PHILADELPHIA — It was all starting to slip away from the Yankees.
CC Sabathia and Joba Chamberlain let the Phillies tie the game and Brad Lidge was on the mound in the top of the ninth, looking like the closer who brought his team a World Series title a year ago.
He dominated pinch-hitter Hideki Matsui and struck out Derek Jeter.
Then up walked Johnny Damon. Ball one, three fouls, two more balls and a full count. Another foul, then another. Lidge was consistently clocked in the low 90s on the radar gun and Damon was struggling to keep up.
“I kept sitting slider, and he kept throwing the fastball. They really don’t teach you to do it that way,” Damon said after the Yankees’ 7-4 victory over the Phillies put them within a game of title No. 27. “But I felt like his slider made me look silly on a couple pitches, so I kept sitting slider and just reacted to the fastball.”
Damon sliced the ninth pitch of the sequence into left field but the really hard work was just beginning.
On the first pitch to the next hitter, Mark Teixeira, Damon took off for second. On the throw down, Phillies third baseman Pedro Feliz made a nice stop on a low throw from the catcher. Damon popped up, realized that the Phillies infield had shifted to cover the left side against Teixeira and saw third base uncovered. He took off.
“I kind of had to see all that stuff develop,” Damon said. “I’m just glad that when I started running, I still had some of my young legs behind me.”
Teixeira’s at-bat was cut short when he was hit with a pitch by Lidge. Damon could have walked home after Alex Rodriguez delivered the biggest hit of his life, a hard-hit double into the left-field corner. The next batter, Jorge Posada, followed with a two-run single to put the game out of reach.
Mariano Rivera closed it out with a 1-2-3 ninth.
“Somebody has got to be covering third base,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said afterward. “Usually it’s the catcher tries to get down there.”
But it’s clear the Phillies weren’t prepared. They never talked about how they would deal with Damon.
“We never got anybody to say, ‘OK, you’ve got to go in there; you’ve got to go here,'” Feliz said.
But once Damon realized the Phillies weren’t where they were supposed to be, he displayed the guile gained during 15 major league seasons.
He ran faster than his 35-year-old legs seemed capable of.
“That’s instinct. You better be sure because you’ve got Tex and A-Rod up behind, and you’d better be sure,” Yankee manager Joe Girardi said. “It was a great instinctual play by Johnny.”
The Yankees had been trying to get back to this point ever since a broken bat single by Arizona’s Luis Gonzalez ended their run of three straight World Series titles in 2001.