I meant to write a World Series preview that would be available to read on Tuesday night, but unfortunately, life gets in the way. With that said, maybe it was a blessing in disguise, as this series will be much easier to break down following Cliff Lee’s absolutely dominant performance in Game One.
The Phillies prized mid-season acquisition continued his unreal 2009 postseason by pitching a complete game in a 6-1, statement-making Phillies win. Unfortunately, his shutout was lost in the ninth inning due to an error by Jimmy Rollins, who prolonged the Phillies streak of throwing into the opposing dugout rather than first base. All told, Lee allowed six hits and NO WALKS, while striking out ten. He hasn’t allowed a free pass in three of four postseason starts, leading to a ridiculously low 0.60 WHIP. The most impressive aspect of Lee’s outing was his superiority over Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, who went a combined 0-for-8 with five strikeouts.
No writer should ever have to say this, but Cliff Lee’s performance in these playoffs has transcended words. His 0.54 ERA is the lowest ever recorded by a pitcher with 30 or more postseason innings. That’s right, the lowest in the history of this sport, which has been played since the presidency of Chester A. Arthur.
Before the World Series started, I was ready to pick the Phillies to win in six games. Needless to say, that didn’t change after Game One. No, Lee will not be available to pitch again until at least Game Four, but that does not change the fact that the Phillies lineup came to play Wednesday night, scoring twice off Yankees ace CC Sabathia, twice off setup man Phil Hughes (both runs were inherited by AL K/9 leader David Robertson), and, for good measure, twice more off of Brian Bruney in the ninth inning.
Big hits came from all spots of the lineup, as Chase Utley homered twice, Ryan Howard doubled twice and drove in a run, Raul Ibanez had a huge two-out, two-run single, and Carlos Ruiz, Jimmy Rollins, and Shane Victorino all contributed to a few more insurance runs. Just like the previous two rounds, the offensive output was a complete team effort, showing that from top-to-bottom, this Phillies lineup is as good as it gets.
A.J. vs. Pedro
Traditional thinking would give the Yankees the advantage in Game Two, as they have their high-priced number-two starter, A.J. Burnett, on the mound, to face a “past-his-prime” Pedro Martinez. But Burnett does not have a pretty history against this specific Phillies lineup, and Martinez is coming off a seven inning, three hit performance that was easily his best outing with his new team.
Since 2006, Burnett is 1-2 with a 5.89 ERA in three starts against the Phils. He has allowed six homers in those three starts and hasn’t gotten out of the sixth inning in any of them. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, and Jayson Werth have all homered once off Burnett, and Ryan Howard and likely-DH Matt Stairs have homered off the right-hander twice.
Burnett has struggled against the Phillies because he is precisely the type of pitcher that this team is built to hit – a hard-throwing righty with bad control. Other than 2001, his first full season, Burnett had the worst walk rate of his career in 2009, at 4.22 per 9 IP. Slightly more than half of his pitches, 50.1% to be exact, were out of the strike zone, which won’t bode well against a patient Phillies lineup that includes five players (Ruiz, Utley, Werth, Rollins, Ibanez) who swing at less than ¼ of the pitches they are thrown out of the zone.
Burnett, much like Pedro, will have to rely on the generosity of Game Two’s home plate umpire. If Burnett isn’t getting calls on borderline pitches, his effectiveness will drop significantly, because he is wild enough as it is. If Martinez can’t get calls on the corners, he, too, will assuredly struggle.
Movement and corner-painting are Pedro’s “bread and butter” at this point in his career, and the Yankees lineup will not give in – they’re even more patient than the Phillies. All Yankee regulars not-named-Robinson-Cano swing at fewer than the league-average 25% of the pitches they see outside the strike zone.
Leaving the Past
Much has been made about Pedro Martinez’ history vs. the Yankees, but I don’t see how the transpirations of 2003 will impact his performance in Game Two. The numbers I’ve laid before you concerning Burnett have all been compiled in the last four seasons against a Phillies lineup that has remained the same, for the most part.
But this Yankees lineup is completely different from the one Pedro faced while pitching for the Red Sox, aside from Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada, two hitters that Martinez has held in check in his career. Posada has displayed a bit of power against Pedro, homering four times in sixty at-bats, but he is hitting just .183 off the right-hander. Jeter is hitting .256/.347/.395 off Pedro, with an OPS more than 100 points lower than his career number.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware that Pedro Martinez circa 2003 contained a different skill set than he currently does. Therefore, all numbers that he compiled against hitters like Jeter and Posada in that span of time should be thrown out the window. Jeter and Posada, in 2009, are better than Martinez, in 2009. If common sense tells you to throw out his outings against the Yankees in 2003, it also tells you to remove the batter-vs.-pitcher numbers Pedro put together during the prime of his career, when he just so happened to be one of the greatest pitchers to ever toe the rubber.
To me, the Game Two pitching matchup is even. If Pedro can maneuver in-and-out of the strike zone like he did against the Dodgers, he should out-pitch Burnett, who, despite his price tag, has never cemented himself as an elite pitcher.
In Game Three, the advantage goes to Andy Pettitte, a pitcher the Phillies have only faced twice since 2006. In each outing, the lefty went seven innings and gave up four earned runs. The reason I see the Phillies struggling, however, is because Pettitte, the major-league record holder in pickoffs, will completely neutralize their running game, even with Jorge Posada behind the plate.
Pettitte’s splits are literally the same against righties (.270, 1 HR/45 AB) and lefties (.271, 1 HR/45 AB,) so it’s not as if the Phillies are facing a truly dominant southpaw. But after going up against two flamethrowers in Sabathia and Burnett, Pettitte could spell trouble for this lineup.
Tired of Waiting
Cole Hamels has struggled all season and, quite frankly, I’m sick of making excuses for him. Early in the season, I blamed it on his absurdly high BABIP that would eventually regress. Then, I blamed it on the “Order of Operations” theory, which would explain his struggles as being the result of going “double-walk-homer-strikeout” rather than “homer-double-walk-strikeout.”
None of his peripherals decreased in 2009, which is a good sign, but last year’s World Series MVP just has not shown any ability whatsoever to recapture the magic he once had. More importantly, Hamels hasn’t been able to pitch effectively as a frontrunner. In all three of his prior postseason starts, he’s been handed a big lead and failed to hold his opponents down. If he pitches well against the Yankees, it will be an example of his true talent coming out at the right time.
But don’t bank on it.
No More Bullpen Talk
In my opinion, the one proven fact of the 2009 playoffs has been that bullpen-talk is meaningless. Pitchers who toss fewer than fifty or sixty innings simply cannot be viewed as “shutdown” guys. Rafael Betancourt, Huston Street, Jonathan Broxton, George Sherrill, Hong Chih-Kuo, Ronald Belisario, Phil Hughes, and David Robertson were all touted as great relievers, coming off of strong regular seasons. But all have fallen victim to the Phillies multifaceted offense.
The reason for this? Well, it’s all about the situation. During the regular season, all of these men were used primarily in leads. Facing the Orioles or Padres with nobody on and nobody out in the eighth inning of a game in mid-July is much different than coming in with the bases loaded and 1 out in September. Therefore, it doesn’t matter which team may have a better bullpen on paper. Don’t believe me? Look at Brad Lidge’s 2009 season, then his 2009 postseason.
The situation will always dictate a reliever’s level of effectiveness.
The Impact of Game One
The Phillies have now won the last six opening games of playoff series’ – every round in 2008, and now every round in 2009. The road gets easier from here, as the Phillies now have the same amount of home-games remaining as the Yankees do, AND hold a 1-0 advantage.
Eleven of the past 12 Game One winner have gone on to win the World Series, and since 1995, teams that win Game One on the road are 4-1.
It sure is nice building an early lead, especially when home-cooking is on the horizon.