Phillies confident in 'bulldog' Blanton
Winner of NLDS clincher given task of taming LA in Game 4
LOS ANGELES -- There was nothing preventing Phillies manager Charlie Manuel from mimicking Joe Torre's strategy for Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, and allowing his Game 1 starter to throw again on short rest.
"They're all going to say yes," Torre said of his pitchers -- so why not ask?
Manuel had just one reason: Joe Blanton. Though Torre decided to start a proven playoff commodity, Derek Lowe, on short rest instead of rookie Clayton Kershaw, Manuel will stick with his fourth starter, Blanton -- and for good reason. Coming off a stellar outing in his first career postseason start in the NL Division Series, Blanton has bullied his way into a position of prominence, giving Manuel the luxury of using his pitching staff conservatively.
"It's nice to have confidence that they're going to put me out there," Blanton said. "But I also think it just shows the depth of our team."
It's a depth that Blanton confirmed last week against the Brewers, allowing one run over six innings to lead the Phillies to a Division Series-clinching victory. Blanton has now fired eight straight scoreless innings in the playoffs dating back to 2006, and has won five consecutive decisions dating back to August.
The Phillies would love to see that number tick up to six, considering their situation. Now up 2-1 in this best-of-seven series, they will either retake a commanding lead or fall into a tie with the Dodgers and turn this series into a best-of-three affair.
It's the critical nature of Monday's game that prompted Torre to bypass Kershaw in favor of Lowe, who boasts plenty of experience pitching playoff games on short rest. He did it with the Red Sox, most notably in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS. And whether it's fact or fiction, Torre believes that short rest suits a pitcher of his style better than most.
"If he maybe is a little tired, a sinkerball pitcher is probably the one guy that's not going to feel the effects of it," Torre said.
TALE OF THE TAPE: GAME 4 STARTERS
|2008 REGULAR SEASON|
|Overall||33 GS, 9-12, 4.69 ERA, 66 BB, 111 K||34 GS, 14-11, 3.24 ERA, 45 BB, 147 K|
|Key stat||PHI is 10-4 in his starts (incl. postseason)||2.48 GO/AO ratio (2nd in NL)|
|2008||1 GS, 1-0, 1.50||2 GS, 1-1, 3.18|
|Career||2 G, 1 GS, 1-0, 1.12||20 G, 9 GS, 5-5, 3.32|
|AT DODGER STADIUM|
|2008||1 GS, 0-0, 7.20||17 GS, 9-5, 2.30|
|Career||1 GS, 0-0, 7.20||68 G, 66 GS, 33-23, 3.21|
|AGAINST THIS OPPONENT|
|2008 regular season||2 GS, 0-0, 4.09||1 GS, 1-0, 4.26|
|Career||3 GS, 1-0, 3.32||11 G, 7 GS, 4-1, 3.02, 2 SV|
|Loves to face||Casey Blake, 1-for-21||Ryan Howard, 2-for-16, 0 XBH|
|Hates to face||Manny Ramirez, 14-for-25||Chase Utley, 5-for-14, 3 2B|
|Why he'll win||3-0, 2.63 in last 4 starts w/22 K, 5 BB||Has not allowed more than 2 ER in a start since Aug. 11|
|Pitcher beware||Allowed 11 HR in 76 2/3 IP (incl. playoffs)||5.09 career ERA on 3 days' rest|
|Bottom line||Keep it in the park||Happy at home|
It's a talk that Manuel never had to have, because he said he never considered pitching anybody other than Blanton in Monday's Game 4. Especially given the fact that the Phillies knew they would be leading the series, it seemed foolhardy for Manuel to use his ace, Cole Hamels, on short rest -- even if that meant foregoing a chance to use him again in a potential Game 7.
Instead, he will use Hamels in Game 5 on regular rest, making a Game 4 victory even more critical for the Dodgers. If they lose, they will have to face the Phillies' best pitcher in a potential series-clinching game. But after winning Game 3 in convincing fashion, the Dodgers aren't even considering that thought.
"You win a game and you have that good feeling about yourself," Torre said. "And maybe, hopefully, we've planted a seed of doubt."
It will be Blanton's job to erase that doubt, just as it was following his team's Game 3 loss in the Division Series. Now at Dodger Stadium, Blanton will face a nearly identical situation that he did in Milwaukee, knowing that a loss would even the series at two wins each. And so the Phillies need him to pitch a nearly identical game, which would push them within one victory of the World Series.
"It was definitely his best game because he was very aggressive and he threw strikes and he stayed after the hitters," Manuel said of Blanton's last outing. "He definitely followed his game plan and he was very good."
Striking out seven and walking none, Blanton did it mostly through aggressiveness. That hasn't always been the case for a pitcher that walked 33 over the first 70 2/3 innings of his Phillies tenure, but it had been a trademark of his successful seasons with the Athletics. And it could certainly prove vital against a group of Dodgers that has had striking success off him.
Manny Ramirez, most notably, has produced a .560 average off Blanton in 25 career at-bats, and Andre Ethier has a homer and four hits in eight at-bats. Jeff Kent, who has been relegated to a pinch-hitting role during the postseason, is 5-for-6 off Blanton in his career. Falling behind in counts would not be wise.
"Attacking the zone is always a good thing," Blanton said. "It keeps your pitch count down. It allows you to work ahead in the counts. Any time you're facing a good team, if you fall behind you're going to be in a lot of trouble. So that's a very helpful thing."
And for the Phillies, placing all their momentum on their newest starter's right shoulder, that much will be critical.
"Since he's been here in Philadelphia, I can definitely say that he's gutty and he's kind of a bulldog on the mound," Manuel said. "And I like that part about him."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.