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GUEST COMMENTARY

Goodbye Thome, hello Series

October 27, 2008|Mike Berardino | Berardino is a columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Phillies held a "special welcome" for Jim Thome during the second inning Sunday night.

Nothing too elaborate. Just a quick showing on the huge videoboard in left field as Thome, the ex-Phillies slugger now with the Chicago White Sox, waved to the cheering fans from a suite at Citizens Bank Park.

Two innings later -- and then again in the eighth -- Ryan Howard reminded everyone in this championship-starved town how fortunate the Phillies were to make the right choice at first base.

Howard's two home runs and five runs batted in didn't exactly end this World Series. The Rays are far too resilient to say something like that, even after a 10-2 loss in Game 4 left them in a daunting hole of three games to one.

But it certainly gave the Phillies all kinds of momentum as they send ace left-hander Cole Hamels to the mound tonight with a chance to close things out.

All Hamels has done so far this postseason is go 4-0 with a 1.55 earned-run average. He has begun to resemble a young Steve Carlton, without the bucket of rice and the odd facial tic.

Hamels may not be unbeatable, but it's become much harder to imagine him losing.

Even less likely was the notion that Howard, 28, would somehow make it through October without going yard.

"The Big Man From Missouri" led the free world with 48 homers during the regular season. He has averaged 51 homers in his first three full seasons since replacing Thome, and he could be looking at a second National League most-valuable-player award.

Yet for the longest time this postseason, Howard looked lost.

Too many wild swings. Too many popups. Too many easy groundballs into the teeth of the overshift.

Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel was asked almost daily what ailed Howard. He insisted the big man would get back to normal soon.

Just needed to swing at better pitches. Just needed to "see the ball" a little better.

His homerless skid had reached 42 at-bats this postseason when he reached Saturday's sixth inning.

Chase Utley had just crushed a Matt Garza fastball into the seats in right. Howard, his imagination apparently stirred, did the same.

Fast forward to Sunday night. The Rays had just closed to within 2-1, and the 45,903 professional pessimists on hand were growing restless.

A Tampa Bay win wouldn't just tie the series, it would ensure the Rays would take it back to the Deaf Dome, a.k.a. Tropicana Field.

That's when Howard did what Howard does best: crush the baseball.

The count ran to 2-and-1 when Andy Sonnanstine, the velocity-challenged pitcher with a knack for winning, tried to sneak a slider past the BMFM.

Bad idea.

The ball didn't come down until it had landed in the left-field seats and every brick in this place began to shake.

"Guys like that, those big power guys, when they hit them it normally comes in bunches," Rays Manager Joe Maddon said. "You never take people like that for granted -- ever."

As Howard took his victory lap around the bases, Maddon just kept staring into those left-field seats. Howard touched home and headed for the dugout, and Maddon just kept staring.

You started to wonder what was going through the skipper's fertile mind.

Why didn't we just walk him?

Perhaps.

How does a man hit a baseball that far to the opposite field?

Possibly.

And then there's my personal favorite:

Why, oh, why couldn't the Phillies have just kept Thome and traded Howard instead?

That was the first big decision facing General Manager Pat Gillick when he hit town in November 2005. Three weeks later he traded Thome, a four-time All-Star headed for Cooperstown, and flung open the door for Howard, a strikeout-prone rookie of the year.

Smart move, huh?

One more win and these Phillies, title-free for the last 28 years, will be holding a "special welcome" for the World Series trophy.

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