MANNY RAMIREZ bounced a ball high and hard down to third. Pedro Feliz took a step back, arched high, then threw off his back foot. The ball came in low at first, and Ryan Howard failed to snap it up.
This began the sixth inning of last night's 5-4 Phillies victory. Another Phillie error, at another inopportune time - at the time, it seemed to signal a sea change from last year's fortunate run, when those throws were dug out or made with precision, when Joe Blanton was a relied-on starter and the roles were so defined, so constant.
That's not this year. Not close.
Joe Blanton went back to work without his best stuff, perhaps rusted from two short outings over the last 17 days, perhaps affected by that unfamiliar relief role he accepted without protest. He got two outs. He gave up two hits. The second knocked in Ramirez with the Dodgers' fourth run.
Blanton got the inning's last out, lifted his cap and rubbed his head, retired to the dugout without pout or infield protest.
"You know, I'm the kind of guy, I'm going to do pretty much whatever it is they ask," he said the other day. "They ask, 'Can you throw out of the bullpen?' I'm not going to say no. I'm not going to be that guy that's going to do that."
Between now and a potential series-ending Game 5 start tomorrow night, someone ought to post Blanton's thoughts on Cole Hamels' mirror. Called "this season, our most consistent pitcher" before last night's game, Blanton was used just twice thispostseason, both times against Colorado. He pitched an inning in one, he threw almost three in another. He kept the Phillies close after J.A. Happ fell apart in Game 3. He kept them close in their 5-4 loss in Game 2 of the NLCS.
He kept them one swing away last night, too, no matter how nasty it got for him at times, no matter how much he battled without his best stuff.
"He's that guy with the mentality and the go-get-'em and the grit and the desire and whatever you want to say," manager Charlie Manuel has said this postseason.
So far in this series we have seen Hamels wave his hands in disgust when the same guy who staked him to a two-run lead in his first World Series start of 2008 threw away a doubleplay ball. We heard grumblings from Randy Wolf about being bypassed for the Dodgers' first three starts of this series. We have watched Ramirez fail to even try to take out the second baseman during another successful doubleplay.
We've quizzed managers and engaged in debates about whose roles can be tinkered with, and whose roles can not. Thirty-seven-year-old Pedro Martinez can only be used as a starter, while the rookie Happ has been used to start, pitch long relief, short relief, even has been used for one batter.
Vicente Padilla should only be used in spacious Dodger Stadium.
He was sent to the bullpen mostly because, like Happ, he was least likely to complain.
He's also that guy who often makes you feel beaten and bloodied when he finally does come out of games, which was the case last night. If playing behind Cliff Lee this postseason is akin to light aerobics, last night was more like mixed martial arts for the Phillies, right to the unlikely ending. Jimmy Rollins' game-winning double came only after Dodgers' closer Jonathan Broxton had troubles of his own, walking nemesis Matt Stairs on four pitches, then hitting Carlos Ruiz with the first pitch he saw. An out later, Rollins squared up a 1-1 fastball into the right-centerfield gap, and a series that looked moments before like a barroom brawl was now suddenly, spectacularly, on the brink of a conclusion.
It could not have happened had Blanton allowed this game to explode on him. As it was, he worked long counts, surrendered scary outs, and staggered through a fourth inning that felt bigger than it ended up being.
The Dodgers sent eight batters to the plate that inning - and scored two runs. He walked two batters, allowed three hits, and left the bases loaded.
When he was replaced by Chan Ho Park to start the seventh, his pitching line read: Six innings pitched, six hits, three earned runs . . . and a big unearned one.
The Phillies made a few errors along the way last year, too. The pitching cleaned it up. Hamels, particularly, showed an incredible resolve to put the team on his back when these things occurred, or at the least, limit the damage.
You'd like to think he got something out of Joe Blanton's approach last night. Beaten and bloodied out there, Blanton nonetheless gave the Phillies 105 pitches and got them to a point where the bullpen guys could be used and not overused, where proper roles could be assigned and executed. He kept them within a swing of a bat. It was just enough.
"That's why I like him," Manuel said. "He keeps his head. And he'll never quit on you out there."
If Hamels can recapture just that mentality tomorrow, the Phillies will, incredibly, find themselves again in the World Series.
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