Joe Blanton started this season more than seven months ago in Tokyo, as the Opening Day starter for the Oakland Athletics. He never could have imagined what he'd be doing five days before Halloween.
Blanton threw six strong innings and became the first pitcher to homer in a World Series game in 34 years as the Philadelphia Phillies climbed to the verge of their second title with a 10-2 bruising of the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday night in Citizens Bank Park.
A red-clad, towel-waving crowd of 45,903 roared its approval as the Phillies took a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. They can wrap it up tonight with ace Cole Hamels on the mound against Tampa Bay's Scott Kazmir in a Game One rematch.
The Phillies will be gunning for just the second title in their 126-year history, with their 1980 team being the other one to win a championship. Hamels will be trying to become the first starting pitcher in history to win five games in one postseason. He threw seven innings in Philadelphia's 3-2 victory over the Rays in Game One at Tropicana Field.
"When you're facing a team like this, anything can happen if you let down your guard," Blanton said. "The guys know that. We'll just go out and try to play the game right."
Back-on-track Ryan Howard lofted a three-run opposite-field homer to left in the fourth inning and a two-run bomb to right in the eighth for a five-RBI night.
Leadoff man Jimmy Rollins had three hits and scored three runs, and Jayson Werth added insurance with a two-run shot in the eighth.
Blanton was lifted after giving up a leadoff walk to Ben Zobrist in the seventh. He allowed two runs on four hits, struck out seven and walked two. He's 6-0 in 16 starts with the Phillies, combining the regular season and postseason, and the team is 12-4 in those games since he was acquired from Oakland in a July trade.
But what Blanton will be long remembered for on this night was what he did with his bat in the fifth inning.
Blanton struck out in the second and popped out feebly in the third, leaving the bases loaded. When he entered the batter's box to face Tampa Bay reliever Edwin Jackson with two outs in the fifth, Blanton was 2 for 33 in his career at the plate -- with 20 strikeouts, no extra-base hits and one RBI.
Blanton worked ahead in the count, two balls and one strike, and then got a 93-mph fastball from Jackson just above the knees. He calmly hacked at it and drove a no-doubt blast well over the fence into the bleachers in left to close the Phillies' scoring.
"I just close my eyes and swing hard in case I make contact," Blanton said.
When did he open them?
"I think when I went out and had to throw the next warmup pitch the next inning."
The crowd erupted as the ball careened over the wall and Blanton's teammates exploded on the bench as well. For his part, the pitcher was calm and cool as he trotted around the bases. When he came out to pitch the next inning, Blanton got another huge ovation and tipped his cap to the fans.
"I saw it come off the bat and he was jogging [to first base] and I was like, 'He knows he got that,' " Rollins said. "Everything is going in slow motion. First home run in the World Series and I don't even do that. . . . It is surprising he got the barrel to the ball against a guy throwing that hard but anything can happen when you're swinging a piece of wood."
It was the first Series home run by a pitcher since Oakland's Ken Holtzman connected against Los Angeles in 1974, and the first postseason shot by a Phillies hurler since Steve Carlton's three-run blast against the Dodgers in the 1978 National League Championship Series.
"To have your first big-league home run be in a World Series, I don't think you can draw it up any better," Howard said.
While Blanton was having a career night, the Rays were putting up one of their poorer performances of the postseason.
Starting pitcher Andy Sonnanstine lasted just four innings, giving up five runs. Second baseman Akinori Iwamura booted leadoff ground balls in the third and fourth innings for errors and both runners scored.
And the heart of the Tampa Bay order was again pathetic. Carlos Pena went 0 for 3 with a walk and Evan Longoria was 0 for 4, dropping them to 0 for 13 and 0 for 16, respectively, in the series.
Longoria struck out three more times, giving him nine whiffs in the series. With each at-bat, Longoria drew the derisive "E-va, E-va" chants from the fans, a reference to the "Desperate Housewives" star with the same last name (they're not related).
"We just got to get back into it," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We know what's going on. We're just not reacting. We have to not give them four outs in an inning, we have to have better at-bats."