By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009
NEW YORK -- Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium was a night of helplessness at the plate, a night of whiffing at infernal, unhittable pitches and making a U-turn back to the dugout, a night when some of the most feared sluggers in baseball -- the focal point of so much hype as Game 1 of the World Series dawned -- were rendered weak and powerless by the skills of two brilliant left-handed aces pitching like legends out of a 1960s highlight reel.
At least that was how Game 1 went for 17 of the 18 hitters in the starting lineups of the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies. The 18th hitter, though, was Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, and it was as if he were playing a different game.
In Utley's game, the hitters ruled, the pitchers were sorry old junkballers, and home run balls sailed out of the park. Both versions, however, led to the same end result, with the defending champion Phillies waltzing into Yankee Stadium and stunning the Yankees with a definitive 6-1 victory in Game 1.
Utley, the Phillies' all-star second baseman, homered twice off Yankees ace CC Sabathia, silencing a crowd of 50,207 and giving southpaw Cliff Lee all the support he would need on a night when Lee looked like the best pitcher not just in this marquee matchup, but on the entire planet.
Lee, the Phillies' July import who was making the first World Series start of his career, upheld the tradition of great Phillies World Series aces -- a line that goes back to Robin Roberts in 1950, Steve Carlton in 1980 and 1983, and continues through Curt Schilling in 1993 and Cole Hamels last year -- throwing the first complete game in the World Series since Florida's Josh Beckett in Game 3 of 2003.
"It's surreal," Lee said. "This is the stage you want to play on. You want to pitch in the World Series. . . . I'll pat myself on the back when it's over, but until then I'm going to keep grinding."
And so, with one show of Utley's might and Lee's dominance, the Phillies have stolen home-field advantage in the series, handing the Yankees their first loss at home this postseason. Game 2 is here Thursday night, with Philadelphia's Pedro Martinez facing New York's A.J. Burnett.
Lee, who just 15 months ago called Sabathia his teammate on the Cleveland Indians, smothered the Yankees over nine brilliant innings, striking out 10 and allowing just two baserunners beyond first base. In one particularly masterful inning, the fourth, he struck out the heart of the Yankees' order -- Mark Teixeira on a curve ball, Alex Rodriguez on a change up and Jorge Posada on another curve.
"When Cliff Lee is on the way he was tonight, you're not going to get much off him," Teixeira said. "He was impressive."
So locked in was Lee, he whipped his glove behind his back to spear a one-hop comebacker in the eighth inning, grinning devilishly as he threw to first base for the out. He might have gone home with a shutout had shortstop Jimmy Rollins not thrown a potential double-play grounder into the camera well by the Yankees' dugout in the ninth, bringing home the Yankees' only run.
The first of Utley's homers, in the third inning, was what might be described as a Yankee Stadium Special, a seemingly harmless fly ball to right that got caught in the wind tunnel, or whatever it is that carries such fly balls into the seats. It landed three rows deep, but might have been an out in half the stadiums in baseball.
The second, in the sixth innings, was a no-doubter, crushed into the back section of seats in the left field bleachers.
Both came on careless, mid-90s fastballs left in the heart of the plate, the second on an 0-2 pitch.
"CC missed some spots and [Utley] didn't miss them," Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said. "Sometime when you make mistakes, you get away with them, and sometimes you don't."
If it weren't for Utley, Sabathia might have had a shutout through his seven otherwise effective innings and might have needed about 15 fewer pitches. In his three at-bats against Sabathia, resulting in two homers and a walk, Utley saw 19 pitches. Sabathia hadn't given up a homer to a left-handed batter at Yankee Stadium all season until Wednesday night, and hadn't allowed two homers to the same batter in a game in nearly two full seasons, since Jim Thome got him twice on Opening Day 2008.
"My approach was to try to make him work a little bit," Utley said of Sabathia. "He's a big, strong guy who can throw a lot of pitches and still be fine."
A cold, fine mist fell through much of the game, making Lee and Sabathia appear almost ghostly on the mound, but it was not difficult to distinguish one from the other. Despite their shared handedness and dominance, they could scarcely be more different.
There was Sabathia, baggy of uniform and wide of berth. He walked slowly to and from the mound. He wore a long-sleeved undershirt beneath his jersey, his uniform pants down to his shoetops. He fidgeted between pitches -- tugging at his shoulder, his crotch, his cap, his pants legs.
There was Lee, thin and angular, sprinting to and from the mound. He wore short sleeves. He chewed gum. He worked fast. He gathered outs like they were apples.
"He sets the tone by his rhythm -- getting the ball back [from the catcher] and knowing what he's going to throw [next]," said Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel. "I like the way he pitches. I like everything about how he goes about it."
Sabathia, unbeaten (3-0) and seemingly unbeatable (1.19 ERA) this postseason, was simply not sharp, issuing three walks -- as many as he had allowed in 22 2/3 previous innings this postseason -- and, at least early on, failing to finish off hitters the way he has in previous starts.
"We talked about it -- we needed to get his pitch-count up, work the count against him," said Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino.
Sabathia's rising pitch-count forced Girardi to turn to his bullpen an inning or so before he would have liked, and when he did go to it, in the eighth, it was a disaster, with three relievers combining to give up two Phillies runs in the eighth, and two more relievers giving up another pair of runs in the ninth.
By the bottom of the ninth, long after Sabathia was gone, there was Lee still on the mound, the Yankees still helpless, his 120th, 121st, 122nd pitch of the game on its way. It was another strikeout of Posada, and the Phillies had won on a night they had the best pitcher and the best player on the field.