10/26/08 5:34 AM ET
Ninth for the ages: Final frame had it all
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
That slow roller, barehanded by third baseman Evan Longoria as Eric Bruntlett slid home with the game-winning run, may go down as one of the key moments of a World Series between two evenly-matched foes in one of the true Fall Classics in recent memory. Ruiz's chopper will go down as the first walk-off infield hit in World Series history.
"It was really just good fortune on their part," Longoria said. "He couldn't have picked up that ball and rolled it to a better spot. Grant makes a good pitch and if [Ruiz] hits it a little bit harder, we have a double play. He just hit it in the right spot."
"It's one of those things that's a childhood dream -- to score the winning run in the World Series," Bruntlett said. "Those would not have been the circumstances that I would have had it play out, but I'll take it."
Yet there were so many more pieces setting up the ninth inning. Tampa Bay left-hander J.P. Howell started the frame facing Bruntlett, who entered the game as a defensive replacement for Pat Burrell after the sixth inning. With the count 2-1, Howell plunked Bruntlett on the back of the left thigh with an 88-mph fastball, a leadoff hit-by-pitch that opened the door for the decisive frame.
On came the hard-throwing Balfour, who quickly got ahead of Shane Victorino with a called strike on the outside corner. Thinking he could jam Victorino with a fastball to set up a strikeout, Balfour zipped a pitch inside but missed his target, as the ball sailed past catcher Dioner Navarro and went to the screen.
"I tried to throw inside to him to get him to foul it off, then I'd try to strike him out," Balfour said. "I felt confident I could strike this guy out and keep the runner at first, then we can go from there. If we get a double-play ball, then we get out of the inning. I tried to do too much and throw it inside, and I missed."
As quickly as the wild pitch whizzed by, though, Navarro found the ball had bounced back off the brick backstop, leaving enough time to try to throw out Bruntlett at second base.
"I broke right away, then turned my head back," Bruntlett said. "When I saw him throwing the ball, there was a moment where I felt like I was running in quicksand."
But Navarro sent the throw to the first-base side of the second-base bag, skipping into center field and allowing Bruntlett to scamper on to third base.
"As soon as I turned back, I had the ball on me, so I thought I had him beat at second," Navarro said. "I'm pretty sure I did. I just made a bad throw. Everything went wrong."
With the winning run 90 feet away, Rays skipper Joe Maddon sent out the order to intentionally walk the bases loaded, as Balfour issued free passes to Victorino and pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs.
"Of course, the hit batter is not optimal, and the wild pitch and getting to third really creates a lot of havoc in a very difficult moment," Maddon said.
Right fielder Ben Zobrist was called in and changed gloves to an infield model as the Rays turned, in desperation, to a five-man infield, leaving two outfielders -- Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton -- playing extremely shallow as last lines of defense. It was the third time the Rays used the five-man infield this season, having also done it against the White Sox and Mariners.
|"I was thinking to hit a fly ball to the outfield, but it didn't work. I'll take the ground ball."|
|-- Carlos Ruiz|
Zobrist stood close to the second-base bag, putting him in as good position to umpire as to field a ground ball. As it turned out, he'd do neither. With the bases loaded and none out, a strikeout would be the quickest way to improve the Rays' chances, so Balfour reared back and threw Ruiz nothing but fastballs.
With the Citizens Bank Park crowd on their feet and waving white rally towels, Balfour's 2-2 pitch, a high fastball, was chopped weakly up the third-base line, and Longoria scooped the roller off the wet grass.
"I was thinking to hit a fly ball to the outfield, but it didn't work," Ruiz said. "I'll take the ground ball."
"A swinging bunt, I guess you could say," Balfour said. "It worked out perfect for them. You're hoping he hits it harder. He gets it right off the end of the bat, and it just got stuck in the grass and went five feet. There's nothing you can do."
As Longoria tried the play with his bare hand, his only chance was to flip the ball home on what would have been an incredible play. But Bruntlett slid home as the toss sailed well over Navarro's head at home plate, toward the first-base seats, allowing the Phillies to erupt into celebration.
"I knew it would have taken a very good play," Bruntlett said. "He's playing far in, so I didn't know for sure. I'm going hard and just trying to get there as quick as I can."
"I think if I make a good flip and Navi has a chance to catch it, he's out," Longoria said. "He was running right where I needed to flip the ball anyway, so I needed to flip it to one side or the other. It was still a coin-flip whether he was safe or out."
Longoria said that he gave no thought to the chance that the ball might roll foul, saying, "It didn't have a chance to go foul. It was staying fair."
Maddon also didn't think there was a chance of a foul ball, saying, "I didn't even think of it. I really thought to myself, 'How is he going to throw this ball?' Because barehanded, there's no way to get on top and throw. It's a really awkward play, and he did the best that he could."
From his vantage point on the mound, Balfour tended to agree.
"Their grass is pretty thick, it looks like," Balfour said. "It was one of those that's in-between. It's tough to defend coming in on that. I just wish it was hit a hair harder -- then you have a good chance of turning the double play at home."
Had that transpired, the latest-beginning World Series game in history might have just stretched a few more minutes -- dare we say, hours? -- past midnight. Instead, the Phillies were strutting about a series advantage taken and the Rays vowed to get back to even in just a few short hours.
"Things happen. It's over tonight," Navarro said. "We'll go back to our rooms and relax, try to get some sleep and go back at them tomorrow."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.