ANAHEIM, Calif. – The resistible force met the movable object. A mediocre fastball by an unsteady closer produced a feeble swing by a slumping hitter, and another in this postseason of taut, brow-mopping ballgames was in the books.
Curled up on couches, the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies must have broken into Cheshire cat grins. These New York Yankees are powerful, but not so perfect after all. These Los Angeles Angels are plucky, but they'll undo themselves as often as not.
The only thing more promising to the Phillies than watching Angels closer Brian Fuentes(notes) try to retire Yankees batter Nick Swisher(notes) with the bases loaded and two out in the ninth was watching Swisher try to square up one of Fuentes' eminently hittable offerings.
It was like capping a spectacular meal with stale cake and lukewarm coffee. The 7-6 victory Thursday night that kept the Angels alive in the American League Championship Series and forced a Game 6 on Saturday in New York was rife with heroics. It just didn't end with any.
The Angels scored four runs in their first inning before an out was recorded. John Lackey(notes) dominated until a bad call (yes, another one) unraveled him in the seventh. The Yankees' struggling Mark Teixeira(notes) came through with a big hit, driving in three runs with a double moments after Lackey begrudgingly handed over the ball to the bullpen. The Yankees scored six in the inning, but the Angels roared back with three runs seemingly before fans sat back down after the singing of "God Bless America."
That epic inning deserved a worthy encore. Instead, the game devolved from aggressive to tentative, from players outdoing one another to players desperately trying not to make a final, fatal mistake. The Phillies undoubtedly took notice.
Fuentes entered in the ninth and recorded two quick outs, bringing up Alex Rodriguez(notes). Manager Mike Scioscia has zero confidence in Fuentes' ability to retire the Yankees slugger since their 11th-inning matchup in Game 2 resulted in a home run, so A-Rod was walked intentionally. But rather than attack the left-handed Hideki Matsui(notes), Fuentes picked around the strike zone, walking him. Then he hit Robinson Cano(notes), loading the bases.
Scioscia had already burned through his beleaguered bullpen. He needed relief, and fortunately for the Angels, it was standing in the Yankees' on-deck circle. Swisher approached the plate, dragging along a .107 postseason batting average.
All Fuentes had to do was not walk him. Yet after Swisher beat the first two pitches into the ground foul with off-balance, defensive swings, he nearly did. Ball one was outside and in the dirt. Ball two was high. Ball three was away.
Fuentes had a thought: "I gotta make my pitch."
Swisher had a thought: "Calm down and line it up the middle."
Fuentes made a pitch, an 89-mph fastball that split the plate in half.
"It was the biggest stage and I wanted to come up clutch, but it didn't happen," Swisher said. "I got a fastball to hit. I wanted to be the guy who comes through. If I hit it a half-inch above where I did, it's a line drive."
Fuentes led the major leagues with 48 saves, yet he's become progressively less reliable as the leaves have turned. He created the mess by walking Matsui, hitting Cano and going to a full count on Swisher. He had to throw a big, fat strike and hope for the best.
"I was happy he put that one in play," Fuentes said.
Swisher might have been the only player on three teams disappointed. The Angels were ecstatic that their season wasn't over, although they realize winning two more games at Yankee Stadium is a daunting task. For that very reason, most of the Yankees were upbeat as they hurriedly dressed and scooted to the airport.
Maybe happiest of all, though, were the Phillies. The Angels don't scare them, not with Chone Figgins(notes) unable to reach base, not with that bullpen. The Yankees are scary but not infallible. Young relievers Joba Chamberlain(notes) and Phil Hughes(notes) are proving vulnerable. Manager Joe Girardi is being second-guessed. Swisher and Teixeira have been nearly automatic outs. And if the Yankees need a fourth starter in the World Series behind CC Sabathia(notes), A.J. Burnett(notes) and Andy Pettitte(notes), who would it be?
Two teams with questions will go at it at least once more in the ALCS. The team that had all the answers in the NLCS will relax and enjoy watching. Especially if weaknesses continue to be revealed the way they were by Fuentes and Swisher.
- Nick Swisher