History

2008 Phillies Flashback: Eric Bruntlett, unsung hero



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Bruntlett slides home with the winning run to end Game 3 of the 2008 World Series, giving Phillies a 2-1 lead over the Rays.

It seems somewhat hard to believe, but it has been a full decade now since the Philadelphia Phillies defeated the Tampa Bay Rays in five games to capture the 2008 World Series championship.

There were many popular, homegrown heroes on that Phillies ball club. The names and faces jump immediately to mind for every fan who was around to enjoy that incredible team: Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Ryan Madson, Carlos Ruiz.

But even with all of those great players, the Phillies don’t win the World Series that year without the contributions of those brought in from the outside. Many of those acquired from other organizations became extremely popular and are easily recalled by fans as well: Jamie Moyer, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, and Brad Lidge would quickly come to mind.

But there were lesser contributors, players who didn’t get on the field or up to bat as often but who played a pivotal role in much of the drama that unfolded during that season and in that Fall Classic. One such contributor was utility player Eric Bruntlett.

Born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, Bruntlett played shortstop at Stanford University. He was chosen in the ninth round of the 2000 MLB Amateur Draft by the Houston Astros as the 277th player taken overall that year.

He rose quickly through Houston’s minor league system, reaching Triple-A by the following summer. In late June of 2003, Bruntlett was called up for the first time and would spend most of the season with the Astros from that point as a pinch-hitter and infield backup.

That would prove to be Bruntlett’s primary big-league role over the entirety of what became a five-year stint with Houston. In each of his first four seasons, the Astros finished in second place in the National League Central Division.

He was part of the close-but-no-cigar Houston teams that tried to win the first world championship in Astros franchise history during that run. The team lost a heart-breaking NLCS in seven games to the Saint Louis Cardinals in 2004, and then were swept by the Chicago White Sox in the 2005 World Series.

On November 7, 2007 newly hired Astros GM Ed Wade, the former Phillies general manager, packaged Bruntlett with Lidge in a trade, sending both to the Phillies. In exchange, Houston received relief pitcher Geoff Geary and a pair of prospects, infielder Mike Costanzo and outfielder Michael Bourn.

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Newly hired as Astros GM, Wade dealt Bruntlett and Lidge to his former Phillies team

It would prove to be a coup for Pat Gillick, who had been hired as the Phillies GM to succeed Wade almost exactly two years to the day earlier. In fact, it would end up as one of the most important deals in Phillies history.

Lidge would go a perfect 41-for-41 in Save situations for the 2008 Phillies, then register another seven without blowing one during the magical postseason run. He would strike out Eric Hinske of Tampa Bay to clinch the World Series, dropping famously to his knees before being engulfed by his teammates.

The contributions of Bruntlett were perhaps not as memorable but remained vital all the same.

During the regular season in 2008, Bruntlett joined infielder Greg Dobbs and outfielder Geoff Jenkins as manager Charlie Manuel‘s most frequently utilized and important bench pieces. His numbers were nothing to write home about, slashing just .217/.297/.297 with a dozen extra-base hits across 238 plate appearances.

However, Bruntlett held down the shortstop position for much of the early portion of the schedule as Rollins recovered from injury. Given a chance to play some in the outfield as the summer wore on, he became so trusted by Manuel that the skipper used Bruntlett as his primary choice to close out games in left field as a defensive sub for Burrell over the final month.

That role as defensive sub in left field would continue throughout the 2008 playoffs. Bruntlett did provide a base hit during Game 1 of the NLDS, a 3-1 Phillies victory over Milwaukee. He then went 0-1 in each of the last two games of the NLCS victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It was ten years ago today that Bruntlett provided the first of his two most important direct conributions to that title run. In Game 3 of the World Series at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies and Rays had split the first two games. This game would decide which team took the lead in the series.

The Phillies took a 4-1 lead into the late innings. But the usually reliable ‘Bridge to Lidge’ bullpen blew it, surrendering three runs over the 7th and 8th innings. The Phillies and Rays thus battled into the bottom of the 9th inning tied at 4-4 in this pivotal contest.

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Manuel began to frequently use Bruntlett as a late-inning defensive sub for Burrell at the end of 2008, which continued into the playoffs.

Bruntlett had, typically by that point, replaced Burrell in left field for the top of the 7th inning. He would now get his first appearance at the plate to lead off the bottom of the 9th inning.

Working the count to 2-1 against Rays reliever J.P. Howell, Bruntlett was hit by a pitch. Taking his place at first base, he was the winning run if the Phillies could get him around.

Rays manager Joe Maddon made another pitching change, bringing on Aussie native Grant Balfour to face Victorino. On his second pitch, Balfour uncorked a wild one. Bruntlett took off immediately, and as the ball got behind Rays catcher Dioner Navarro, he bolted all the way around to third base.

As the Citizens Bank Park crowd roared, Bruntlett now stood just 90 feet away as the winning run at third base with nobody out. Resorting to his last-gasp strategy in such situations, Maddon had Balfour intentionally walk both ‘The Flyin’ Hawaiian’ and Werth to load the bases.

Bases loaded with Phillies. Nobody out. Rays players and fans praying for a ground ball that their club could turn into a force-out at home plate, maybe even then into a double play. Phillies fans hoping for a base hit, a deep fly ball, anything to get that winning run home.

Up to the plate stepped the hugely popular Ruiz. As the crowd roared, waving white rally towels in the air above their heads in unison, ‘Chooch’ battled the count to 2-2 against Balfour.

What happened next seemed in the first instant to be exactly what Tampa Bay wanted. Ruiz topped a slow-roller towards third base. If a Rays fielder got it and threw home, they could force out the runner, and maybe even have time to throw the slow-footed Ruiz out at first base for that double play.

However, the ball bounced much more slowly than anyone at first realized it would. Third baseman Evan Longoria charged towards it, bare-handing the ball and firing it home. Bruntlett had taken off as soon as the ball left the bat and was racing towards home.

As Longoria’s hurried throw blew high past Navarro, Bruntlett slid in safely with the winning run. The Phillies had the 5-4 victory and the lead in the World Series. Teammates mobbed both he and Ruiz, and the Phillies were on their way to the first championship for the franchise in nearly three decades.

It wouldn’t be Bruntlett’s last big moment in that Fall Classic. In fact, in the clinching Game 5, it would be Bruntlett who would score the World Series-winning run.

Burrell led off the bottom of the 7th inning of that game with a booming double high off the center field wall in what would prove to be his final appearance in a Phillies uniform. Manuel then sent Bruntlett in to run for Burrell.

The pinch-runner moved up to third base on a ground out, then scored when Pedro Feliz delivered a line-drive base hit up the middle. That run gave the Phillies a 4-3 lead, and Bruntlett was in left field as Lidge closed things out two innings later.

Bruntlett returned to the Phillies for the 2009 season, which would prove to be his swan song in Major League Baseball. He tried to catch on with the Washington Nationals and New York Yankees, playing with the Triple-A affiliates for both clubs during the 2010 season, but was unable to get back to the bigs. After that season he decided to hang up his cleats and become a stay-at-home dad.

Before leaving Philadelphia and Major League Baseball, Bruntlett would have one more memorable moment in the sun. In August 2009 he became just the second player in MLB history to record a game-ending unassisted triple play.

Trailing by 9-7 but with runners at first and second and nobody out at Citi Field the host New York Mets were trying to tie and possibly even rally for a comeback victory over the Phillies.

As the Mets tried a hit-and-run, Bruntlett snared a line drive off the bat of future popular Phillies outfielder Jeff Francoeur for the first out. He then stepped on second base to force out Luis Castillo, and in the same moment tagged out Daniel Murphy running from first.

Bruntlett returned to South Philly this summer, taking part in the festivities as the Phillies honored the 2008 World Series champions on the 10th anniversary of their glorious achievement. This was just the first of these types of reunions sure to take place in the coming years and decades, so fans of the team should have many more opportunities to thank him and his teammates for those great memories.

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