November 02, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- Alex Rodriguez has turned around his perennial playoff struggles and with one swing of his bat brought the Yankees within 27 outs of their 27th World Series championship -- and his first.

In the top of a tied ninth inning, Johnny Damon blooped a single at the end of a nine-pitch at-bat, and then stole second and third bases on the same play. That set the table for Rodriguez, the 16-year veteran playing in his first World Series, against Phillies closer Brad Lidge with two outs and two on, including the go-ahead run just 90 feet away.

Lidge grooved an inside fastball that Rodriguez pulled into the leftfield corner for a double and the go-ahead RBI. Jorge Posada followed him with a two-run single for the final 7-4 winning margin, which Mariano Rivera nailed down in the bottom of the inning for his 39th career postseason save and fifth this year.

New York now leads three games to one and can clinch in Monday's Game 5 behind starter A.J. Burnett, going on three days' rest, against Phillies ace Cliff Lee.

"I've said all along I've felt this club has been extremely resilient all year," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "We've been through some up-and-down times and our guys have gotten back up and played extremely well."

Earlier in the game the Yankees capitalized on a pair of Chase Utley defensive miscues and survived his continued hot hitting off CC Sabathia. Utley, the Phillies second baseman, homered and doubled in a run, but a slip while setting his feet to throw to first base and an errant flip on a force-out at second helped the Yankees to a couple two-run innings.

Rodriguez was the late-inning hero, adding to his increasing portfolio of playoff heroics. He has now hit six home runs this postseason -- including two tying blasts with the Yankees down to their final outs -- and has driven in 15 runs, tying the franchise record held by Bernie Williams in 1996 and Scott Brosius in 1998. A-Rod entered the postseason having just eight hits in his previous 56 playoff at-bats, with just one home run and one RBI.

"He's the reason why we're sitting here and we're in Philadelphia right now," Damon said. "I felt like without him, who knows where our road may have stopped at. He's the guy who has the RBI numbers, who's been driving us through the playoffs."

After Damon's ninth-inning single, he stole second base, but then, noticing that the Phillies weren't covering third because of the shift on the left-handed Teixeira, Damon took off for third. With the go-ahead run one base away, Lidge may have been more reluctant to throw his darting slider, for fear of a wild pitch. Rodriguez doubled on the second pitch of his at-bat, both of which were fastballs.

"For me the whole key of that whole inning was an unbelievable tenacious at-bat by Johnny Damon," Rodriguez said. "This guy is just a great competitor, and then goes [on the] first pitch and then goes to third. [He] put us in a position to get a big hit there in the ninth."

Girardi's lingering mistrust of his bullpen in front of Rivera nearly did him in. Though Sabathia was pitching on three days' rest, Girardi allowed him to bat in the top of the seventh and pitch the bottom half of the inning, in which Utley homered.

In the eighth, Girardi sent Joba Chamberlain to the mound for the entire inning without using either regular-season set-up stalwart Phil Hughes (who admittedly has struggled in October) or Rivera. Pedro Feliz homered on a 97-mile-per-hour fastball Chamberlain left up in the strike zone.

Second-guessers of Phillies manager Charlie Manuel's decision to start Joe Blanton, rather than Lee on short rest, had a field day early. The game's first batter, Derek Jeter, hit a grounder on which Utley made a diving stop, but he slipped while getting up, allowing Jeter to reach base. Johnny Damon then doubled into the right-field corner, Mark Teixeira drove in a run with a groundout and a visibly frustrated Blanton pegged Rodriguez with a 90-mile-per-hour heater. Posada's sacrifice fly plated Damon, giving the Yankees a 2-0 lead in the first.

Utley at least continued his hot hitting off Sabathia. After walking once and homering twice off the big lefty in Game 1, the Philadelphia second baseman doubled home a run in the bottom of the first. Utley added a solo homer in the seventh, chasing Sabathia from the game.

Pitching on three days' rest for the second time this postseason and fifth time in his career, Sabathia didn't have his best fastball. It reached 93-94 on the radar gun, rather than its usual 96, but he did sustain that velocity into the seventh. He allowed three runs in 6 2/3 innings.

Blanton had never fared well when facing the Yankees, entering Game 4 with a lifetime 0-3 mark and 8.18 ERA against them. He settled down considerably after his horrid first inning, retiring the next 11 batters he faced and striking out five in that stretch, with four of them looking.

Blanton was lifted for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the sixth, having struck out seven but allowing four runs.

"After the first inning when he gave up a couple runs, he did very well," Manuel said.

The second two-run inning he allowed came in the fifth, aided by an Utley fielding gaffe. With a runner on first, Melky Cabrera hit a slow grounder up the middle, which Utley backhanded and tried to flip to second with his glove, but the ball sailed well high of second base. Jeter and Damon followed with RBI singles.

Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, whose first-inning strikeout was his eighth whiff in nine at-bats, looped a soft single into center to lead off the fourth and even stole second base when Sabathia didn't pay attention to him leading off first. He then scored on a Feliz single to left. Damon's throw actually beat him to the plate, but Howard's headfirst tumble dislodged the ball from Posada's glove. Replays appeared to show that Howard never touched the plate, but he was never tagged and the run counted.

Cabrera, who was 1-for-3 with a run, came up lame with a slight left hamstring strain while running out a grounder in the sixth. He exited the game and was replaced by Brett Gardner.

While the Yankees are on the precipice of their first World Series title since 2000, the defending champion Phillies are on the brink of elimination. This is the first series in their last six in which they've trailed at any point.

"Tonight is tough," Manuel said. "We're in the World Series now. But at the same time, we're down, but you know what, we're still breathing."

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