Rays pressing their usual game.

So far, they have played to their reputations. They pitch first, and clean up what comes.

Then the Phillies wait on something down and in to Chase Utley, the pitches he’s hit for home runs against Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza. And they wait for Howard to find a ball up in the strike zone, which has been rare, but not absent. They wait for opportunity, and hope they don’t miss, and hope Jimmy Rollins is on base.

And the Rays play their out-there game of extreme shifts and subtle strategies and ear flaps. They are clearly unafraid. They carry their resilience as a more veteran club carries its assuredness. Their manager, Joe Maddon, stood on his home infield just the other day and asked, “Do you believe in ‘Blink?’ ”

Meaning Malcolm Gladwell’s “power of thinking without thinking.” Meaning Cliff Floyd barreling home on a safety squeeze. Meaning rapid cognition, not seat-of-your-pants whim.

“It’s more than intuition,” he said.

He smiled.

“Something doesn’t turn out right,” he said, “everybody assumes it was the wrong thing to do.”

The Phillies lead because a curveball brushed Eric Bruntlett’s leg, and a fastball went to the backstop, and they did not refuse that good fortune. The Rays trail because the Phillies can be equally opportunistic, even if their games sometimes look so dissimilar.

The series is where it is because someone, indeed, had to blink, and someone had to press that advantage.

A few hours before sun-up, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel considered what had transpired in three games, best he could.

“I’d say, what, we’re 2-1 and actually we could have been 3-0 or basically Tampa could have been 3-0,” he said. “The games have been close, and there’s been chances for both teams to win all the games. So far it’s been an outstanding series. We’ve made mistakes mentally and physically, but at the same time I think our pitching has been very good in the series, and it’s been good the whole series, so really, look, we’ve got to come out and win tomorrow like we’re trying to win the series.”

That’s where it stands. Don’t blink.

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Oct 26, 2008