The Los Angeles Dodgers were bombed in the pivotal Game Five of the NLCS by the Chicago Cubs last night, and a former Phillies World Series hero surrendered the key blow.
By this point in the 2016 MLB postseason, fans of the Philadelphia Phillies already know that one of the subplots involves a handful of their former heroes who are now wearing Dodger blue.
Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz and Joe Blanton were all key performers at this time eight years ago as the Fightin’ Phils fought their way to the franchise’ second-ever World Series crown.
All three were eventually traded to the Dodgers. Utley went in August of 2015, and Ruiz this past August.
Blanton took a bit more of a circuitous route to this NLCS appearance. He was dealt by the Phils to the Dodgers back in August of 2012.
Over the next four years, Blanton bounced around four more organizations before signing back with the Dodgers this past January.
Reinvented as a relief pitcher, Blanton proved a revelation on the mound this season, appearing in a career-high 75 games for Los Angeles.
Blanton’s numbers: 2.48 ERA, 1.013 WHIP, just 55 hits allowed over 80 innings pitched with an 80/26 K:BB ratio.
His success as a reliever can actually be traced back to the end of last season, when he spent the final two months with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In Pittsburgh last season, Blanton went 5-0 over 21 games. He allowed 26 hits in 34.1 innings with a 39/9 K:BB ratio in those two months with the Pirates.
Now at age 35, something has clicked with the longtime starting pitcher which has allowed him to translate his mindset and arsenal to that of a true shutdown setup relief pitcher.
All of his bullpen success over these last fourteen months makes what has happened to Blanton in this National League Championship Series all the more unfortunate.
In Game One at Wrigley Field, Blanton came on in the bottom of the 8th inning with the score tied at 3-3.
Instead of holding the score there, giving the Dodgers a chance to steal the opener in the final frame, Blanton was ripped by the Cubs batters.
Ben Zobrist started things with a leadoff double. Blanton then nearly wriggled out of trouble. He retired two of the next three batters, but also loaded the bases with a pair of intentional walks.
With two outs and the bases loaded, Blanton then worked well to get an 0-2 count on Miguel Montero. And then the right-hander delivered two of the most unfortunate pitches of his career.
The first was a slider that slid right over the heart of the plate. Montero didn’t miss it, blasting a no-doubter grand slam deep into the right-center field stands, putting the Cubs up by 7-3.
The very next batter, Dexter Fowler, gets a breaking ball on the first pitch that hung over the plate like it was being served up on a tee.
Fowler deposited that Blanton pitch just over the right field wall, and it was 8-3. Ball game. Cubs take a 1-0 lead in the NLCS, made all the more important when Clayton Kershaw came out and pitched a gem to tie the series the following night.
Flash forward to last night. Series tied at 2-2. Game tied at 1-1. Top of the 6th inning. If the Dodgers can win, they turn to Kershaw again to put the series away. Lose, and they are one away from elimination.
Dave Roberts makes the move to the bullpen at this crucial time, and calls on Blanton. Again, he yields a leadoff hit, this time a single to Javy Baez, who subsequently steals second base.
After striking out Jason Heyward, Blanton faces Addison Russell, getting ahead of him with an 0-1 count.
Blanton then left an 87-mph meatball of a slider right over the heart of the plate. Russell didn’t miss, tattooing the pitch out over the fence for a two-run homer that gave the Cubs a 3-1 lead en route to an 8-4 victory.
Two big, key games. Two big, key moments of failure for Joe Blanton. With as good as he had been for the Dodgers up until those moments, it really is a shame.
It hasn’t been all failures for Blanton in this postseason. He has appeared in five other games for the Dodgers, including four of the five NLDS games against Washington.
Outside of the two NLCS letdowns, he has been nearly perfect, allowing just one hit over six shutout innings.
Unfortunately for Blanton, the nature of sports is that all of the great work he has done over this season with the Dodgers is going to largely be lost to these two pivotal failures, especially if Los Angeles goes on to lose this series.