NEW YORK—It’s been six years for the boys from the Bronx.
For many Yankees fans, the sour aftertaste from 2003 and the ghost of Josh Beckett still lingers. But this year’s team is different. You can sense it, you can see it in their eyes—this team is driven, confident, and for the first time in years, you can genuinely declare that the Yankees are better than the sum of their parts.
Gone are the days of Chuck Knoblauch’s fielding blunders, Jason Giambi’s whiffs, and the steady hand—but sometimes maddening in-game decisions—of Joe Torre. Today, Alex Rodriguez has usurped Reggie Jackson as “Mr. October,” Mark Teixeira has become one of the best defenders in the infield, while young, burly C.C. Sabathia is the ace of their pitching staff. And of course, Mariano Rivera is still Mariano Rivera.
Opposing them are the defending World Champions Philadelphia Phillies. The two teams last met in the World Series in 1950, when the Yankees swept Philadelphia in four games for the title. But over the last 59 years, the two teams hardly followed the same path.
While the Yankees became the most celebrated baseball team in the country, while the Phillies counted their 10,000th loss—the most of any sports franchise in history. The Phils were perennial bottom feeders in the National League.
But their paths converge yet again, as the Phillies have become one of the league’s best in recent years, and last year won their first title since 1980 under the tutelage of General Manager Pat Gillick. Chock-full of homegrown talent, the Phillies are a battle-hardened team armed with speed, power, pitching, and above all, resiliency.
Let’s take a look at some storylines from this year’s Fall Classic.
The Cleveland Connection
Game 1 starters will be Cliff Lee for the Phillies and C.C. Sabathia for the Yankees. Lee and Sabathia are the 2008 and 2007 AL Cy Young award winners, respectively, and both became stars in the Cleveland Indians organization. One could only imagine what Indian fans—and GM Mark Shapiro—are thinking right now as they witness their one-time stars facing off in the World Series on new teams.
Howard vs. ARod
The Yankees and the Phillies have two of the hottest hitters in baseball. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez has 12 RBIs this postseason, and as a result emphatically shed his reputation for coming up empty in the clutch. Ryan Howard, the Phillies giant first baseman, has 14 RBIs this postseason, and drove in a run in eight consecutive games this October, tying the post-season record set by Lou Gehrig.
Neither team can afford to intentionally walk Rodriguez or Howard—using the strategy the Los Angeles Dodgers employed against St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols. Both teams have too much firepower in the lineup to allow casual free passes.
At 39, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is still the best in the business, especially in the post-season. If the Yankees are leading heading into the ninth inning with Rivera set to pitch, it's all but over. The Phillies Brad Lidge is an enigma. In 2008, Lidge was a perfect 48 for 48 in save situations, but the wheels fell off in 2009. He led the league with 11 blown saves and a 7.21 ERA during the regular season. But in the post-season, Lidge seemed to have rediscovered himself—going 1-0 with three saves and no runs allowed.
Besides the closer, the Yankees also have the edge in middle relief. Phil Hughes has been lights out, and Joba Chamberlain—the reliever turned inconsistent starter turned reliever again—has been holding his own in the seventh inning. For the Phillies, Ryan Madson has been solid, but an injury to lefty specialist J.C. Romero leaves them without a good option against left-handed batters.
Manuel’s Magic Touch vs. Girardi’s Chess Match
Joe Girardi is in his second season as the skipper for the Bronx Bombers, and he has plenty of experience in the post-season, mostly as a player with the Yankees in the late 1990s. Girardi was the 2006 National League Manager of the Year with the Florida Marlins, but this year has guided the Yankees to a baseball-best 103 wins.
Philadelphia’s Charlie Manuel doesn’t seem like much on the surface, but players respect him and play hard for him. He also manages with his gut feelings and has made all the right moves this post-season—even out-maneuvering the legendary Joe Torre in the NLCS against the Dodgers. I give the Phillies a slight edge in the managerial department.
Prediction: Yankees in seven.