Commentary

Long night finally ends with wild finish

Updated: October 26, 2008, 4:45 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- You know it isn't just another World Series game when the clock above Ashburn Alley says it's 1:47 a.m.

You know it isn't just another World Series game when the Tampa Bay Rays suddenly have more infielders running around than coaches.

And you know it isn't just another World Series game when a ball that travels approximately 63 feet is about to turn into the biggest hit of the World Series for the team that somehow is winning the World Series.

But that was the madness that unfolded at Citizens Bank Park as a soggy Saturday night turned into a madcap Sunday morning.

Five insane hours packed with raindrops, pickoffs, E-2s, long balls, small balls and a whopper of an umpiring boo-boo nearly earned residence in World Series infamy.

But if you nodded off sometime after "Weekend Update," take our word for it: The Phillies really did beat the Rays 5-4 early Sunday morning, on a game-ending, slo-mo thunker down the third-base line, against a five-man infield, by a catcher who gets an infield hit about once a decade.

And because that happened, in real life, in a jam-packed ballpark in the middle of the night, this World Series has taken a dramatic, possibly pivotal turn.

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The Phillies hold a 2-1 lead in this Series. They lead it even though they're hitting .061 (2-for-33) with runners in scoring position. They lead it even though neither of those two hits left the infield and one of them didn't even score a run.

They lead it even though their late-inning defensive replacement has produced more runs than their leadoff hitter. And they lead it even though they've allowed the team they're playing to score eight consecutive runs in two games on plays that included either an out or an error.

"It's a funny game," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said after this insanity was over. "That's how the game goes."

Well, it's not supposed to go quite like this, is it? But somehow or other, the Phillies are two games away from winning the World Series, and they're in prime position to finish that job. Of the previous 51 World Series that were tied at 1, the winner of Game 3 has gone on to win the Series two-thirds of the time.

But none of those other World Series featured a game that didn't start until after 10 p.m., as this one did. You can thank the weather front from hell for making that possible.

And that set the stage for a long night's journey into day that eventually led us to an unprecedented burst of 1 a.m. craziness, starring the two Phillies everyone expected to take over a crucial World Series game -- Eric Bruntlett and Carlos Ruiz.

Bruntlett, a utility infielder who unexpectedly spent most of this season serving as Pat Burrell's late-inning defensive caddie in left field, wound up scoring the winning run in this game -- at 1:47 a.m.

Asked whether he could recall the previous time he'd scored a run at 1:47 a.m., Bruntlett scratched his head and concluded: "I'm pretty sure that's a first for me."

And the way he came to score that winning run? That had to be a first, too.

[+] EnlargeJason Bartlett
Rich Kane-US PRESSWIREErrors and walks and dribblers down the third-base line were all part of a crazy ninth inning.
His journey started with -- what else? -- a J.P. Howell fastball that plunked him in the thigh with nobody out in the ninth.

And that was about the most normal thing that happened in the inning.

Before you knew it, the Rays were unfurling their first World Series double-switch in franchise history. And reliever Grant Balfour was skipping a wild pitch to the backstop.

That wild pitch then caromed back to catcher Dioner Navarro so fast that he decided to try to nail Bruntlett at second. But instead, Navarro cast his throw into center field, sending Bruntlett to third.

And then, Rays managerial innovator Joe Maddon signaled for everyone's favorite 1 a.m. brainstorm -- the old five-man infield. That left the infield so overcrowded with Rays fielders that Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard later quipped: "I thought they were about to send them all in on a blitz."

But the man who walked up to the plate after Maddon had ordered two intentional walks to load the bases said he wasn't looking out for any linebackers. He wasn't even sure how many infielders there were.

"I didn't know," the Phillies catcher said. "I didn't count them."

It already had been quite the eventful evening for Ruiz, who hit .219 during the regular season but has turned into the Phillies' hottest October bat. The good news: He'd hit a second-inning home run to put the Phillies ahead 1-0. The bad news: He also had committed a crushing throwing error that had allowed the Rays to tie the game in the eighth inning.

But he was about to have a moment that would make all his other moments disappear.

The count became 2-2. Towels swirled in the night. Nearly 46,000 exhausted voices did their best to wake up the residents of South Philadelphia. Balfour reared back and did what he does best -- launch one more 95-mile-an-hour smokeball. Ruiz took his mightiest swing.

Only to thunk a little hip-hopper down the third-base line that was about to turn the World Series upside down.

In raced Tampa Bay's brilliant third baseman, Evan Longoria. ("About the last thing you wanted in that situation was a ground ball," the Phillies' Chris Coste said. "And about the last person you'd want to field it was probably Longoria.")

[+] EnlargeRyan Howard
Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRERyan Howard connected on a homer in one of the rare normal moments of Game 3 of the World Series.
Down the line sprinted Bruntlett, heart pounding like a bass drum.

"It was one of those deals where it kind of feels like everything is in slow motion," Bruntlett said. "You feel like you should be moving faster, just because you want to get there so quick. So it felt like a long 90 feet. That's all I know."

Meanwhile, Ruiz, a man who doesn't exactly specialize in game-winning infield hits, let alone infield hits of any kind, pumping down the first-base line, listened for the sound that would tell him whether he'd just become an October hero.

"Then I heard them cheering," Ruiz said. "And that's when I knew, 'OK, it's over.'"

Longoria had had just an instant to decide: Was this ball going foul or staying fair? Pick it up or let it go? Make a play or pray for luck?

He made the right call, but it was too late. He scrambled, bare-handed it, flipped it toward home -- but eight feet over Navarro's head. Bedlam reigned. This game was over.

"I was excited," said Ruiz, a man hitting .500 (4-for-8) in this World Series, "no matter what kind of hit it was. I said when I hit it, 'I'll take it. I'll take a win.'"

And this wasn't just any old win. It was a win that had almost turned into a disaster.

Three Phillies homers -- by Ruiz, Chase Utley and Howard -- had lifted the Phillies to a 4-1 lead heading into the seventh. So this game should have been over, because when the Phillies lead this big this late, they always win. They went 60-1 this year in games they led by three runs or more in the seventh inning or later.

But then it happened.

Jamie Moyer, 45 years and 342 days old, was nine outs away from becoming the oldest pitcher ever to win a World Series game, or any kind of postseason game.

Until the first hitter of the seventh inning, Carl Crawford, laid down a clinic of a drag bunt down the first-base line.

We'll never know quite how Moyer even got there. But he did. He lunged. He scooped up the baseball with his glove and flipped it to first in one spectacular motion.

"The way he got over there," Howard later said, laughing, "it was ninjaesque."

The baseball floated toward first. Howard snatched it out of the air with his bare hand. An instant later, Crawford's foot hit the bag.

But then, stunningly, first-base umpire Tom Hallion flashed the safe sign.

The groans that poured out of the seats made it feel like a Bartman Moment -- Philadelphia style.

In a town that has gone titleless for 25 years, for a franchise that has won just one World Series, this had "ugly omen" written all over it. Especially when the Rays transformed it into a two-run inning that made it a 4-3 game. And even more so an inning later, when B.J. Upton willed himself to become the tying run -- with an infield single, a steal of second, a steal of third and Ruiz's throwing error.

Had this game turned into a come-from-ahead loss, Jimmy Rollins said afterward, this would have been the call Philadelphians mourned for centuries.

"Oh yeah," Rollins said. "If we'd have lost, you know they'd have been talking about this one. That's when all the good conspiracy theories come out."

But you can toss that script into the old Dumpster because Ruiz's dribbler heard 'round the Delaware Valley made it all moot.

"That's a moment I'll remember the rest of my life," said the author of the first game-ending infield hit in World Series history. "I hope I can do it again tomorrow."

OK, so it was actually today by then. But you never correct a hero -- especially at 1:47 a.m.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com