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Advantage Phillies and Red Sox

by Matt Smith

Friday night and the early hours of Saturday morning in the U.K. offered two League Championship games that differed in many ways, but not in terms of the amount of excitement they produced.  The Phillies repeated their NLDS start by completing a two-game sweep at Citizens Bank Park, while the Red Sox immediately stopped the Rays’ bid to do the same by edging a close contest at the Trop to take a 1-0 series lead in the ALCS. 

British baseball fans were able to sit down at 21.35 BST and follow game two of the NLCS live.  The opener had been a very crisply played game, lasting just over two and a half hours, as Cole Hamels and Derek Lowe kept runners off the base pads.  Game two didn’t follow suit, but was no less enjoyable as a result.  Both starters struggled somewhat after looking impressive during the first inning.

Chad Billingsley neutralized a two-out walk given up to Chase Utley by striking out Ryan Howard using the tried and tested format of throwing curveball after curveball to the big slugger.  When he followed this up by striking out Burrell and Werth (both on called third strikes) to lead off the second frame, there was no hint of the trouble he was about to find for himself.  The lower part of the Phillies’ batting order came through, allowing the team to score four runs while batting around, a sequence only ended by Howard again being rung up on curveballs.

The Phillies batted around once more in the third, scoring another four runs in the process and knocking Billingsley out of the game after just 2.1 innings.  Chan Ho Park and Joe Beimel belied their ‘reliever’ titles by providing little in the way of relief and although James McDonald pitched well during his 3.1 innings, the damage had already been done.

Like his starting pitcher counterpart, Brett Myers didn’t light up the game with his best form on the mound.  After a three-up, three-down first inning, he laboured over the next few frames.  What looked like a massive 8-2 lead in the top of the fourth was cut in half when Manny Ramirez launched a three-run bomb into the stands, a particularly sweet shot for the Dodgers’ slugger after Myers had thrown a fastball behind him during his first at-bat. 

The Phillies’ starter can be forgiven his mistakes on the mound as he made up for them with an unexpected  offensive outburst at the plate.  Myers drove in three runs while going three for three, each at-bat producing a look of genuine shock on his face and a sea of smiles in the Phillies’ dugout.

L.A. were unable to build on Manny’s blast, partly due to a great catch at the wall by Shane Victorino, and the Phillies took a 2-0 series lead with the 8-5 victory.

The end of the game coincided neatly with the first pitch of the Red Sox-Rays clash.  Boston stopped the run of home-field wins on the back of a strong performance by Daisuke Matsuzaka.  It was almost a typical Dice-K outing except for the fact that he was more economical than has often been the case.  This meant that his 115 pitches gave the Red Sox seven strong innings rather than a little more than five (he pitched less than six complete innings in fourteen of his twenty-nine regular season starts this season).  Okajima, Masterson and Papelbon needed only to pitch two innings between them to complete the job.

The Rays pitchers were equally as impressive.  James Shields gave up just two runs over his 7.1 innings of work, but with the Rays offense unable to get anything going, those two runs proved to be the difference between the two teams. 

Watching it back via the ‘condensed games’ feature on MLB.com, the most notable part of the game was the way in which Matsuzaka completely befuddled several of the Rays’ batters.  Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford and Jason Bartlett all struck out looking, with home plate umpire Tim McClelland’s delayed strike three call adding to the moment (or adding to the frustration for Rays fans).

Game two of the ALCS is scheduled to begin at 01.35 in the early hours of Sunday morning.  Obviously, the Rays will be going all out to make sure they head to Fenway with a split and they have the man on the mound to make it happen in Scott Kazmir.  The Red Sox Nation will be wondering which Josh Beckett will turn up: the dominant postseason force of previous campaigns or the rusty version last seen in the ALDS?  Matsuzaka and Shields have set the bar high, but it could be another great pitching match-up and another low-scoring game.

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