Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Seven Before Six
As you might have heard, the Philadelphia Phillies are in the World Series again, facing the New York Yankees. As a deeply invested Phillies fan who lives in New York City, I've been following this battle with interest. By "interest," I mean that over the last week-plus I've found it difficult to impossible to think about anything else for more than a few minutes.

The Phillies won the first game in the Bronx, lost the next three in various agonizing ways, and then barely hung on to win the fifth game and send the Series back up the Jersey Turnpike/Amtrak Northeast Corridor route. Game Six is tonight at Yankee Stadium II/III. My (usually faulty) psychic sense tells me that the Yankees are going to win 5-4 in walkoff fashion, either in the 9th or 10th inning; obviously I'm hoping the result goes the other way and we get to the baseball Valhalla of a World Series Game Seven. But before it wraps up, as it will sometime in the next 72 hours (GameSevenifnecessary is scheduled for Thursday, but rain is in the forecast; more on that below), I figured I should get some thoughts down here:
  • Tonight's pitching matchup, in which future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez goes for the Phillies against all-time postseason wins leader Andy Pettitte for the Yankees, almost certainly will be the last time two pitchers older than I am oppose each other in a World Series game. It's kind of amazing that this can still happen at all: the last time pitchers older than me faced off in the Series was Game One of the 2005 Series between the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox, when (ex-Yankees) Roger Clemens and Jose Contreras went at it.

  • Phils second baseman Chase Utley has tied Reggie Jackson's World Series record with five home runs in the five games thus far. As several pundits have noted, there's a real chance that Utley could be the Most Valuable Player of the Series even if the Yankees win: no one player has stood out for New York other than perhaps Johnny Damon, who's batting .381 and has scored five runs, and closer Mariano Rivera, who has finished off all three Yankee wins to this point. (Hideki Matsui is batting .556 with two homers, but he was reduced to pinch-hitting for the three games in Philadelphia; he has just nine at-bats.) Meanwhile, Utley hit two homers in each of the Phils' wins, has scored six times, and leads all batters with eight RBIs. If Pettitte pitches a great game tonight and gets the win, he'll be MVP with two victories in the Series--but if, say, the Yankees win a high-scoring game in which someone like Mark Teixiera (2 for 19 thus far) or Robinson Cano (3 for 18) is the big hitting hero for the home team, while Utley goes 4 for 5 with another homer and a bunch of RBI, he'll probably by the MVP. This would be, frankly, awful: for Chase Utley, the one downside of greatness is having to talk about and generally be recognized for his greatness. Imagine Fox's Ken Rosenthal saying, "Congratulations Chase, but your team lost--how do you feel?" You'll get either nothing or a response they'd better have on at least a five-second delay.

  • Neither manager has covered himself in glory this Series. I love Charlie Manuel, an evolved soul who's easily the greatest manager in Phillies history--but his in-game decisions hurt the team in each of the last four games. He left Martinez in too long in Game Two, made an inexplicable decision to pinch-hit the horrendous Eric Bruntlett in a big spot in Game Three and then left reliever Chad Durbin in too long when he obviously had no command, did the same with Brad Lidge in the nightmarish Game Four, and then futzed around with the outfield defensive alignment late in Game Five to near-disastrous effect. Maybe worse, he has a dead spot on his roster in the person of rookie lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo, who hasn't yet pitched in the Series and almost certainly won't unless the Phils are getting blown out; meanwhile, with Shane Victorino hurt after getting hit on the hand early in Game Five, there's a chance he'll have to use Bruntlett, among the worst hitters in baseball, as his DH or left fielder in a win-or-die game tonight. Meanwhlle, Yankee manager Joe Girardi failed to leverage the advantage he earned by his team winning three of the first four games, starting talented but erratic righty A.J. Burnett on short rest for Game Five and watching him get pummeled and now having to sweat out the 37 year-old Pettitte doing the same tonight. If he falls short, Game Seven would go to ace CC Sabathia, on double-short rest (he pitched to a no-decision in Game Four on three days' rest)--a situation in which the Phillies knocked him around in the 2008 National League Division Series when Sabathia pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers. Girardi's bullpen management has been questionable as well: heading toward the end of the Series, he really only can trust Rivera and perhaps veteran lefty Damaso Marte.

  • Characteristically--and this goes to both his great virtue as a manager and his possibly fatal (at least in terms of this week) flaw--Manuel has trusted his two biggest pitching stars from the 2008 title run, Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge, in big spots in this Series, and they've let him down. If the Yankees go on to win, the big turning point in the Series will have been the role reversals of Hamels and Pettite in Game Three (which I attended with my blog compadres from The Good Phight). Hamels took a 3-0 lead into the fourth inning, got a tough call on a full-count pitch to Teixiera that went for a walk, and then fell to pieces, allowing a controversial home run to Rodriguez that made it 3-2 and surrendering three more runs before getting pulled the next inning. It was Hamels' whole season writ small: bad luck or bad karma followed by bad pitching and a downward spiral he couldn't escape. (I'll gloss over his unfortunate postgame comments and the apparently overstated "fight" he got into with teammate Brett Myers after Game Five. Hamels was the single biggest reason we won it all last year; for that, from me, he has a lifetime pass.) Pettitte, by contrast, escaped near-disaster early on: he'd thrown 51 pitches and allowed three runs through two innings, but held the Phillies to one run over the next four on a night when, as he reportedly later told teammates, he had "nothing." I kind of hate the guy, as I do most ostentatiously religious athletes, but he pitched like a champion Saturday night.

  • In part because I'm fascinated by this stuff anyway and in part because it's going to be a prominent theme in the novel I'm trying to write, I've been thinking a lot about fan psychology and neurochemistry in the context of team victory or defeat. There's a book called Your Brain on Cubs that I'm eager to check out in this regard. It's not news that superstition and ritual is an enormous part of baseball, among both players and fans; we've got endless examples on, and there's a tradition within my family that, somehow, we're all causal factors. My brother is convinced that when he watches the whole game, the Phils lose; when he just checks in, they're more likely to win. His latest bit of data half-"confirms" and half-confounds the theory: he says that he turned it on Saturday night just in time to see Hamels walk Teixeira, after which the game quickly went to crap. For myself, in a moment of drunken exaltation after the Phillies finished off the Dodgers to win the National League pennant, I went online and bought a Jayson Werth jersey--the first sports jersey I've purchased in thirty years of fandom. I wore it for the Game One win and the losses in Games Two and Three; Sunday night, sick from sitting out in the rain in Game Three, I sat in an undershirt and watched them lose Game Four. The next night, recovering, I wore my Ryan Howard t-shirt and they won. I also drank to the point of intoxication during the victorious Series opener, had a few beers at a friend's house during the Game Two loss, one at the ballpark for Game Three, and nothing (thanks to feeling sick) during Games Four and Five. For tonight, I'm thinking I should go with the Howard t-shirt, Werth jersey, and heavy drinking. It has to work, right? This is the sort of madness you fall into seven months on in a baseball season. As always, I blame my parents.

  • It will be very tough to be here in New York if the Yankees win. Should they finish the Series tonight, the parade through the "Canyon of Heroes" could come Friday, when I usually go into the CUF office; I'd be much closer to the celebrating players and million-odd fans than I would prefer. Maybe worse, I'd have to spend the rest of however long I live in NYC occasionally running across "Yankees 2009 World Champions" swag--on the street, in the gym, shopping, wherever. But what really turns my stomach about this Yankee push for a 27th world championship is the notion that they need to "win it for the Boss," ailing owner/tyrant George Steinbrenner. Big Stein is baseball's answer to Kim Jong Il, but he's probably less fun to hang out with; he's a true motherfucker who's both a convicted felon (for illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon, a kindred spirit in that regard) and a confirmed sexist. He should have less sympathetic appeal than Monty Burns (whom even Yankee great Don Mattingly preferred to Steinbrenner). The Yankees, and their fans, should have enough reasons to crave victory beyond wanting to provide still more ego validation to a world-class asshole like Steinbrenner, who's probably too unwell to enjoy it anyway.

  • As I said, my guess is that it won't go to Game Seven: the Yankees just match up too well with Pedro, who's long on guts and guile but a bit short on stuff, and Rivera is probably good for two innings tonight after not pitching since Sunday and throwing only thirteen pitches over the weekend. But if the Phillies do win to force a winner-take-all seventh game, it'll get really interesting. Sabathia now has thrown more than 265 innings this year, after working more than 260 in each of the previous two seasons. The Phillies have seen him a lot, and he hasn't been at his near-unhittable best since the AL Championship Series in which New York dispatched the Angels of Los Angeles of Anaheim. On the other hand, the Phillies' pitching options start with the psychologically battered Hamels, then proceed on to rookie J.A. Happ, who hasn't been really sharp in more than two months, and then go on to a figurative cast of thousands. If the forecast nor'easter washed away a game Thursday night, the Phils probably could turn to their ace, Cliff Lee, who's earned victories in both Phillies wins, on three days' rest. But Lee has thrown even more innings in 2009 than Sabathia--over 270--and he has about 100 pounds less of body mass to sustain him. Plus Sabathia would be going on full normal rest were the game delayed to Friday. But it would be a contest for the ages, and potentially the sort of glorious Fall Classic finale that baseball hasn't seen since 2002.

Here's hoping.


l.e.s.ter said...

Nicely written! As a diehard Yankee hater, my hopes are pinned on your Phillies. But I think I'll be stepping around tickertape come Friday.

David said...

If that's the case--if the parade is Friday--I might have to somehow get myself sick again and stay home. A bit of having my face rubbed in it over 10-15 years I think I can tolerate; a dump truck of salt poured into a still-open wound, not so much.

The Navigator said...

You called it. Hope you found a good excuse today. And I don't think they can resign Pedro when the evidence is that he's only effective on about 10 days rest.

In re: your book, Hank Davis just came out with a book called Caveman Logic which you might find interesting and relevant.