January 4, 2011
Twelve months ago, the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series. Two months later, after committing a tidy $423 million to three players - on top of the gazillions already earmarked for Alex Rodriguez and sure to go to Derek Jeter - the New York Yankees became the prohibitive favorite to take the title in 2009. The two will meet beginning Wednesday night - weather permitting, two words that will be repeated often in the days to come - in what should be the most exciting World Series in a generation.
The two teams are extremely well matched. Both have potent and deep lineups that can generate multi-run innings from any spot in the order. Both led their leagues in runs, home runs, and slugging; had four players score at least 100 runs; and were extremely effective base-stealers as well (the Phillies stole at an 81.0% rate, best in baseball; the Yankees were second in their league and third in the majors at 79.9%). Both play in parks that favor the offense - though the Phillies actually hit more homers on the road than at home.
Both pitching staffs, on current form, have one dependable ace, two good and sometimes great starters, and a wealth of good arms in long relief and set-up roles. The closers are another story. Brad Lidge was perfect last season (48 for 48 in saves), dreadful in the '09 regular season (7.21 ERA, 11 blown saves), but has a 0.00 ERA in five postseason games this year. Mariano Rivera is Mariano Rivera.
The Yankees are... famous. Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte - the names are familiar to anyone who's followed the game over the last two decades. This year's team -- enlivened by the addition of C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Nick Swisher, bolstered by the offensive and defensive presence of Mark Teixeira -- has played with a looseness and joy absent from the Bronx since, oh, forever. Jeter at 35 has had a season straight out of his younger prime. A-Rod, shaken by scandal in the spring, has played as though free from the burden of being the team's focus in this postseason. Teixeira's playoff doldrums are unlikely to continue much longer; he did lead the AL in homers and RBIs this year.
The Phillies, the defending champs, are in the unusual position of being the team with more to prove, since the Yankees were all but conceded the title as soon as they spent their megamillions. Philadelphia's lineup is the equal of the Yanks': Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Chase Utley, and Raul Ibanez each topped 30 homers; Howard led the league against with 141 RBIs; Shane Victorino had a quietly effective season; and while Jimmy Rollins struggled, he can be an important spark at the top of the lineup in a short series. How is the Yankees outfield of Damon, Cabrera, and Swisher superior to the Phils' Ibanez, Victorino, and Werth? The Phillies ranked fourth in the majors in runs -- ahead of eleven teams that had the advantage of using DHs.
And now a word about one of the two most disgraceful aspects of World Series play, as it has been for the last twenty-four seasons. Whether you like the DH or hate the DH, it is absurd to play the Series under rules that disadvantage one league's team. Permitting the DH in games in AL parks but not in NL parks does not affect both teams equally; the AL team has the option of putting its DH at a defensive position, while the NL has to fill a position for which it has no need during the regular season. If you're an NL team, and have on your bench a starting-quality DH, there's something wrong with how you've allocated your resources.
The Series, as it generally does, will come down to pitching. A quick word about the other disgraceful aspect: playing games under what are certain to be difficult weather conditions. In the most important games of the year, it would be nice if a pitcher could choose among his various pitches without worrying about whether he can grip the ball well enough to throw it, or if he can even feel his fingers. The rotations are anchored by the recent prides of Cleveland, C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee. Sabathia has been terrific in the postseason, but so has Lee; the Cliff Lee of 2008-9 has pitched well against the Yankees (2-1, 1.89), while Sabathia in the same period has struggled against the Phils (0-2, 6.17). A.J. Burnett has never been a consistent pitcher, is averaging five walks per nine innings in the postseason, and Philadelphia has generally done well against him (5-8, 4.75 for his career). And for all of Andy Pettitte's reputation as a big-game pitcher, he has a losing record in the World Series (3-4).
Against the latter two, the Phillies will match up Pedro Martinez, a sure Hall of Famer who was brilliant against the Dodgers in the NLCS (and has long relished pitching against the Yankees), and Cole Hamels, last year's World Series MVP who is dominant when healthy. Is it at all unlikely that the Phils can get two top-notch starts out of Lee, and one of two each from Pedro and Hamels? The Phillies' long relievers, who should include rookie starter J.A. Happ for the Series, are less heralded than the Yankees' pair of Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, but those two have looked nothing like their reputations lately (Joba's ERA since September 1 is 6.33; Hughes's ERA this postseason is 5.78, and he's allowed at least one hit in every outing). Which leaves only the closers: Can Lidge show some semblance of his 2008 form? Will Mariano Rivera, a month from his fortieth birthday, show imperfection at last?
Neither team is just happy to be there. The stage is set for seven explosive, tension-filled games. Phillies in seven.