2009 World Series: Five Key Storylines
Mr. Lidge & His Unstable Bridge
If one was creating a children’s book with this title, perhaps the best cover picture would be the following:
Hilarious images created in MS Paint aside, Brad Lidge has been quite shaky over this year, and the course of his career as a whole. When Lidge came to Philadelphia, many questioned how he would handle adversity due to his fall from grace following his rough 2005 playoff experience.
Proving he could handle rough stretches was undoubtedly the most important thing that Lidge had to do in the 2008 season. Oddly enough, Lidge managed to put together an MVP-caliber championship season without answering this vital question.
This year, however, we have certainly seen Lidge face his fair share of adversity. He has become inconsistent and somewhat unreliable, and the rest of the Phillies’ bullpen has certainly followed suit. This year, what was known last year as the “Bridge to Lidge” now inspired nail-biting, hyperventilating, and head-shaking more than it did catchy nicknames.
The Phillies bullpen has been somewhat stronger in the playoffs than it was during the regular season, but they haven’t been performing at a level that inspires the sort of confidence that they earned last year.
As the Phillies enter the World Series, their hopes of winning are going to rely on one of two things—either the presence of an overpowering offense, or a reliable bullpen. The kinds of games that tend to hurt the Phillies the most are those that see their starters pitch a gem only to have the bullpen erase a strong effort.
This often isn’t an issue if the offense is producing a lot of runs, but the Phillies can’t really rely on blowing out a Yankees team featuring C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Andy Pettitte. There’s a very good chance that the Phillies’ bullpen will find themselves in high-pressure situation at multiple points in this series, and they’re going to have to play like they did in the playoffs last year if they are going to win.
The bullpen made major slip-ups in Game Four of the NLDS and Game Two of the NLCS— both at critical junctures that could easily have shifted the series out of the Phillies’ favor. Given the fact that the Yankees are a powerhouse team that hits well in clutch situations, the Phillies can’t hope to win this series if their closer and setup men play at a level any lower than the level they performed at last year.
The Long Layoff vs. The Short Layoff
Last year, many experts cited the Phillies' six-day layoff between the NLCS and World Series as a big problem for the Phillies, who would be facing a Rays team coming off a two-day layoff between the ALCS and the World Series. Some even went as far as to use that as a reason for picking the Rays.
The Phillies' offense ended up hitting pretty badly in the early parts of the series, but the Phillies still won because their pitching was so strong. The Phillies’ success last year would suggest that they can play well after a long layoff, although it goes without saying their five-game victory over the Rays was remarkable given how badly the offense performed.
Like the Rays, the Yankees will be coming off a two-day layoff when they play in Game One. But the circumstances will be somewhat different for them. While both teams are starting their aces (Scott Kazmir for the 2008 Rays and C.C. Sabathia for the Yankees) on plenty of rest, the Yankees will have a lot more energy going into their World Series than the Rays did last year.
The Rays won the AL East and ALDS with surprisingly little effort, but they had a lot more trouble in the ALCS. After taking a 3-1 series lead, the Rays had loads of trouble eliminating the Red Sox and ended up barely winning the series. The Yankees, on the other hand, didn’t have to put the same amount of effort into winning a pennant, and because of that they will go into the World Series in a morefocused, energetic mode, and less of a celebratory, deflated mode.
The Rays suffered from what I like to call the “just happy to be there” syndrome, which causes Cinderella teams to fold after a massive upset. Nobody expected them to win the pennant, while the Phillies had their eye on a World Series title from the very start.
In this year’s World Series, expect the length of each team’s layoff to have a couple effects on this series. First of all, the Phillies' layoff is too long for them to expect their recent hot streak to carry into the World Series. Ryan Howard is no longer on a streak, and all of the Phillies players will be long-removed from the NLCS.
The Yankees, on the other hand, didn’t win the ALCS all that long ago, so their recent performance will carry over a bit more. The likely result of this will be the Phillies come out of the gate a bit sluggish and, because of this, the Yankees will probably have the edge in Game One.
In that case, the question will be if the Phillies can get their act together quickly enough to earn a series split in New York, which would give them home-field advantage in the series and undoubtedly place them in the driver’s seat.
Is Yankee Stadium Really the Yankees’ Stadium?
The Yankees have played fantastically at home this season, and historically the team has tended to build teams that take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s shallow right-field dimensions. The new Yankee Stadium’s mysterious wind-tunnel effect has also made the park very friendly towards power-hitters in general, as fly balls tend to carry much more than they would elsewhere. That being said, the kind of team that does best at the new Yankee Stadium is a team that is lefty-heavy and swings for the fences.
Wait a minute...isn't that the Phillies?
Bizarrely enough, the Phillies have fielded a team this year much more well-built to play in Yankee Stadium than the Yankees’ current team. Due to the power-friendly nature of their home field, Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies have a team that loves to hit for power, which actually makes Yankee Stadium even more ideal for them.
While the Yankees also hit a lot of long-balls, the Phillies do happen to be more lefty-heavy than the Yankees. It's certainly an advantage when you consider the walls at Yankee Stadium are a bit deeper in right field than they are in left.
This bizarre reality would suggest that the Phillies are even better built for Yankee Stadium then the Yankees are. When you combine that notion with the Phillies’ MLB-best road record (48-33 in the regular season, 3-1 in the playoffs), the magnitude of the Yankees’ home-field advantage seems a bit more obsolete than their 57-24 regular-season home record and 5-0 playoff home record would suggest.
This isn’t to say that the Yankees are at a disadvantage at home, but given the structure of the series (see “2-3-2”), this situation could shift the series in the Phillies’ favor.
The 2-3-2 format for a seven-game series (meaning that one team plays games one, two, six, and seven at home, while the other hosts games three through five) used by the MLB instead of the 2-2-1-1-1 format has the effect of giving the team without home-field advantage a different sort of advantage.
In an “ideal” series—one that sees the home team win every game—the team with home-field advantage would actually trail the series after Game Five. In a 2-2-1-1-1 format, the team with home-field advantage would never trail at any point in an “ideal” series. Some consider this situation as unfair toward teams with home-field advantage, while others see it as a way of making a series more fair and competitive.
Both the Phillies and Yankees have had experience with the quirks of the 2-3-2 format. In 2001, the Yankees played in an “ideal” series, as the team didn’t have home-field advantage, resulting in them falling behind 0-2, going ahead 3-2, then losing the series in Game 7.
The Phillies took full advantage of the 2-3-2 format last year, winning one game in Tampa Bay (as the Rays had home-field advantage) before winning all three games at home. This allowed them to take the series in five games, despite winning only one road game.
In this series, the 2-3-2 format makes home-field advantage seem obsolete—including both the Yankees' initial home-field advantage and the potential home-field advantage the Yankees or Phillies could win at some point with a win on the road.
It would be obsolete for the Phillies because they would only gain home-field advantage if they win one or two games at Yankee Stadium. Holding onto that advantage would require them to win all three home games at home if they earned a split, or would require them to win two out of three at home in the very unlikely event that they won both Games One and Two in New York.
For the Yankees, home-field advantage wouldn’t be a good thing to cling to. Even if they maintain it, the Phillies could still gain a 3-2 lead in the series—putting the Yankees in a rough spot.
Historically, the 2-3-2 format tends to be much kinder to teams that don’t have home-field advantage than the 2-2-1-1-1 format is—but it is much less forgiving to teams that drop both Games One and Two on the road.
Two examples come to mind. In the 2001 World Series, which followed a 2-3-2 format, the Yankees dropped Games One and Two on the road to the Diamondbacks. The Yankees went on to pull off a miraculous sweep of the three games in New York, yet still lost the series in seven games.
We saw the opposite example in the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, a 2-2-1-1-1 series in which the Detroit Red Wings went up 2-0 over the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins fought hard and won Games Three and Four, but got steamrolled in Game Five. Nevertheless, they won Game Six at home and shocked the Red Wings in Game Seven.
The moral of the story is that trailing 2-0 in a 2-3-2 format means, in order to win, you essentially face three consecutive must-wins at home. Even if you will all three of those games, you have to win either Game Six or Seven on the road after that exhausting effort.
In a 2-2-1-1-1 format, a team down 2-0—like the Penguins—can win Games Three and Four at home, have an off-day and drop Game Five on the road, then come roaring back in Game Six and use that momentum going into Game Seven. The Phillies, on the other hand, would have to win three games in three days at home in order to give themselves a realistic chance in the series. That would be extremely exhausting and might use up all of their energy, as it seemed to do to the Yankees in 2001.
That being the case, the 2-3-2 format can be a huge plus to the Phillies, so long as they earn a series split in New York. If they do so, the Yankees suddenly have to take one of the games in Philadelphia to force the series back to the Bronx, and they’d have to take two of three to be in the driver’s seat.
This isn’t to say that the Yankees have to win both games at home; their chances are still good if they do so. What the Yankees need to do is avoid letting the Phillies use the three straight home games to take control of the series, as they did against the Rays.
The best way they can do that is to avoid trailing the series at any point. Their starters will tire as the series moves along in the likely event they use a three-man rotation (see “Three vs. Four Man Rotation”), and because the Phillies are very dangerous when they have momentum.
Three-Man vs. Four-Man Rotation
During the 2008 season, those involved with the Yankees universe began to realize that their core of older, declining players wasn’t going to win them a championship anytime soon. Many experts believed scouting was the answer, but the Yankees were determined to win sooner rather than later.
They wanted to win soon, not in ten years. That being the case, they added three huge free agents to their team, two of which were ace-caliber pitchers- C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.
Both Sabathia and Burnett are highly skilled pitchers, but they are only two starters in the Yankees rotation. They are supplanted by the also-capable Andy Pettitte, but after that things become a bit cloudier. The Yankees have used Chad Gaudin sparingly in case he would be needed as a fourth starter in the World Series, but when push comes to shove, it seems unlikely that the Yankees would use Gaudin in Game Four unless they had a comfortable lead in the series.
That being the case, if this series becomes a big challenge for the Yankees, they might want to have their best arms on the field at all times. However, that means that their starters would be pitching on short rest from Game Four on.
While that might be something that hasn’t hurt C.C. Sabathia, it would probably hinder Burnett or Pettitte’s performance. I wouldn’t read too much into the Phillies “solving” C.C. Sabathia in Game Two of the NLDS last year. In reality, they won that game in one inning, which hardly qualifies as “solving” a pitcher, and certainly doesn’t mean that Sabathia can’t pitch on short rest.
On the other hand, it is undeniable that the Phillies are going to have an easier time making a strong rotation for this World Series (a seven-game series that has no off-days other than travel days), because they can put a strong fourth starter on the mound in Game Four, giving them a good chance of victory and a rested rotation in Games Four through Seven.
Some would argue that the ability to use C.C. Sabathia in a possible Game Seven would make the Yankees’ three-man rotation advantageous. However, even if the Yankees are able to reach that point, a matchup between a somewhat-fatigued C.C. Sabathia (pitching on short rest for the second straight time) and a fully-rested Cole Hamels wouldn’t be overwhelmingly favorable for the Yankees.
Throughout this entire season, I have maintained that the World Series would see the Yankees prevail over the Phillies. I am a huge Phillies fan, but I never let my allegiances dictate my predictions. Last year, I had expected the World Series to be Red Sox over Phillies, but I changed my prediction to indicate a Phillies victory after the Rays beat out the Sox for the AL pennant. I stick by my predictions unless I see a compelling reason to do so.
I usually go with my gut when I make a prediction—and when I don’t I often suffer from the miscue. In this case, my gut has constantly told me that the Yankees are destined to reclaim their spot atop baseball. However, every time I match these teams up (as I have done here) and play out the series in my head and on paper, the Phillies end up prevailing.
You might scoff and say, “Well, that’s because you’re a Phillies fan who is just excited and afraid to lose,” you’d be right—but that’s not why I'm getting these results.
Rather, it is because I have seen the Phillies do things in these playoffs that have defied my conception of them. They have played clutch baseball in situations they once would have flopped in. They have played consistently in all aspects in the game—something they struggled with many times in the past, including during last year’s championship run.
Most importantly, they have played like champions, failing to disappoint Philadelphia fans when we expect them to. I have seen plenty of top-ranked Philadelphia teams flop over the years, but this team has failed to do that. They have earned the respect of the baseball world, but haven’t acted presumptuously. I know this team all too well, and I can confidently tell you that they are not the team they used to be.
As for the Yankees, I think they are a better team overall than the Phillies. They aren’t overwhelmingly better, but they are a bit stronger of a baseball team. However, as this article has revealed, they don’t match up well against the Phillies.
The Phillies pose a challenge to the Yankees that the Yankees have not faced yet this season. They have players with World Series experience throughout their roster, and they know what it takes to win. This Yankees team is the first step towards a new dynasty, but the Phillies are already in their glory years and are now on the verge of becoming a dynasty.
I have a multitude of respect for this Yankees team, but they’re a patchwork of old and new that hasn’t come together the way the Phillies have. To make a long story short, the Yankees may have a tangible advantage in this series, but it is clear that the Phillies have an intangible advantage going for them that will be tough to overcome. A
dd that to the way these two teams match up head-to-head, and it looks like the powerful Yankees aren’t the clear favorite in this series.
This series will undoubtedly go a long way in deciding whether or not the Phillies’ current team will become a dynasty, as well as in determining whether or not the Yankees are once again the kings of baseball. This much is clear—this World Series has more on the line than any series has had before.
Both organizations need this victory so badly, and because of this, many expect it to be a classic. I’m not going to pretend I’m completely convinced that my prediction will be right..but in the end, I think the Phillies’ intangibles—including their experience, team-play, and seasoned manager—as well as the structure of the series and the way the two teams match up will give the Phillies the victory in six games.
Predictions often call for longer series when the teams are closely matched, but I think the Phillies will go into Game 6 up 3-2, and will earn the road victory. Unless the Yankees either take a 2-0 series lead or gain a 3-2 lead in the series, I’m going to stick with that prediction
Phillies in 6
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