Issue A at the top of my mind is the depth of the Phillies’ pitching staff. Cliff Lee has been nothing short of outstanding, exactly what Philly was hoping for when they acquired him from Cleveland in midseason (though please note that for every Lee that was added at the trade deadline there are also pickups like Jarrod Washburn and Aubrey Huff that were complete busts and cost the acquiring team dearly in prospects). Lee has given the Phils a distinct advantage in their series’ with Colorado and Los Angeles. He had a big edge over pitchers like Clayton Kershaw and Aaron Cook that he squared off with in openers through the NL playoffs. As good as Lee might be, he doesn’t give that same edge against the Yankees—in fact, he’s the underdog against former Indian teammate C.C. Sabathia tonight. (A side note—what a miserable day for the city of Cleveland. The Cavs lost at home last night to the Celtics to start the NBA season, they have to watch their two former aces pitch elsewhere in the World Series tonight and the Browns are still the Browns.) If we conclude that Sabathia and Lee are a wash that means the series will be decided elsewhere. While there is not a huge difference elsewhere, digging deeper doesn’t look good to those of us fervently rooting against the Pinstripes.
Cole Hamels has yet to pitch a really good game in this postseason. He struggled in the opener of the NLDS against Colorado. He struggled in two starts in the NLCS against Los Angeles. He was able to hang in well enough for his team to win two of those three games, but that won’t work against the Yankees. Hamels needs to find the form he showcased last October in winning MVP of both the LCS & World Series. He did not exactly get a vote of confidence from his manager when Charlie Manuel opted for Pedro Martinez in Game 2. New York goes to A.J. Burnett, who can be shaky, but has also only pitched one bad inning through the American League playoffs—a four-run first against the Angels in Game 5. Further down the line, the Yanks have the reliable Andy Pettite. In looking at the top three starters, the Yanks get an edge, if albeit not a huge one.
Philadelphia might pick up an advantage in Game 4. The Yanks are very unreliable at this spot, with the enigmatic Joba Chamberlain. For Philly, Joe Blanton is not an ace and doesn’t have Chamberlain’s capacity to dominate, but he’s also not as prone to self-destruction. Here’s where the pitching decisions of Joe Girardi, a topic there’s been no shortage of commentary on already, will come into play. In the ALCS, the Yanks opted to go with Sabathia on three days rest. But that was a relatively cost-free decision. Because the LCS has an extra day off during the middle three games, they could have brought him back for a Game 7 on full rest. That extra day doesn’t exist in the World Series. If Girardi wants to use Sabathia in a seventh game, he’ll have to do back-to-back starts on three days’ rest. My guess is that C.C. will do just that, but it has to be considered at least a little bit of an edge to Philly to get a shot at the ace at what may be less than his best.
The bullpen is the issue I’ve harped on about Philadelphia from the start of the postseason and so far they’ve proved me wrong. Brad Lidge found his old form and has again turned into a reliable closer. When he’s at his best, he can match zeroes with Mariano, and if this is a tightly played Series, there will come a time when he’ll have to do that. Brian Fuentes couldn’t for LAA, and it’s what cost the Angels Game 2, a circumstance that was predicted in this space. New York gets another slight edge in the setup crew, although this is close enough that anything could happen in a short series, particularly given that Yankee setup men haven’t been shutdown so far in this postseason.
Philadelphia is renowned for having an American League-style offense, with its adroit combination of power and patience. That’s a fair assessment and they can go toe-to-toe with the Pinstripes better than any other National League offense could. A careful perusal of the teams’ lineups shows this as roughly even, with an absolute key being Jimmy Rollins. He had a very poor season and if he plays to that level, the Phils are in trouble. If he does what Lidge has done thus far in the playoffs and finds his career form, then Philadelphia will have baserunners and will score runs. It’s also imperative that Phillie pitching keep Melky Cabrera off the bases and keep Nick Swisher in his slump. Those two lineup spots are the places where the Phils can make up for the edge that would otherwise go to New York, courtesy of A-Rod. Cabrera can be a pesky hitter, as he was against the Angels and it’s a huge problem if he turns the lineup over effectively.
Perhaps the biggest question comes down to the AL-NL exchange rate. The American League has significantly outperformed its counterpart in interleague play for several years now and by large margins. All of which suggests that the stats Philadelphia compiled against mostly inferior NL teams won’t hold up, any more than the WAC champ in college football would play up to its profile against the SEC champ. The Phillies overcame that problem in 2008, but that was against a young Rays team that was just happy to be there. Now they are facing a team with Series veterans like Jeter, Posada, Damon and Rivera, who can’t accept anything less than the ultimate prize. And the exchange rate isn’t just a theoretical question. It’s also a practical one. For four games, this Series will be played with a DH. New York has Hideki Matsui. NL teams aren’t going to pay a big salary to a ninth everyday player that can’t use unless they make the Series, and then only in games at the AL park.
What’s the bottom line? I see a Series similar to the ALCS. A lot of good games, perhaps fewer self-induced mistakes from the Phils, but one that ends with New York clinching in six games.
On a side note, think about Sunday in the city of Philadelphia. It starts at 1 ET, with the Eagles hosting the Giants for first place in the NFC East. Then it picks up at night when the Yanks are in town for Game 4. The football and baseball stadiums there are right next door to each other. With Philly & New York involved, what’s the over/under on number of people arrested for brawling? Or can Vegas even set a number high enough?
In closing, I’m thinking of the day that John F. Kennedy went to the Berlin Wall, during the height of the Cold War and said “Today, I am a Berliner.” Because today, we’re all Phillies fans.