* weather permitting...
I was there on Sunday, the beneficiary of a friend feeling under the weather, when the Yanks clinched American League pennant #40. It was made all the tastier because of the measure of payback the Yanks got against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in California of the West Coast of the United States, who'd sent the Yanks to some early October golfing in 2002 and 2005. Andy Pettitte, who's pretty much been Good Andy full-time since mid-July (he's 8-3 with 12 quality starts in his last 17 games) was on the money once again. A Yankee rally in the fourth gave him the lead, and in the eighth, everyone was surprised to hear the opening notes of Enter Sandman as Girardi took no chances on the last six outs. There was some excitement that inning, because a gork and a Vlad Guerrero single shaved the lead down to one against Rivera. However, Angels deadline pickup Scott Kazmir literally threw that momentum away in the bottom of the inning, when he couldn't throw a strike to the plate or to the first baseman. Boogie down time in the Bronx.
But pennant number 40 means that now it's time to worry about what could be championship number 27--and it's going to be a grind. The Phils won 93 games to the Yanks' 103, playing in a weaker league and arguably weaker division, but that's all out the window right now. The Phils remind me a bit of the 2002 Yankees, a team that was built on big peak performances which were meant to cover for some soft spots in the lineup. However, the starting rotation matches or betters anything the Yankees have put out there since 1998. (Even though the Yanks and Phils were neck-and-neck in SNVAR this season, the mid-season acquisitions of Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez, and the mid-season degradation of Joba Chamberlain, pushes the Pennsylvanians over the top.) The Yankees' bullpen is an off-setting advantage, so I see this as close to a 50/50 series as possible. The keys to this series:
Starting Pitcher: CC Sabathia and Cole Hamels -- These two aren't likely to hook up in any one game of this series, but each shoulders a great responsibility for his team's success. CC should start three games if this World Series goes the full seven, something we haven't seen since Curt Schilling against the Yanks in 2001. Again, this is what he got the big money from the Yanks for. Meanwhile, Hamels was the ace of last season's World Champions, and a big part of the Phils' rotation superiority is the idea that he can snap back to that form, which he showed intermittently this season. In three postseason starts, however, Hamels was nothing special, and seemed to push everyone's frustration threshold--he got pulled in the fifth inning of the NLCS clincher against the Dodgers. Good Cole versus Bad Cole is a big swing for the Phils.
Right Field: Jayson Werth and Nick Swisher -- With the Yanks possibly starting lefties in five of seven games, Werth is going to have to pick up whatever slack the power lefties in the Phils' lineup (Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Raul Ibanez) leave behind. In his first season as a full-timer, Werth was the righty counterpart to Howard, punishing lefties to the tune of a homer every 13.4 plate appearances. Meanwhile, in the Yankees' more balanced lineup, a functional Swisher is the difference between the Yankee lineup being a relentless on base machine that drives pitchers up the wall, or not.
Relief Pitcher: Mariano Rivera and Brad Lidge -- We've seen already in this postseason that Joe Girardi is going to lean on Mariano Rivera like there is no tomorrow--it's one of the few things Joe's done in the playoffs we approve of. The question is whether the Sandman, a month shy of his 40th birthday, can continue to answer the call if Girardi loses faith in Phil Hughes and needs him for extended appearances night after night. Meanwhile, Lidge's issues are well-documented (7.21 ERA this year!) but Charlie Manuel has staked a lot on trying to get him back on track. The Yanks have made a lot of their hay against bullpens this year, so it's unlikely that Lidge will go untested.
If I have to make a call, it's Yanks in six, but I think that overstates how close this series is, and is going to be. Happy baseball, everyone!