There are few things that baseball fans love more than a heads-up play that scores or saves a run. A runner on second base recognizing that a pop up is going to fall into No Man’s Land can score the tying run on a batted ball with a .073 xBA. On the other hand, an outfielder that knows he won’t be able to catch a fly ball can deke out the runner in order to keep him from taking an extra base. While these plays don’t always make a difference in the final outcome of the game, sometimes they are the difference between victory and defeat.
In the World Series, these heads-up plays can be the difference between raising the Commissioner’s Trophy and staring longingly at that hunk of metal. One of those plays occurred in the top of the ninth inning of Game 4 in the 2009 World Series, setting the stage for Alex Rodriguez’s heroics ... again.
Game MVPs: Johnny Damon, Alex Rodriguez
Going into the evening, everybody knew that Game 4 of the 2009 World Series had the potential to be a major momentum shifter. Although the Yankees held a 2-1 series lead, it was the first time that postseason that a Yankees starter would be going on three days’ rest due to the team’s decision to roll with a three-man postseason rotation (CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Andy Pettitte). With a win, they would be one game away from a championship and would, at worst, be headed back to the Bronx with a series lead; a loss, however, would not only tie the series, but because Cliff Lee would be lined up against A.J. Burnett in Game 5, it meant that there would be a good chance the series would return to the Bronx on the verge of elimination.
The Yankees jumped out early against Phillies starter Joe Blanton. Derek Jeter led off the game with a single, advanced to third on a Johnny Damon double, and scored on a Mark Teixeira groundout to first base. A Jorge Posada sacrifice fly would plate Damon, giving the Yankees an early 2-0 lead. Philadelphia, however, cut that in half with a pair of doubles in the bottom of the first, and after both sides traded a pair of zeroes, tied it up in the bottom of the fourth on a play in which Sabathia and the Yankees defense showed a low level of awareness.
Ryan Howard led off the inning with a single, then stole second. He proceeded to score when Pedro Feliz singled to left field, as Jorge Posada mishandled the throw from Damon. Howard, however, never touched home, and the home plate umpire only called safe once Sabathia threw the ball to second to try to nail Feliz advancing on the error. The Yankees, however, did not notice, and lost their chance to appeal the play by immediately intentionally walking Carlos Ruiz to bring pitcher Joe Blanton to the plate.
The Yankees offense immediately struck back in the top of the fifth. Nick Swisher walked to start the inning and advanced to second on a Melky Cabrera single; both would come around to score on a pair of singles by Jeter and Damon. But the Phillies would not go away quietly, as Chase Utley homered off Sabathia in the seventh and Feliz off Joba Chamberlain in the eighth to tie it up at four apiece.
As had become commonplace that postseason, the Yankees once again bounced back, this time off Philadelphia closer Brad Lidge. Although Hideki Matsui, pinch hitting for Chamberlain, popped out to short to lead off the inning and Derek Jeter struck out for out number two, Johnny Damon launched a rally with a line-drive single to left after a hard-fought nine-pitch at-bat. Then, with switch-hitter Mark Teixeira batting lefty and the shift on, Damon stole second, slid in easily, stood up, and stole third because nobody was covering the bag.
Lidge immediately lost the strike zone, plunking Teixeira to put runners on first and third with Alex Rodriguez coming to the plate. True to form as he had done many times that October, A-Rod came through in a big spot, ripping an RBI double to left field that allowed Tex to advance to third.
Jorge Posada followed that up with a two-run single of his own to extend the lead to 7-4, and although he would get thrown out at second, it didn’t matter. A three run lead was more than enough for the greatest closer of all-time, as Mariano Rivera sandwiched a Jimmy Rollins pop out to first base between Matt Stairs and Shane Victorino each grounding out to first to bring the Yankees one game away from World Series No. 27.
Obviously, there’s no way of knowing how the game would have gone if Damon had not recognized that the shift on Teixeira left third base open. Even for an aged Damon, second base is within scoring position, and an extra-base hit such as Rodriguez’s double would have scored him easily. But to assume that would be falling into the fallacy of predetermined outcomes. With a speedy runner on third, Brad Lidge spurned his best pitch, the slider, in an effort to avoid a wild pitch. Would the Yankees still have been able to put together a rally, or would he have been able to bunker down and escape without damage? It’s impossible to know.
But you know what I do know? That inning gave the Yankees a 3-1 lead, and while the Phillies would send the series back to the Bronx by knocking A.J. Burnett around, the stage was set for the Yankees to open up the new stadium by bringing the Commissioner’s Trophy back to where it belongs. More on that next time.