Five Cuts: Phutility in the clutch
The Rays have figured out how to neutralize Ryan Howard in the late innings
The Phillies are 1-for-28 with runners in scoring position in the World Series
Joe Maddon's managerial moves will surprise you at least once a game
1. The Rays have established an obvious late-game strategy for the World Series: Ryan Howard will not take a meaningful at-bat after the sixth inning against a right-handed pitcher. Howard has batted four times in two games from the seventh inning on and in those at-bats faced J.P. Howell, Trever Miller and David Price, all lethalness. The result? Howard is 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, each time leaving runners on.
Oddly, Phils manager Charlie Manuel said this before the game about Howard's ability to hit late in games: "He's had 148 RBIs, 48 home runs. Check his batting averages and run production from the seventh inning on or late in the game and see what you come up with."
Howard has now gone 48 consecutive at-bats without a home run, and in the World Series he has driven in none of the seven runners on base when he has batted. Asked what he might do to change this run of unproductivity, Howard said, "I don't know. Maybe make contact? It's not like I say, 'Hey, there's a runner in scoring position. I think I'll strike out."'
Said hitting coach Milt Thompson, "He's pressing. When you're on the biggest stage you've got to find a way to slow the game down. Get a good pitch to hit and don't miss it."
It would help the Phillies if either Jayson Werth or Pat Burrell could string together decent at-bats. Manuel is playing right into the hands of the Rays by batting lefties Chase Utley and Howard back-to-back, making late-game bullpen moves by Rays manager Joe Maddon too easy. If Manuel puts a right-handed hitter (Werth or Burrell) between the two left-handers, Maddon either risks a left-on-right matchup or runs through his relievers quicker.
2. The story of the World Series thus far is Philadelphia's colossal failure in the clutch: one infield single in 28 at-bats with runners in scoring position. Thompson nailed the Phillies' problem when he observed that his hitters are not looking to use the middle of the field in those at-bats. "When I'm seeing guys pulling the ball past the third base coach, that's not a very good effort," Thompson said.
The Rays won Game 2 precisely because they used the middle of the field three times in run-scoring opportunities: two groundballs to shortstop and a single to center field.
Asked if he felt fortunate to leave St. Petersburg with a split while hitting 1-for-28 in clutch spots, Thompson replied, "Don't you think that's true? You better believe it."
3. Cliff Floyd does not remember ever scoring on a squeeze bunt. But Maddon called for the squeeze on consecutive pitches in the fourth inning (one a suicide squeeze, the second a safety squeeze) with Floyd at third and Jason Bartlett at bat. Bartlett fouled off the first pitch and dropped a beauty of a bunt on the second to send Floyd -- the formerly speedy guy whom reliever Troy Percival dubbed Big Brown during Triple Crown racing season -- home easily.
"I just know with Joe we can do anything at any given time," Floyd said.
It's fun watching a Rays game and trying to think along with Maddon. The man is entirely unconventional and does at least one or two things every game that surprises you. It makes him tough to manage against. Very few managers will put a squeeze play on two pitches in a row. Good for Maddon. He keeps the games fresh in a by-the-book world.
4. Speaking of surprises, Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli played nine innings on Thursday night for the first time since ... well, so long he could not remember. Perhaps it was May of 2007, he said. And Baldelli recorded his first outfield assist since ... well, he couldn't remember that either. If the Phillies' abysmal clutch hitting is the headline of the Series, Baldelli is the feel-good story. Battling mitochondrial disease, in which he tires so easily that he sometimes sits down in the outfield or even atop a base during breaks in the action, Baldelli is inspiring similarly stricken people and helping the Rays win. The United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation is running a Root for Rocco campaign that encourages people with the disease to post online greetings and encouragement.
"If I can do it ...," Baldelli said, "well, I know everyone's situation is different. I can just say [to others], 'Live your life as if you're perfectly OK and have fun.'"
Baldelli had an active game for a guy who hasn't played nine innings in a year and a half. He walked in the second to extend a rally -- on a pitch in which home plate umpire Kerwin Danley went halfway through his hand signal for a strike call before stopping. He was thrown out at home on a bang-bang play -- the second bang was Baldelli crashing into Carlos Ruiz. He helped set up another run by beating out what looked like a sure double play, until second baseman Utley stepped back from second base, toward the outfield, to make his pivot. And he doubled up a foolishly wandering Werth at first base on a short fly to right field.
The Rays' coaches, as they always do, kept checking with Baldelli on his stamina, but the right fielder said each time he was fine to stay in the game.
"It's fun to be out there at the end of the game," Baldelli said. "It's nice to slap everyone five at the end of the game."
You don't have to be a Rays fan to root for Baldelli.
5. This just in: David Price gets nervous. Yes, the kid who saved Game 7 of the ALCS against Boston, earning all kinds of praises about his poise, survived a bout of nerves in his first World Series game. Price did get the final seven outs, including those big outs against Howard, but also was touched for two runs and was throwing 3-4 mph slower against Philadelphia than he did against Boston.
"In the ninth inning I was more nervous than I was coming in to face J.D. Drew with the bases loaded," Price said. "I was very nervous. I guess it was the patch on my arm that says World Series. I wasn't nervous against Boston. That was just different."
Price walked the first batter he faced, Utley, on four pitches, prompting catcher Dioner Navarro to visit him on the mound.
Said Navarro, "Are you going to throw a strike, or what?"
Price laughed and said, "Gee, I hope so."
Said Price afterward, "Now I've been there and done that. It'll be better next time."