Monday, October 26, 2009

2009 World Series Preview

And so it has been decided.

With the Yankees' Game 6 ALCS victory over the Anaheim Angels in the Bronx, the AL representative for the 2009 World Series was officially decided, and we now know it will be the New York Yankees who will attempt to dethrone Your World Champion Philadelphia Phillies over the next week starting this Wednesday night. Although the Yankees just won late on Sunday evening, Yankees vs Phillies has been a foregone conclusion in my mind for a while now, so I have had plenty of time to reflect on the reality of this matchup from several different angles.

For starters -- and I acknowledge going in that it is impossible for me to fully eliminate any bias that might be present as a result of my being from Philadelphia -- but it seems to me that this year's Fall Classic matchup of the Phillies and the Yankees is the best World Series matchup on paper, featuring the best core of great players, in several years. Think about it -- nobody would argue that last year's Phillies - Rays series holds a candle to Phillies - Yankees, and then just start going back from there. 2007: Boston vs. Colorado? Ugh. 2006: St. Louis vs. Detroit. Not terrible I guess, but nothing compared to Yankees - Phils. 2005: White Sox - Astros. Oh. My. God. 2004: Boston - St. Louis. Now this is a matchup that was absolutely huge at the time because Boston had just come back from down 3 games to 0 against the Yankees in the ALCS and because the Sox had not won the World Series in nearly 90 years since trading away Babe Ruth, so that one might have been bigger for that reason, but the actual matchup with the Cardinals' roster is certainly no great shakes. 2003: Yankees - Marlins. Not as big as Yankees - Phillies. 2002: Angels - Giants. Fun if you live in the Bay Area or like steroid-pumping cheaters I guess, but it's no Yankees - Phillies. 2001: Yankees - Arizona. Nope. 2000: Mets - Yankees. This one was probably bigger than Yankees - Phils, although it certainly focused the fan base in one very small area of the country moreso than any World Series in recent history.

Even going back beyond 2000, this year's Yankees - Phillies matchup stacks up very nicely in terms of what most people (myself included) are expecting to see from two of the best playoff baseball teams in recent memory. It was Yankees - Braves in 1999 (another great series on paper), Yankees - Padres in 1998, Marlins - Indians in '97, Yankees - Braves again '96, and then Atlanta - Cleveland, Toronto - Philly, Toronto - Atlanta, Minnesota - Atlanta (which turned out to be an absolutely incredible World Series) and finally Cincinnati - Oakland to round out the 1990s. When I compare this Phillies team, the fact that they are the defending champions and have beaten down the rest of the National League now two years running, matching up against this $208 million beast of a Yankees team, as I said I don't see how you can argue it does not stack up very favorably against most or all of those WS matchups from recent history. And the television ratings I can only assume will back that up over the coming week or two. Baseball ratings may never hold a candle to the NFL in the U.S., but obviously this is going to be much more watched than last year's Phillies - Rays series, for example. The inclusion of the vaunted Yankees in the Fall Classic always brings with it the hordes of fair-weather fans (many of them miraculously Mets fans twenty years ago) around the country and around the world to tune in and see if the Yanks can nab their 27th World Series title in this, the franchise's 40th appearance in the final series of the year in Major League Baseball.

And this leads to my second major focus regarding the 2009 World Series: both of these teams are absolutely awesome. You just can't or wouldn't say that about many of the teams in the above paragraph that have participated in the Fall Classic over the past twenty years or so. But one thing the 2009 Phillies did without a shadow of a doubt is put to rest any silliness about anyone claiming that the Phils' 2008 World Championship was a fluke. This team came back out in 2009 hungrier than I ever would have expected to defend their title. After taking over first place early in the spring, the Phils simply never looked back, scoring the most runs in the National League while posting the second-best fielding percentage and featuring probably the three best offseason or intra-season acquisitions in the league in Raul Ibanez, Pedro Martinez and Cliff Lee. And once the playoffs came back around, the Phillies once again elevated their game right to where they were at in 2008. Solid pitching at the top of the rotation, scoring runs in droves and just generally displaying the heart of a champion is what the 2009 Phillies have been all about, and at this point, with the team just the third squad in the divisional area to repeat as National League champions, it is clear as a bell that we are looking at a seriously great Philadelphia team, a fact with which the Yankees certainly would not argue.

And the Yankees, well there are a lot of reasons they are also a great team. 208million of them in fact. Although the Yanks have always been the best team that money can buy during my lifetime, the bottom line is that all that money was not spent very well over the past several years, typically leaving the team with a passable pitching staff but one which would not hold up in the shortened-series format forced by the baseball playoffs every year these days. But this year that is all different. After the team went out and spent over $220 million in the offseason to acquire pitchers CC Sabathia from the Brewers and AJ Burnett from the Blue Jays, the Yankees ended the 2009 regular season with the 4th best team ERA in the American League, the 2nd lowest opposing batting average and OPS against, the third-best WHIP in the AL, and of course, the most saves in the majors thanks to stalwart Mariano Rivera in the 9th. This combines with a lineup of pricey all-star after pricey all-star that finished the season with the most runs in the majors, posted the second-best batting average, and the best on-base %, slugging % and OPS in baseball. In short, the Yankees have been hands-down the best team in baseball in 2009, and have been since the midway point of the season at least in fact, and their 103 wins prove it as they won several more games than their closest competitors, the Angels whom the Yankees just dispatched in six games in the ALCS.

But more than the clear greatness of the two teams involved, there are some individual matchups coming up in the 2009 World Series that should really be intriguing to say the least. To begin with, the matchup that everyone's been looking forward to after the past couple of weeks of baseball is the Yankees' CC Sabathia squaring off on the mound vs. Phillies' ace Cliff Lee in Game 1. On the one hand you've got Sabathia, who was the Yankees' MVP of the ALCS after he pitched two games, going 16 innings and giving up 9 hits and 2 earned runs total in the two starts. Eight innings of 1-run, few-hit ball before giving way to all-time best closer Mariano Rivera for the 9th in each of Sabathia's two starts against the Angels, to go along with 2 runs allowed in 6.2 innings against the Twins in the Yankees' LDS matchup as well. Sabathia's overall postseason ERA stands at an enviable 1.19 so far here in 2009, after less postseason success earlier in his career. And then you have Cliff Lee for the Champs, who might just have outdone Sabathia in the playoffs so far in going 2-0 with an incredible 0.74 ERA in three starts in the postseason, also good enough for LCS MVP honors for the first-year Phillie. That 0.74 ERA, by the way, is the lowest career postseason ERA for any pitcher in major league history with at least three starts, for what that is worth. Lee pitched very similar against the Rockies in the NLDS to what Sabathia did to the Angels in the ALCS, throwing 16.1 innings, giving up two earned runs and a total of 11 hits. But then Lee followed that up by plowing down the Dodgers in Game 3 of the NLCS in his last appearance, throwing eight complete innings of a 3-hit shutout against the team with the best record in the National League. The Sabathia vs. Lee matchup should be a real clash of the titans in the 2009 World Series, and the best part is we should get to see it multiple times, as things have lined up such that both teams can go with their preferred starters in the order they would like, so we could see Sabathia vs. Lee in Game 1, Game 4 and then again in Game 7 on three days' rest, if necessary. That right there should be a whole lot of fun, especially to watch these two aces pitch to these two all-star lineups in two of the most home run-inducing parks in the major leagues today.

But there is another matchup among the starting rotation that I think is almost equally interesting, but for some very different reasons, and that is the likely Game 2 matchup of AJ Burnett for the Yankees against the Philles' Cole Hamels. This is another matchup that we could see in both Game 2 and again in Game 6 of the World Series (if necessary), and yet it is one that the fans of each team will be looking forward to more with trepidation and concern than anticipation and confidence as is likely the case with the Game 1 matchup discussed above. Hamels, the 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP, has had a very inconsistent 2009 that saw him go 10-11 on the year with a 4.32 ERA. What's more, in three postseason starts so far this fall, Hamels has failed to make it even halfway through the sixth inning in any of them, giving up 11 earned runs in a total of 14.2 innings pitched for a 2009 postseason ERA so far of 6.75. Which is quite disgusting. Burnett, meanwhile, who went 13-9 with a 4.09 ERA during the regular season, has fared a little better in the postseason, lasting 6 innings in each of his three outings so far and ceding a total of 9 runs for a postseason ERA of 4.42, but failing to secure a win in any of his three postseason starts so far for the Yankees. But with Burnett I think it is his latest start last week against the Angels that has the Yankees' management and fans concerned as the pitcher was touched up for four runs in the first inning and then gave up two more in the middle of the game before being lifted after looking generally shaky as he did for sustained periods of time during the regular season. Especially given that these are likely to be the World Series starters for two of the games in the 2009 Fall Classic, which of these two pitchers can hold his own better for longer against the opponent's all-star lineup is likely in my view to play a major role in who ultimately is crowned the 2009 World Champions.

The last matchup I will mention today is something which almost always looms large in the World Series -- the bullpen. More specifically, the Phillies' bullpen, and most specifically, the team's closer situation. As I chronicled here in totally unabashed terms throughout the 2009 season, Phillies' closer Brad Lidge -- who went a perfect 47 for 47 in save opportunities in a magical 2008 including closing out the final game of the 2008 World Series -- was just about the single worst player in the major leagues throughout 2009. Plain and simple, can't say anything else about it. And even though Lidge appeared in and closed out two of the games against the Colorado Rockies in the NLDS this year, Lidge was amazingly not needed at all in the NLCS against the Dodgers, mostly because the Phils had the lead from the 4th inning on in their 8-6 win in Game 1, they crushed 11-0 in Game 3 and again 10-4 in the clincher. The Phillies just beat the vastly undermanned and under-hearted Dodgers too badly all throughout the NLCS for Lidge to have gotten any real work, and as a result it is still verrrrrry much up in the air which Brad Lidge is going to show up to face those potent Yankees bats in the World Series. But given the way the Phillies season has shaped up this year, it is likely that the team will rely on Lidge to close out at least one or two of the games it wins in the World Series, should they be in a position to do so. And let me tell you, I'm not the only Phillies fan in the country who is man enough to admit being scared to freakin death about the thought of Brad Lidge against Jeter, Damon, Cano, A-Rod, Teixeira, Godzilla et al in the 9th inning with a 1-run lead. In either of these ballparks particularly. Much as I desperately wish this were not the case, Brad Lidge against the Yankees' all-star bats is sure to be one of the key determinants of how the 2009 World Series shakes out.

That's my preview of the World Series as I look ahead to what should be one of the best pure baseball series in years in the major leagues. I'll be back on Wednesday with my predictions and what I think will be the key advantages and disadvantages for each team before things kick off Wednesday night around 8:30pm ET in New York City.

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