When most big-league clubs send their number four starting pitcher to the mound, about the best they hope for is that the hurler keeps them in the game and gives the offense a chance to win.
Seldom do they expect a gem, and even more seldom do they either expect or receive any kind of offensive production from that hurler.
Going into the crucial Game 4 of the 2008 World Series, both the Phillies and the Rays decided to go with their fourth starters.
Rays skipper Joe Maddon sent out right-hander Andy Sonnanstine, who looked uncomfortable from the get-go. He was hurt by a bad umpire’s call that allowed the Phillies to take a 1-0 lead in the 1st inning, and continued to struggle mightily before leaving early. Sonnanstine did not give the Rays much of a shot when they desperately needed one.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel sent his fourth starter to the mound as well. But his hurler commanded the game, pitching strongly into the 7th inning. He struck out seven, walked just one, and allowed just five hits and two runs.
Oh, and after allowing a pinch-hit home run in the top of the 5th that cut his lead down to 5-2, that moundsman answered by pounding a homer of his own in the bottom of the inning, becoming the first pitcher to hit a home run in the Fall Classic in 35 years.
Welcome to ‘Joe Blanton Night’ at the World Series.
Way, way back in the final week of March, Blanton started the very first game of the 2008 Major League Baseball season for the Oakland A’s over in Tokyo, Japan.
In a different uniform a half a world away, Blanton may have just pitched what will prove to be the penultimate game of that same long season on the final full weekend of October.
Pat Gillick, on his last go-around as a general manager in a long and distinguished baseball career, pulled the trigger on a trade back in July that rescued Blanton from a struggling small-market Oakland club, plopping him down in the middle of a pennant race with the defending N.L. East champion Phillies.
Blanton immediately began to pay dividends by providing what the Phillies had a hard time finding an extra starter to do: pitch quality innings at the back end of the rotation and give the team a chance every time out.
The Phillies ended up going 5-0 in Blanton’s starts, which were rarely dominating but usually effective. In his final four starts, as the Phillies battled back to overtake the New York Mets and rallied for the second straight year to win the east, Blanton went 3-0 to play a pivotal role.
The big righty pitched 23 innings down the stretch, allowing just 19 hits and eight earned runs, lasting at least five innings in each start.
In short, Blanton did exactly what Gillick traded for him to do: he kept the Phils in games and gave them a chance to win.
Last night, in the biggest start of his 27-year-old life, on the biggest baseball stage that there is, in the hitters haven that is Citizen’s Bank Park, Joe Blanton starred in the game of his life.
From the outset he threw strikes, moved the ball all around the plate, and kept the Rays young hitters off-balance. And then for good measure in the bottom of the 5th he did what he later described as “swing as hard as you can in case you hit it.”
Did he ever swing hard, and did he ever hit it, drilling a line drive no-doubt-about-it laser shot of a home run into the left field stands.
The Rays have also been unfortunate to find that postseason sleeping giant Ryan Howard has finally awoken, and just in time for the Fightin‘ Phils.
After smashing a home run in Game 3, ‘The Big Piece’ blasted two more moon shots last night. His first was a classic Howard opposite-field blast to left, a three-run bomb that gave Blanton some breathing room at 5-1.
Howard’s second blast was a monster drive to right, a two-runner that followed an earlier Jayson Werth two-run homer in the bottom of the 8th inning as the Phillies put the game out of reach and won 10-2.
The Phillies now have a commanding 3-1 lead in the World Series, and will look to win just the second world championship in their 123-year history tonight in front of the home fans with ace Cole Hamels on the hill.
If they do so, it will largely be thanks to the efforts of their somewhat maligned third and fourth starters the past two nights. First came the Game 3 heroics of 45-year-old hometown boy Jamie Moyer. And then last night it was Joe Blanton Night at the World Series. Go Phils!