By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
NEW YORK -- The 2002 World Series was notable for many reasons. It was the last to go a full seven games, the last to be played in the Pacific time zone, the last that might fairly be called a classic. It also took place at the height of the steroid era, and was the only one ever graced by Barry Bonds. And perhaps not coincidentally, it featured more home runs -- 21 of them -- than any World Series in history.
Since then, we have seen the end of the steroid era and the game returned to the swift and the young, and we have seen the World Series reduced to a lot of four-game sweeps and five-game walkovers, the best story lines of which were the cathartic ending of lengthy title droughts in Boston, Chicago, St. Louis and Philadelphia.
Here, though, at the end of the decade, baseball has once again given us a World Series with the potential to thrill, amaze and awe -- the New York Yankees, who could lock up the title of team of the decade with one more win, vs. the Philadelphia Phillies, the brash and powerful defending champions. Game 1 is Wednesday at 7:57 p.m. at Yankee Stadium.
The story lines are rich and plentiful:
Two old East Coast cities separated by some 80 miles of train tracks. Two dominant left-handed aces, New York's CC Sabathia and Philadelphia's Cliff Lee, who just 15 months ago were teammates on the Cleveland Indians. The first World Series for Yankees superstar/lightning rod/tabloid mainstay Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees' quest for their 27th World Series title (but first since 2000), and the Phillies' quest to become the first National League team to repeat since the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds.
But above all, the story of this series is power: Star power (combined, the two rosters contain 20 former or current all-stars). The power of money (the Yankees spent $423 million this winter on free agents).
And true, sheer, pure power -- the baseball kind. More so than in any World Series since the 2002 classic, this one will be about the home run -- the hitting of them, and the prevention of them.
The Yankees and Phillies combined to bash 468 homers this season; no World Series has ever featured a matchup of two teams who combined for more. Both teams have lineups full of power threats: The Phillies had four players who hit 30 or more -- led by Ryan Howard, the best pure slugger on either team, with 45 -- while the Yankees had seven who hit at least 20. In this postseason, the Phillies and Yankees have scored runs at a higher rate than any other teams -- the Phillies at 6.1 runs per game, the Yankees at 5.3.
"For our team, looking at the Phillies -- it's like looking in a mirror," said Rodriguez, who is hitting .438 with five homers and a 1.516 OPS this postseason. "They have switch hitters. They have speed. And they absolutely have knockout power, as we do. No lead is safe when you play us, or when you play them. It should be exciting."
It helps (or hurts, if you're a pitcher) that both teams play in extreme hitter's parks, each of which ranked as the most homer-friendly stadium in either league this season. No stadium witnessed more home runs this season than Yankee Stadium -- 237 of them, or 2.93 per game. Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park gave up 207 homers, or 2.56 per game, tops in the NL.
"It's ridiculous," said Phillies veteran left-hander Scott Eyre. "I don't think there's anybody in either starting lineup who can't hit a ball out anywhere in either park -- and we do play in two of the smaller parks in the game. . . . Any wrong pitch can turn a game around."
At the same time, both pitching staffs have excelled this postseason at preventing home runs. The Yankees have given up only three in their nine games thus far, a rate of 0.31 homers per nine innings that ranks tops in the eight-team playoff field. The Phillies' rate of 0.90 (eight homers allowed in nine games) ranks third.
"Home runs are great," said Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, "but at the end of the day, pitching wins out."
Both teams will try to get their best pitchers on the mound as often as possible. Sabathia is expected to start Game 4 on short rest, and perhaps Game 7 as well. The Phillies could do the same thing with Lee. The Yankees, as always, will try to shorten games by getting the ball to their master closer, Mariano Rivera.
In the postseason, Rodriguez said: "The pitching is so good, you realize one run is so valuable. To take a walk is huge -- you can score on a double, even with two outs. You feel like the first [team] to three or four runs is going to [win]."
Indeed, both teams have weapons beyond sheer power. The Phillies are exceptional base stealers, leading the majors with an 81 percent success rate and finishing second in the NL with 119 steals.
The Yankees, meantime, excel at drawing walks, working counts and wearing down pitchers. They led the majors this season with 663 walks and a .362 on-base percentage. Three of their four wins over the Los Angeles Angels in the ALCS came without the benefit of a home run, and in their clinching win in Game 6 they had zero extra-base hits but drew nine walks.
"You've got to come right at them," Lee said. "You've got to throw strike one. You've got to work ahead in the count [and] stay out of the heart of the plate. If you find yourself throwing ball one, next thing you know you're [down] 2-0 [or] 3-1 to those guys, and it's not going to be a good day."
But Lee's definition of a good day may not be the same as everyone else's. Pitching had its day in the World Series -- just six home runs hit in 2004, nine in 2005, six in 2006, six more in 2007. It is time to return it to the bashers, the sluggers, the mashers. It is time once again for power to prevail.