Tuesday, October 27, 2009

2009 World Series Preview

Anyone who knows me is aware of my undying love of baseball's history. It's the biggest thing that separates baseball from the other professional sports, in my opinion. For example, is there any other sport in 2009 where one of its championship participants began play in 1883? Think about that for a second; the Philadelphia Phillies were founded 18 years after the Civil War ended. Couple their history with that of their opponent, the New York Yankees, and you've got generations of fans and decades of stories with a new chapter still to be added.

Despite the long histories of these two franchises, they've only locked horns in the World Series once before. In 1950 the Yankees were in the midst of the most dynastic run in baseball's history, maybe in sports history.

From 1947 through 1964, the Bombers won the American League pennant in all but three seasons (the Indians won in 1948 and 1954 with the White Sox winning in 1959). In a pre-free agency world, the Yankees could keep all their best players at whatever price they chose. When those players lost their effectiveness, there was always another young superstar ready to take their place.

And they did. And they won, just about every year. They won 10 World Championships, and a list of their best players reads like an all-time team: Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Mize, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, Jerry Coleman, Tony Kubek, Bill Skowron, Joe Pepitone, Ralph Terry, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Elston Howard, Bobby Richardson and Don Larsen amongst so many others under legendary managers Casey Stengel and Ralph Houk.

The 1950 Phillies won 91 games, edging out the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League title. It was their first since 1915, and the young team was called the Whiz Kids by the media and fans. There were led by two eventual Hall of Fame talents; Robin Roberts, who won 20 games and would be a dominant starter for another 15 years, and Richie Ashburn, a Nebraska farmboy who became a franchise icon with blazing speed in center field and a preternatural on-base ability. It was a storybook season for a team and city short on luck for so many years.

Unfortunately they ran headlong into the Yankees' dynastic buzz saw. The Pinstripers won four close contests in a row and swept the Whiz Kids. The longest game played in the series was Game 2, clocking in at three hours and five minutes (something to shoot for this year, guys). The Yankees' pitchers dominated to the tune of a 0.73 ERA. DiMaggio (who's on my "Top 5 Players I Wish I Could Have Seen" list along with Ruth, Williams, Cobb and Mays) hit .308 and knocked the game-winning home run in Shibe Park in Game 2.

So what does any of that have to do with 2009? Absolutely nothing. But I find it cool that we can have the same World Series match-up in 2009 that we had in 1950, and could have had dating back to the first World Series in 1903.

This World Series should be different from 1950. They've both come through the postseason only losing two games apiece, both overstocked with quality starting pitching and offense, both a bit thin in the bullpen, and both brimming with confidence. One side is coming off a World Series win, the other expected to win every season. I say this just about every year, but this is the best hope for an exciting World Series since 2002.

Presenting my 2009 World Series Preview, the Phillies vs. the Yankees, aka every Mets fans' nightmare:

OFFENSE: Believe me when I say neither club is lacking in this area. They Yankees have enjoyed the best lineup one through nine since Opening Day with threats to go deep everywhere in the order. Alex Rodriguez continued his October re-birth against L.A., coming up with huge hits and causing an entire fan base to do a total 180 since the spring (don't think I haven't noticed, Yankees fans). Derek Jeter looks ready to once again be Mr. November. While Nick Swisher's troubles have been well-documented, the biggest question mark for the Yankees in this series is Mark Teixeira. He's hit just .205 in October, but appeared to be coming out of it in ALCS Games 5 and 6.

For the Phillies, they've been anchored by Ryan Howard, the best left-handed pure power hitter of his generation. He's sporting a cool 1.203 OPS this postseason and how he'll do against the Yankees' dearth of southpaws will be a major factor. Jayson Werth has broken out, smashing five homers so far, many coming in clutch situations. Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Carlos Ruiz also have that flair for the dramatic. Expect to see Greg Dobbs DH in Game 1 with AL veteran Matt Stairs likely to get some hacks in Game 2 (they will indeed be hacks, trust me). Chase Utley has just one extra-base in these playoffs, and like Teixeira, he needs to get it going for his team to be successful.

Edge: New York.

STARTING PITCHING: No inkling of a doubt here; this series hinges on whose starters are more effective. Apparently all CC Sabathia ever needed for October success was rest in September. It's possible Sabathia could get three more starts before all is said and done. He's been truly spectacular so far, giving up just four earned runs in 22.2 postseason innings. A.J. Burnett gets the ball in Game 2, and he must get over his poor ALCS Game 5 start. Despite strong performances so far, I wonder how much longer before Andy Pettitte breaks down a bit. He's not young, it's been a long year, and his next start will take him out of the confines of Yankee Stadium. Joe Girardi will once again go with just three starters.

Cliff Lee has been nearly as dominant as his old teammate Sabathia and he won't be intimidated in Game 1 against an AL lineup. If the Phillies win this World Series, the Lee trade will likely go down as the single-best midseason trade for a pitcher in baseball history. I defy anyone to come up with one better. Pedro Martinez will take the hill in Game 2 in front of the fans that destroyed him in 2004 ALCS Game 7 and saw him choke in 2003 ALCS Game 7. The Yankees are, after all, his daddy, and I question the decision to put him out there for this game. But Pedro will be Pedro, and nobody in baseball has ever relished a challenge more. Cole Hamels is due to break out of his funk, and I predict a strong Game 3 start. Either J.A. Happ or Joe Blanton will go in Game 4, and they could take advantage if Sabathia finally tires.

Edge: Philadelphia.

DEFENSE: Defense might not win championships in baseball, but it can certainly lose them. Just as the 2006 Tigers. Or the 1986 Red Sox, for that matter. (I need to cancel out that last sentence by wishing all Red Sox fans a happy 5th anniversary of winning the '04 Series. Now I feel better). I don't have an awful lot to say about this on either side, but since the Yankees' smartened up and now only use Matsui at DH, they've improve immensely on defense although they aren't great. Sometimes I wonder if Robinson Cano has any clue out there. Teixeira is far and away this team's best defensive player.

The Phillies are much more sound in the field with Pedro Feliz and Rollins patrolling the left side with Victorino and Werth making great plays in the outfield. Utley made some costly throwing errors in the last series but he's normally very good. I'll be watching how Raul Ibanez handles the spacious turf of left field in Yankee Stadium.

Edge: Philadelphia.

BULLPENS: So, if Brad Lidge hasn't given up a run yet in the postseason, does that just mean he's due to implode, or is he back to his history-making greatness of a year ago? We will find out in the coming days. Lidge's success, and the overall success of the Philadelphia bullpen, has been one of the biggest surprises of the playoffs. Scott Eyre and Chad Durbin are coming up big, and they'll have to continue their ways especially in a situation like Game 2 where Pedro might not be able to go longer than six frames.

I really don't feel like extolling the virtues of Mariano Rivera (who may or may not love Jesus more than Kurt Warner), so I'll focus on the other members of the Yankees' bullpen instead. I gave them crap for not having a solid unit all year, but Joba Chamberlain's move back to a setup role has provided a stabilizing presence. What I don't get is why Girardi insists on using Phil Hughes in key spots when he's been anything but good in the postseason while David Robertson, Phil Coke and Damaso Marte have all been solid in relatively little action. Girardi has had difficulty managing his bullpen this postseason, which is something I'll get to shortly. But there's one Yankee that can make any manager look good, and that might be all that matters.

Edge: New York.

MANAGERS: Charlie Manuel cracks me up. You take one look at the guy and without knowing anything about him you'd guess he was a baseball manager just based on his aesthetics. Then he opens his mouth, and it's hard not to laugh at his garbled diction. But he's awesome. He was on the brink of getting fired going into last season, now he's ready to lead the Phillies to the World Series for a second straight time. Manuel's players adore him, and the city has certainly warmed to him over the last couple years. Unlike his counterpart, he's actually won a World Series, and that means something here.

The Yankees might lose this series solely because of Girardi. I know the Yankees have only lost twice this postseason, but their Game 3 extra inning loss in L.A. was a direct result of a poor choice by Girardi. He brought in right-hander Robertson to start the 11th, and after getting the first two batters out, abruptly removed Robertson for another right-hander, Alfredo Aceves, to face Howie Kendrick. Kendrick singled, then Jeff Mathis doubled him home. If anyone can figure out why this happened, please let me know. He pinch-runs for hitters like Rodriguez and Teixeira in close or tied games, something that might cost them down the line. The word "overmanaging" has been used constantly, but again, it hasn't cost them more than one loss yet. The Phillies are better than the Angels, and should make them pay in case Girardi slips up again.

Edge: Philadelphia.

INTANGIBLES & LOOSE ENDS: I'm suffering from broken record syndrome here, but the Yankees have been and will continue to be very difficult to beat in Yankee Stadium. I hate to sound like the many lazy sportswriters that cover baseball these days, but maybe there is some sort of "mystique" about the place. The Yankees just win there, and other teams can't seem to break through. If the Phillies can take one of these first two games it will be quite a feat.

Philadelphia's bench is much deeper than the Yankees, and in close games late that could prove to be very important. Without a doubt, the Phillies want to make some history. They can go down as one of few teams to win back-to-back titles, and given the lack of championships in the history of the franchise and the recent history of the city, the Phillies have an opportunity to go down as the beloved group of athletes assembled in the City of Brotherly Love.

The Phillies will take one of two in New York, and the Yankees will take one of three in Philadelphia. Behind Pettitte the Yankees win Game 6 in New York. Then in Game 7, Sabathia and Lee do battle for the third time in the series. They lock up in a duel reminiscent of Jack Morris and John Smoltz in Game 7 of the legendary 1991 World Series. In the top of the 10th, Howard blasts a two-run bomb off Sabathia to break the deadlock.

Lidge enters, gets the first two out, then gives up a solo home run by Johnny Damon. Teixeira works a walk. Then comes A-Rod. After an epic at-bat, Rodriguez swings and misses at a 3-2 heater, and the Phillies celebrate wildly. A-Rod runs off the field crying and even Kate Hudson can't make him stop.

It's all going to happen. I guarantee it.

Prediction: Phillies in seven. Enjoy the series.

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