PHILADELPHIA — Home plate is still 17 inches wide and the pitching rubber stands 60 feet 6 inches away. Ninety feet separate the bases. Baseball’s sacred measurements have not changed this postseason, even if other things have for the Yankees’ opponents.
Despite losing, 8-6, to Philadelphia in Game 5 on Monday night, the Yankees are one victory from capturing their 27th World Series title because, in one way or another, they have created stress on their playoff opponents, forcing them into an unusually high number of mistakes. A rout evolved into a close game in the eighth inning in a rally that began when shortstop Jimmy Rollins could not get the ball out of his glove on Johnny Damon’s leadoff grounder. The Yankees pounced, ripping consecutive run-scoring doubles and later adding another run that sliced the lead to 8-5 from 8-2.
A night earlier, the failure of the Phillies to cover third base in the ninth inning of Game 4 paved the way for a Yankees rally that dented Philadelphia’s hopes of successfully defending its title.
The play, in which Damon stole second and third on one pitch, was an uncharacteristic breakdown for a sound team, but the Yankees have seen such meltdowns before. The Minnesota Twins and the Los Angeles Angels, widely hailed for their smart play and strong fundamentals, ran the bases recklessly, misplayed fly balls and threw balls away. As a result, they were blasted off the postseason stage.
“Sometimes players become a little bit aggressive or too aggressive, and that can hurt you,” Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said. “And then sometimes, players aren’t aggressive enough, and that can hurt you, too.”
Aggressiveness is the Phillies’ trademark. The Phillies play for big innings, have speedy players who love to steal bases and have a shrewd first-base coach, Davey Lopes, who puts them in position to succeed. For the most part, aggressiveness has not undermined the Phillies this postseason. Throwing to the wrong base in Game 2 of their division series facilitated a Colorado win, and their terrible eighth inning in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series in Los Angeles — errant throw from Chase Utley, bases-loaded walk, overplayed bunt — led to a loss.
The Phillies, though, did not lose another game in those series, going 5-0. But the Yankees are better than the Dodgers and the Rockies, and so far they have prevented the Phillies from overcoming their mental errors. At every turn, the Yankees have benefited from — even initiated — this pattern of mistakes, largely because they have kept their own miscues to a minimum.
Their run began in the fourth inning of their second game against Minnesota, when Carlos Gomez overran second base. He was tagged out before Delmon Young crossed the plate, nullifying what would have been a run-scoring single in a game the Yankees won in extra innings. When the series shifted to Minnesota, the Twins were trailing by a run in the eighth inning when Nick Punto strayed from third on what he presumed was a single up the middle. As Derek Jeter fielded the ball and threw home, Punto slipped, and catcher Jorge Posada nailed Punto at third, flustering the Twins again.
The Angels were a more balanced and worthy foe, and their disintegration was surprising. They made eight errors in the six-game series. In Game 1, Chone Figgins and Erick Aybar looked at each other as a pop-up dropped between them, resulting in a run for the Yankees. The next night, during a cold and rainy 13th inning, second baseman Maicer Izturis tried to make a spectacular play rather than the steady one. Trying for a double play, he made a throwing error that cost the game.
Bobby Abreu nearly ran the Angels out of a Game 3 victory when he overran second base after an eighth-inning double. They almost outdid themselves in Game 6 as Vladimir Guerrero was doubled off first base on a fly ball to right, and in the eighth inning, after drawing to a run behind, they bungled consecutive bunts to hand the Yankees the two runs that clinched a victory and the World Series berth.
In that series, the Yankees were hardly perfect. In a Game 4 victory, they ended up with two runners at third base, neither on the bag, but the umpire Tim McClelland called only one out, even after each was tagged. And Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez saved a run by covering the plate after Posada, thinking an inning was over, jogged to the dugout with a runner on third base.
This World Series was billed as an attractive matchup partly because of the similarities between the Phillies and the Yankees. When teams are considered equal — or close to it — a series often turns on mistakes. The Phillies erred in Game 2, when Jose Molina picked Jayson Werth off first, and the Yankees seemed flustered early in Game 3, when no one seemed to know who would field Cole Hamels’s sacrifice. That uncertainty loaded the bases for the Phillies, who could produce only one run.
But the most crucial misplay came in the ninth inning Sunday night, when the Phillies were left stunned by a play that they rarely practiced against. Hardly anyone in their clubhouse afterward seemed to know who, with the infield shifted to the right side, should have protected third base when Damon stole second and third.
Maybe it was the pitcher, Brad Lidge. Or the catcher, Carlos Ruiz. Or the third baseman, Pedro Feliz. “It’s not something that you go over every day,” reliever Chad Durbin said.
Girardi called it a “great instinctual play,” which it was. Damon had the presence of mind to bolt for third, and the Phillies could not stop him. In the postseason, everything is the same, and yet it is all different.
“Usually, we’re the ones doing it to other teams,” Rollins said. “This time, it happened to us.”