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Yanks' celebration is matter of when, not if

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Bob Klapisch

Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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PHILADELPHIA

The Yankees were too smart to gloat and no one dared to invoke the images of the coming champagne wars in the clubhouse. Only a fool would dare fast-forward to a celebration just yet. But there's no mistaking the sense of inevitability in this World Series: the Phillies' season feels over, even with Cliff Lee taking the mound Monday. The Yankees? All you had to know is they (literally) stole Game 4 on Sunday, putting themselves on the doorstep of their first championship in nine years. Of course, it'll require near-perfection from A.J. Burnett to out-pitch Lee. And someone will have to find a way to stop Chase Utley, who's taken ownership of anything and everything over the inside corner. But the Yankees have gained a critical psychological advantage going into the clincher, having out-performed — and, even more significantly, out-hustled — the Phillies in a must-win situation. For that, the Bombers can thank Johnny Damon, who made a strong case for a new contract this offseason. The free agent-to-be is 35 and a step slower than in his prime, but Damon's instincts and know-how were the difference makers in the ninth inning of the Yankees' 7-4 victory. The Phillies weren't just disappointed, they were heart-broken, if not shocked. "That's the first time that's happened to us all year," Charlie Manuel said of Damon's daring simultaneous steal of both second and third base, setting up Alex Rodriguez's game-winning single off Brad Lidge. Damon had just won a dramatic nine-pitch war with Lidge, punching a two-out single to left after falling behind in the count, 1-2. The Phillies' closer had already retired Hideki Matsui and Derek Jeter and, one strike away from burying Damon, too, the Phillies were ready to go back to work on the Yankees' bullpen in the bottom of the ninth. They'd done plenty of damage the inning before, as Pedro Feliz's solo HR off Joba Chamberlain tied the game and wiped out CC Sabathia's gutty, seven-inning performance on three days' rest. The Yankees were ready to come crashing down — except they weren't. Lidge ruefully said, "I just couldn't finish off (Damon)" with two strikes. "He had a great at-bat against me." Now on first base, Damon was thinking of how he could take advantage of the Phillies' super-shift on Mark Teixeira, knowing that if he attempted to steal second it would be Feliz, the third baseman, who'd be covering. That would create a gaping hole in the Phillies' defense. The only question was whether Lidge or catcher Carlos Ruiz would be alert enough to protect the open base. But first things first: as Damon broke for second, he needed to see how Feliz would react to the ball, whether he was off-balance, and whether he was in position to tag Damon if he got up from his slide and started running again.
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As it turned out, everything worked in the Yankees' favor. Damon beat the throw to second, Feliz lost his balance taking Ruiz' throw and no one was covering third. Damon was on his feet in an instant, beginning a foot-race with Feliz he knew he could win. "I knew I still had some speed left in the tank and I also knew Pedro's speed," he said. "If it was (Angels third baseman) Chone Figgins (in pursuit) that might've been tough." Manuel, who has expressed his belief in his team's resilience all year, was suddenly grasping for an explanation for his defenders' absent-mindedness. The manager's face was as tight as a fist when he said, "we've got to be heads up. Somebody has got to be covering third base. Usually, it's the catcher (who) tries to get down there." Damon's double-swipe put the Yankees in position for the kill. Lidge was forced to throttle back his signature slider, no doubt protecting against bouncing one in the dirt and allowing Damon to score the go-ahead run.. So Lidge went into battle with his fastball — twice, in fact, losing on the second pitch. Rodriguez clobbered a double to left, his15th RBI of the postseason, tying him with Bernie Williams (1996) and Scott Brosius (1998) for the club record. Damon spoke for everyone in the clubhouse when he said "without Alex, who knows where the road would've stopped?" Indeed, Jorge Posada followed with a two-run single that fattened the Yankees' lead to 7-4, but A-Rod's hit had done the most damage. It capped what felt like a perfect night for Joe Girardi. With the exception of Chamberlain's failure to hold the lead in the eighth, the manager guessed right on Sabathia, who out-pitched Joe Blanton despite working on short rest. Girardi also limited Mariano Rivera to just one inning, and the fact that his closer needed only eight pitches to finish off the Phillies means he's in position for a multi-inning save Monday night. Even a minor leg injury to Melky Cabrera worked in the Yankees' favor, as it forced Girardi to keep Damon in the game. All this suggests the fates are being generous to the Yankees. Even if Lee prevails Monday night, they'll be finished with him in the Series, The Phillies' last remaining bullets in Game 6 and 7 would be Pedro Martinez and Cole Hamels, against Andy Pettitte and Sabathia. The Yankees wouldn't come out and say it, but they're ready to believe they're done with the Series' heavy lifting. "All we're thinking about now is one more game," said Girardi, staring at a road to the world championship that's never looked so clear and unfettered.

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