ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The designated hitter, an American League creation, has become a certified disaster for National League teams in the World Series. Chris Coste and Greg Dobbs, manager Charlie Manuel's choices to serve as DH for the Philadelphia Phillies, each stranded five baserunners in the first two games of the 104th World Series.
The inability to deliver in the clutch has become contagious. The Phillies are a staggering one for 28 with runners in scoring position, but rather remarkably escaped Tropicana Field with a split.
The Phillies fell 4-2 Thursday night, their first run coming on an eighth-inning home run by Eric Bruntlett, who was pinch-hitting for Dobbs and had hit just two home runs in 212 at-bats during the regular season. The second came in the ninth and was unearned, the result of an error by Rays rookie third baseman Evan Longoria.
Phillies cleanup batter Ryan Howard, who has struck out four times with runners in scoring position, rolled out to second to end the game against rookie left-hander David Price, who also caught Howard looking at a called third strike with two runners on to end the seventh.
"I don't think anybody's panicking, or anybody's worrying, but we just know we've got to do a better job," Howard said. "I'm not sure exactly what it is – 0 for 20-something with runners in scoring position – but we're 1-1 and going home. Got to look at it as a positive."
When someone pointedly cited the negative to Howard – the four K's – and asked if there was something he needed to change, those standing nearby laughed nervously.
But instead of making reporter ratatouille out of his inquisitor, Howard merely seasoned his answer with sarcasm. "I don't know, maybe make contact, I don't know," he said. "That's kind of a tough question. It's not like I go up there and say, 'Oh, there's a runner in scoring position, I think I'll strike out right now.'
"It's part of the game, and it happens. Like I said, we're oh-fer as a team, so look at it how you'd like to look at it."
Leadoff man Jimmy Rollins, the 2007 National League MVP, went 0 for 5 for the second straight game and has been retired six times with runners on base. Asked if the six-day layoff since the end of the NLCS might be a factor, Rollins shook his head.
"No, no, not at all,'' he said. "Shoot, I was doing this the last series (.143 in the NLCS). I didn't have a layoff. That's the way it is sometimes. Unfortunately, it happens to be right now."
Unfortunately for National League teams, it happens a lot this time of year, especially when forced to recruit part-time bench guys to DH, a role occupied in the American League by some of the game's biggest boppers, such as Boston's David Ortiz.
In the last five World Series before this one, players used as the DH by National League teams have batted a collective .088. Nine different players had at least one at-bat as DH in that span; Chris Duncan of the Cardinals had the only extra-base hit, a double against the Tigers in the 2006 Series, and the only RBI.
In that same span, the DH employed by AL teams is 10 for 36 with four extra-base hits.
The DH was adopted by the AL in 1973, and first used in the Series in 1976. Through the 1985 Series, the DH was used in alternating years, but since 1986 the rule was changed, calling for the DH to be used annually in Series games played in AL parks.
There have been just 14 games in that span in which a National League DH has had as many as two hits in a game. Only twice did a player have three: Kurt Bevacqua of the Padres hit a home run and two singles in Game 2 of the '84 Series against the Tigers; Dan Driessen of the Reds hit a home run, double and single in Game 3 of the 1976 Series against the Yankees.
The last time the Phillies were in the World Series, in 1993, Ricky Jordan and Mariano Duncan combined for three singles in 14 at-bats and did not drive in a run. During interleague play this season, Phillies DHs batted .125.
Before this Series, Manuel hedged about his DH choices before electing to go with Coste against Rays left-hander Scott Kazmir in Game 1. Coste is a great feel-good story who survived 11 years in the minors, including a couple of stints with independent league teams, but he also hit .107 in September and had just one at-bat in the postseason.
Wednesday night, on his first at-bat, he came up with runners on first and second and no outs, and flied out.
His second at-bat: first and second, no outs, a groundout.
Third at-bat, a man on first, no outs, a popup.
It was more of the same Thursday night from Dobbs, who hit .309 in the regular season and set a club record for pinch hits with 22, which also led the majors. Manuel said that he thought about using Dobbs at third and employing Matt Stairs, who hit a big pinch-hit home run to beat the Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLCS, as DH. He decided against it, he said, because he preferred Pedro Feliz's defense at third on artificial turf.
Dobbs came up for the first time with runners on second and third with one out and looked at a called third strike. In the fourth, the Phillies had runners at first and third and one out when Dobbs went down swinging. In the sixth, he blooped a two-out single to center, sending Shane Victorino, who had singled, to third, but Feliz hit into a force play to end that threat.
Manuel wasn't buying the NL-at-a-disadvantage theory. "It's not like they haven't played," said Manuel, whose pitcher, Brett Myers, had four hits during the NL playoffs, matching the number of hits he had in the regular season, but had the bat taken out of his hands here.
"We had more guys on base than they had," Manuel said. "We've had more chances to score than they had, but we just didn't execute and score the runs."
Dobbs, who did a little DHing when he was with the Mariners a couple of years ago, said his failure to hit Thursday had nothing to do with being the DH.
"I had two golden opportunities, and I didn't put the ball in play," he said. "That to me is unacceptable. Not that it would be a total game-changer, but at least you've got to find a way to get those runs in."
The Phillies packed their bags in the Trop, and headed for the buses taking them to the airport. The Series is scheduled to resume Saturday in Philadelphia, weather permitting.
Not only will they be at home, they'll be playing under different house rules.