Philadelphia needed a couple of unusual plays to take a 2-1 lead over the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series.
Ryan Howard’s breakout game could mean the Phillies are primed for more conventional scoring.
If Howard gets hot, the Phillies won’t need to rely on small ball and Tampa Bay errors to take a commanding lead in this World Series as the teams play Game 4 on Sunday night in Philadelphia.
After a 91-minute rain delay before the first pitch, Philadelphia beat Tampa Bay 5-4 early Sunday in Game 3 as Carlos Ruiz finished off a wild ninth inning with an infield single with the bases loaded.
It took some perseverance—and miscues by the Rays—to help the Phillies regain an edge in their first World Series home game since 1993.
Eric Bruntlett was hit by a pitch leading off the ninth. Tampa Bay reliever Grant Balfour then threw a wild pitch that caromed off the backstop to catcher Dioner Navarro, whose throw to try and get Bruntlett out at second base skipped into center field.
Bruntlett then advanced to third, and the Rays issued two intentional walks. Ruiz followed with a dribbler down the line and third baseman Evan Longoria rushed an underhanded flip home that went over Navarro’s head.
It was a sloppy finish, but Philadelphia has good reason to be hopeful moving forward. Howard, who led the majors with 48 homers and 146 RBIs in the regular season, hadn’t gone deep in 42 postseason at-bats before he drove one out in the sixth that gave the Phillies a 4-1 lead.
“It wasn’t anything mechanical,” Howard said. “It’s just seeing the ball, picking up the pitch and reacting to it. It’s been a slow but steady process.”
The slugger has struggled in the postseason after making a case for NL MVP by batting .352 with 11 homers and a club-record 32 RBIs in September. He was hitting .250 (10-for-40) with three RBIs in 11 postseason contests before Game 3.
A streaky hitter, Howard can carry Philadelphia when he gets hot. He helped the Phillies hit an NL-best 214 homers in the regular season, and they have five against the Rays. Ruiz also connected and Chase Utley hit his second homer of the Series on Saturday.
The Phillies will now face Tampa Bay’s Andy Sonnanstine (13-9, 4.38 ERA). He’s never faced the Phillies, but Sonnanstine has been a reliable arm on a Rays team filled with hard throwers, going 2-0 with a 3.46 ERA in two playoff starts.
“The guy is a winner,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “I’ve talked about him for years. A guy like this comes through the minor league system, or even gets drafted in the first place - a guy like Andy to get drafted in the first place takes excellent scouting as far as I’m concerned. You have to read into the guy’s heart.”
In his last start, the right-hander pitched 7 1-3 sharp innings on Oct. 14 as Tampa Bay took a 3-1 lead in the AL championship series against Boston, winning 13-4. He gave up four runs - three earned - and six hits.
Sonnanstine has allowed three earned runs or less in five of his last six starts overall.
Philadelphia will counter with Joe Blanton (4-0, 4.20), who was acquired in a trade with Oakland in July. Blanton has struggled against Tampa Bay, going 2-3 with a 6.05 ERA in eight starts.
While pitching for the Athletics on May 19, Blanton gave up four runs and six hits in six innings versus the Rays as Oakland lost 7-6 in 13.
But Blanton has been effective during the playoffs, going 1-0 with a 3.27 ERA in two outings. The right-hander hasn’t pitched since Oct. 13, when he allowed three runs and seven hits in five innings as Philadelphia beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 7-5 in Game 4 of the NL championship series.
“Well, mentally you just kind of relax on those days off,” Blanton said. “But physically it’s just, try to keep it as much routine as possible. I’ve thrown a lot of bullpens. I threw a simulated game just one day just to have hitters in there, and that feel of a batter standing in and throwing different pitches to him.”
He’ll face a Tampa Bay team that has not scored more than four runs in any of its last five games, losing three.
Longoria, who was second on the Rays with 27 home runs and 85 RBIs in the regular season, is 0-for-12 through the World Series’ first three games. Longoria struck out twice before he narrowly missed hitting a two-run homer that would have put the Rays ahead 3-2 in the sixth.
The rookie has been stymied by the Phillies after homering six times and driving in 11 in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
He isn’t the only one struggling, however.
Longoria, Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford were 1-for-23 entering Game 3. While Crawford went 2-for-4 on Saturday, Pena struck out twice to finish 0-for-3 with a walk and is 0-for-10 in the World Series.
Still, Tampa Bay continues to be aggressive on the basepaths. B.J. Upton had three of the Rays’ four stolen bases, tying a World Series record.
“I’m just trying to get into scoring position for these guys,” Upton said. “That’s what I’m trying to do, put pressure on the defense and make something happen for the team.”
Upton is the first player to steal three bases in a World Series game since Hall of Famer Lou Brock did it for St. Louis in 1968.