Distancing themselves

The Baltimore Sun

PHILADELPHIA - Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard offered a warning to the Tampa Bay Rays earlier in the day that his bat was warming up.

Joe Blanton, however, kept his emerging power stroke a secret before last night's World Series Game 4.

Using two homers by Howard, the National League's most prodigious basher, one by Blanton, the starting pitcher who had never gone deep in his big league career, and one by former Orioles farmhand Jayson Werth, the Phillies smashed the Rays, 10-2, before a frenzied, towel-swirling crowd of 45,903.

They now lead the best-of-seven Series 3-1 and can clinch their first championship in 28 years tonight with ace Cole Hamels on the mound.

Hamels has been near perfect this October and he'll be facing a now lethargic Rays offense that has managed only 12 runs and 23 hits in four World Series games.

"This is where we want to be," Howard said. "Three games to one, at home, and have a chance to close it out in Philadelphia."

Howard, who led the majors with 48 homers in the regular season but had none in the postseason until Saturday night, made it two in two days with a three-run shot in the fourth last night against Tampa Bay starter Andy Sonnanstine. Howard added a two-run homer in the eighth.

"To be able to have two home runs in a World Series, I think that's the kind of stuff you dream of when you are a teenager," Howard said. "It's a great feeling."

After the Phillies won soggy Game 3 around 2 a.m. Sunday, Howard said his hitting stroke was "definitely coming." It arrived in a big way 20 hours later, as Howard more than doubled his RBI output for the 2008 postseason (from four RBIs to nine) in one night.

Yet the most memorable blast came in the fifth off Blanton's unlikely bat. The husky right-hander, who limited the Rays to two runs and four hits in six-plus innings, lined Edwin Jackson's fastball into the left-field seats to become the 14th pitcher in World Series history to homer and the first since the Oakland A's Ken Holtzman in 1974.

"I just close my eyes and swing hard in case I make contact," Blanton said.

He joked that he didn't open his eyes after that swing until he "had to throw the next warm-up pitch in the next inning."

Blanton, who has spent all but three months of his five-season career in the American League, has just two singles in 26 regular-season at-bats and was hitless in seven postseason plate appearances before upper-cutting a fastball into October lore.

"I jumped up too fast I almost passed out," said Howard, describing the dugout celebration. "As soon as it left, I had to grab on to the rail. To have your first big league home run be in a World Series, I don't think you can draw that up any better than that."

Blanton also was pretty efficient on the mound. He struck out seven, walked two and made just two mistakes: solo homers to Carl Crawford in the fourth and Eric Hinske in the fifth.

For a while it looked as if Blanton wouldn't get much offensive support. The Phillies sent seven batters to the plate in the first but scored just one run while again struggling with runners in scoring position.

And they were fortunate to get that one run in, thanks in part to third base umpire Tim Welke's missed call on an obvious tag of Jimmy Rollins. Rollins scored a batter later - the first of 10 on the night.

When the barrage ended, and the screaming crowd left the stadium, the Phillies found themselves a game away from a world championship.

"When you are facing a team like this, anything can happen if you let down your guard," Blanton said. "I think the rest of the guys know that."

Notes: : Rays designated hitter Cliff Floyd was taken off the World Series roster because of a jammed right shoulder and was replaced by outfielder Hinske. Rays manager Joe Maddon said Floyd, who was batting .222 in the postseason and had one hit in three World Series at-bats, injured the shoulder while sliding. "We hate losing Cliff. Cliff has been a big part of what we're doing; he's still going to be here," Maddon said. "But [Hinske] has been ready." Hinske, who hit 20 homers and batted .247 in 133 games during the regular season, has not played in a postseason game for the Rays. ... Boston Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis and Chicago Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez were presented with the annual Hank Aaron Award an hour before Game 4. The honor, which is determined by online fan voting, recognizes the "most outstanding offensive performer" in each league. ... Carlos Ruiz's game-winning single in the ninth inning of Game 3 was the fifth time the Phillies have been involved in a World Series game that ended with the hitting team winning. The Phillies lost the other four. ... Saturday's game, which ended at 1:47 a.m. yesterday, had the latest ending in World Series history. ... Hamels has won all four of his games this postseason. He has allowed 18 hits and struck out 27 in 29 innings pitched.

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