Unless you have grown jaded by ESPN’s treatment of baseball which places all teams in the northeast corridor on one level and the other 26 teams in some pseudo-minor league, then this is an easy World Series to like. The New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies have many compelling story lines, and the two teams are evenly matched.
The irony of this matchup alone is worth a few nights of enduring commentator Tim McCarver on the television broadcasts which begin tonight on Fox. The Phillies and their faithful are the long-suffering. The only franchise in baseball history to lose 10,000 games, the Phillies have only two World Series titles to their name, and one of them came just last year. On the other hand, the Yankees are October perennials, winners of more than 2,000 titles and 5,000 pennants (or at least it seems that way); more than half of baseball’s most cherished lore about the World Series seems to involve the Yankees in some way or another.
Yet coming into this series, it’s the Phillies who are the perennial. The defending champs have won three-straight division titles and finished in second place in their division for each of the three seasons before that. They are the dominant National League team of this era. In addition, they are a great example of clutch baseball; they have won 18 of their last 23 playoff games, and in 2007 and ’08 made mad dashes at the end to qualify for the playoffs on season’s final day. It’s these Yankees that are relatively new to this level. Shortstop Derek Jeter, catcher Jorge Posada and pitchers Andy Petite and Mariano Rivera are holdovers from a Yankee team that won four World Series titles in five years from 1996 to‘2000, but the other 21 players are new to this level when wearing New York pinstripes. The recent history of the Yankees is of first-round flameouts.
Both teams arrive locked and loaded. Each has won seven of their nine playoff games this October, and each is winning the right way, power hitting, solid fielding and good pitching. There is no exact formula for winning in post-season baseball, but that one comes as close as any. Both teams have hit 14 home runs in their nine post-season contests. Yes, both play in hitter-friendly ballparks, but the World Series isn’t held on a neutral field; expect these teams to keep mashing.
The Yankees’ October charge has been led by third baseman Alex Rodriguez and starting pitcher C. C. Sabathia. Both have horrid reputations as playoff failures, yet this month they have burnished their Hall of Fame credentials with their spectacular play. A-Rod has hit like, well, A-Rod of April to September. It gives credence to all the A-Rod defenders who claim that his reputation was based on small sample size. Everyone can hit dry spells like the ones A-Rod went through. It appears that A-Rod’s were just poorly timed.
Sabathia has three wins, no losses and an earned run average of 1.19 in three playoff starts this season. That is in stark contrast to his two wins, three losses and 7.92 E.R.A in five previous post-season starts. The Phillies have a starter, Game 1 ace, Cliff Lee, who is currently channeling Sandy Koufax. He’s won two of his three starts and boasts an E.R.A. of 0.74 in October. Neither pitcher is likely to sustain their lofty play.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has worked nearly every game as if it were an elimination game, an excellent approach in the post season where every win is a step toward immortality. He has gone to his bullpen early and often, and he has pressed the right buttons and received solid work from all of his relievers.
The series could come down to Pedro’s Game 2 start. He allowed no runs and only two hits in a brilliant start against the Dodgers in Game 2 of the National League Championship series. However, he has bad history against the Yankees, particularly Game 7 of the American League Championship Series in 2003 when, pitching for the Boston Red Sox, he allowed the Yankees a three-run rally in the bottom of the eighth inning that tied the game and sent it into extra innings. If Pedro kills those ghosts, then I think the Phillies win the series. If he doesn’t, there will be the umpteenth World Series celebration in New York City.
Martinez is 37. He’s a certain Hall of Famer. He has won a World Series ring with the Red Sox in 2004. I think he has only one thing left on his agenda, revenge for 2003. It’s hard to bet against this Yankees team, but it’s even harder to bet against Pedro. For that reason alone, I’ll pick the Phillies in six dramatic games.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.