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Yankees Beat the Phillies for 2-1 Series Lead

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1 Yankees Beat the Phillies for 2-1 Series Lead on Sun Nov 01, 2009 9:28 am

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PHILADELPHIA – Their eyes play tricks on them in different ways. When Ryan Howard(notes) falls into one of his 20,000-leagues-deep funks, his eyes don’t track the baseball. Even if it’s in the strike zone, he can’t connect. Alex Rodriguez(notes), on the other hand, loses the strike zone altogether, swings in every which direction and prays that wood and cowhide get together on a blind date.

Each sight has been remarkable in a World Series that began with them as baseball’s hottest players and now, three games in, sees each soul searching at the most important time of the year. While A-Rod’s rescue party arrived in the New York Yankees’ 8-5 victory Saturday night that pushed them to a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-seven series and stole home-field advantage back from Philadelphia, Howard’s struggles deepened, and it left the Phillies worried just how long they’ll last.

They are, after all, so very integral to their teams’ success: the cleanup hitters among teammates full of power, the big stars in lineups that look like the Milky Way, the bellwethers of offensive success for teams whose struggles parallel theirs. When A-Rod took a Cole Hamels(notes) fastball, waited back and deposited it off a TV camera overhanging the right-field fence for a replay-supported home run, he had rung his bell. Gone was his 0-for-8 showing in Games 1 and 2, forgotten his six strikeouts and present again the fright factor he instilled in the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels in the AL playoffs.

And as Howard kept swinging and missing, five times in Game 3 and 13 in the series, it was apparent: The Phillies are a troubled team when pitchers turn Howard’s equilibrium upside down, and he needs to flip himself back before it’s too late.

“He’s not following the ball,” Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson said. “He can’t track it. He’s trying to pull it, and when balls are away from you, you can’t do that. Hopefully, he’ll correct it. Slow down and you’ll see the ball. He knows that.

“You can’t hit what you can’t see. If you’re up there committing and flying without seeing the baseball, it’ll make for a long night.”

And not just because of daylight savings time. Howard’s evening was disaster on loop. Of the 16 pitches he saw, 11 were sliders. In his first two at-bats, Andy Pettitte(notes) struck him out swinging on them. And come his final at-bat, Damaso Marte(notes), another left-hander in the long line Yankees manager Joe Girardi keeps parading at Howard, blew a fastball by him after teasing with three straight sliders.

The Yankees’ strategy with Howard is fairly obvious: feed him breaking balls and watch him chomp at them like an off-register Pac-Man. The Yankees have thrown Howard 51 pitches in the World Series. Eighteen were sliders and 10 were curveballs. And it’s not like they’re burying the breaking balls, either, for fear that Howard will hit those in the strike zone. More than 72 percent of the Yankees’ pitches to Howard have been strikes, something that portends incredible success with a swing-and-miss king such as Howard.

“I’m just a little bit anxious at the plate right now,” Howard said. “It’s just a matter of trying to calm it down.”

He succeeded in Game 1 with a pair of RBI doubles. Since then, it’s been ugly: 0-for-8 with seven strikeouts. Even worse than Rodriguez’s swoon in the series’ first two games.

Rodriguez entered the World Series so keyed in, the two-game fade metamorphosed into instantaneous fodder. Was A-Rod an AL-only wonder? Can he simply not succeed in the World Series? Would he walk out to the batters’ box in Game 3 with a man’s torso and horse’s lower body?

Yes, the same garbage that so often derailed Rodriguez’s last two years in New York – the tabloid musings about his life, his interests, his … idiosyncrasies – emerged again during the off-day before Game 3. A-Rod, apparently, has a portrait above his bed of him as a centaur. Like, half-man, half-equine.

Were evolving into a horse his real fantasy, perhaps he should’ve taken Equipoise or Winstrol instead of Primobolan. Rodriguez instead focused on something far more novel as he returned this year from hip surgery: evolving into a ballplayer who isn’t ensnared in daily drama. So he shook off Games 1 and 2 (and the centaur flap), studied his swing and figured out what was wrong: His eyes, as they tend to do on occasion, were deceiving him.

“The game plan is simple: swing at strikes,” Rodriguez said. “If I swing at strikes, I can do a lot better.”

Rodriguez swung at only one pitch outside the strike zone Saturday after flailing at five in the first two games. His patience showed: Of the 16 pitches he saw, eight were called balls, including a pair that crossed the strike zone. When Rodriguez is taking maybe-maybe not strikes, he is at his most dangerous. His personal strike zone shrinks to the point that his swings tend to generate line drives to all fields.

The home run – his sixth this postseason – barely crept over the right-field wall, and yet it was the kind that inspired grins around the Yankees dugout. Not only did it cut a 3-0 deficit to 3-2, it told New York that the opposite-field-hitting, good-pitch-choosing Rodriguez had returned. And that does not bode well for the Phillies.

“I helped out the opposing pitchers by swinging at balls that were borderline and not strikes,” Rodriguez said. “And I thought that the game plan today was to swing at strikes and to keep them in a zone, like I’ve been talking about all postseason.”

Philadelphia can’t pitch Rodriguez like the Yankees do Howard. Breaking balls don’t faze him. Nearly 62 percent of the 55 pitches Rodriguez has seen in the World Series, in fact, have been fastballs – and over his career, Rodriguez has hit fastballs markedly better than any other pitch. When he is at his most discerning, Rodriguez forces pitchers to throw fastballs, a terrifying proposition.

Though he is still only 1-for-10 in the series, Rodriguez got on base with a pair of hit-by-pitches and a walk Saturday night and bumped his postseason on-base percentage to .491. Howard, meanwhile, stared from the bench as the Phillies’ No. 5 hitter, Jayson Werth(notes), hit a pair of solo home runs. Had Howard milked a walk or stroked a single or coaxed Pettitte into hitting him – had he done anything aside from swing and miss – perhaps the Rodriguez home run isn’t quite the game changer it became.

Instead, Howard had a simple plan to excavate himself from his doldrums: “Go home and sleep.” He might see something in his dreams or realize what’s wrong with his swing or come to the sort of between-games revelation Rodriguez did.

It is more likely, though, that Howard is going to awaken in a panic: CC Sabathia(notes) on the mound for Game 4, a second straight World Series slipping from the Phillies, his greatest nightmare realized in a fury of swings and misses.

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