- Howard Bryant, Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- The Cinderellas of Minnesota and Colorado are long gone, dusted away by bad breaks and crucial mistakes and, when the time came to raise the bar, insufficient muscle at the plate. So, too, have the high-rent challengers from Anaheim and Los Angeles been evicted from the tournament, both good enough to compete but talent-short in too many critical areas, exposed at too many critical times.
Only two teams remain, the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees, and fittingly so, because for the first time in many years -- at least since 1999, when the defending-champ Yankees met the 103-win Atlanta Braves in the World Series -- the two best teams will play for a championship. This year, the defending-champ Phillies will face the 103-win Yankees. New York and Philadelphia are the best teams not just in their respective leagues but also in all of baseball, one playing to defend the championship it won last year, the other attempting to regain what it considers its hereditary title.
This is the World Series everyone who cares about top-shelf baseball has been waiting for: a National League team that plays with an American League attitude -- and actually has a power threat on its bench to play designated hitter -- that features a comparable, fearsome lineup versus the pre-eminent American League team, with a $200 million-plus payroll in its inaugural year in its $1.3 billion stadium built for one purpose -- to win the World Series at all costs.
How both teams arrived at the summit underscored the critical distance between each and its closest competitors, and neither has been challenged this postseason the way they will challenge each other during the coming week.
The Yankees defeated the Angels in six games with a power attack. Alex Rodriguez hit as many homers (three) as the entire Angels team. No Yankees starting pitcher has lost a game this postseason. Their ace, CC Sabathia, proved to be not only good, but the difference-maker for a Yankees club that in recent years has thrown too much inferior pitching in too many big games. In being named the American League Championship Series' Most Valuable Player, Sabathia posted an ERA of 1.13, pitching eight innings in each start in his two wins.
And in the clenches, when the championship points were won, the Yankees pressured Los Angeles to such a smothering degree that the Angels -- the team whose signature for the past decade has been forcing mistakes -- committed so many unforced errors on the base paths and in the field that this winter for them will not pass quietly.
In the deciding Game 6 on Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, a close game turned as the Angels came undone one final time: Vlad Guerrero inexplicably being doubled off first base on a lazy fly ball to right, Chone Figgins touching a live ball on his own bunt attempt. Of course there was the denouement: the total ungluing in the eighth inning, when the Angels finally scraped a run off Mariano Rivera to set up a classic finish only to commit two frightful errors fielding sacrifice bunts that led the Yankees to score two huge runs without the benefit of a hit. A 3-2 game turned into a suspenseless 5-2 coronation.
"We battled," Angels center fielder Torii Hunter said. "But we couldn't beat that payroll. Plus, in the eighth, we gave it away. You've got CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, who's got some of the nastiest stuff in the league. And behind that, you got Andy Pettitte, who's got more playoff experience than anyone. They're the best. We got beat by the best team. I'm rooting for the Yankees so I can say we got beat by the team that won the World Series."
Meanwhile, the Dodgers had home-field advantage and the best pitching staff during the regular season, but in the National League Championship Series, it was the Phillies who won at every critical juncture. The Angels were short against the Yankees because of their inability to change the score with one swing, while the Dodgers lost both because the Phillies seemed to have an answer for each Dodgers rally, and in the most critical of games -- Game 3 in Philadelphia, especially -- the Dodgers could not match Philadelphia's starting-pitching advantage. The Phillies threw Cliff Lee, a proven ace and Cy Young winner, in the 11-0 Game 3 Phillies rout; the Dodgers Hiroki Kuroda, a middle-to-back-end rotation talent who hadn't pitched since Sept. 28.
The Phillies hit 10 home runs by six different players in the NLCS against the Dodgers. They hit .231 for the series, 27 points lower than during the regular season, but scored at least eight runs in three of the five games.
The Dodgers won two more games than the Phillies this season, but at no point during the season could they be favored to beat Philadelphia, especially not after the Phillies pulled off the deal of the summer in acquiring Lee from Cleveland. The Phillies ranked first in the National League in home runs, runs scored, slugging percentage, total bases, doubles and stolen-base percentage. They were second in OPS, stolen bases and at-bats.
Above the numbers, the Phillies play a resolute, championship style of baseball, capable of raucous and devastating comebacks. (Just ask Colorado closer Huston Street, who was victimized for losses in the final two games of the Division Series.) Third baseman Pedro Feliz had just two hits in the NLCS, but one was a killing home run in the clincher. Jayson Werth had four hits against the Dodgers, but three were home runs. Jimmy Rollins hit .227 against the Dodgers, but when it has mattered this postseason, whether against the Rockies or Dodgers, it has been Rollins sparking a rally.
During the past two postseasons, the Phillies have played five series. They have won all five and have not trailed any of them in games, winning the opener in each. In three best-of-seven series during the past two seasons -- two against the Dodgers, one against Tampa Bay in the World Series -- the Phillies haven't even been extended to six games, winning each in five games.
A long time ago, back on Memorial Day weekend, the Phillies won two of three in Yankee Stadium in a bombastic series that produced potential harbingers for the World Series: twelve home runs, a leadoff homer by Rollins in the 7-3 opener, a ninth-inning, game-tying home run by Rodriguez and walk-off hit by Melky Cabrera in the middle game, and two blown saves by Brad Lidge. Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, who hit .385 against the Dodgers, torched the Yankees that weekend, going 7-for-12 and earning the winning hit in the Sunday finale, a 4-3, 11-inning win.
It was against the Yankees back in May when Lidge's problems reached the concern level, and for good reason. He was dreadful this season after being the best in the business during the Phillies' title run last year. But late against the Rockies in the Division Series and in the NLCS against the Dodgers, Lidge discovered himself and joined Rivera as the only closers not to cost their teams this postseason. Indeed, virtually all else being equal between these two powerhouses, Lidge is the veritable X factor at the end of games. It is the only area in which the Yankees have a decided advantage and very well could be the difference in the series.
Meanwhile, it cannot be overestimated how important it was for the Yankees to beat the Angels in six games. Now, both teams can set their pitching rotations as they see fit. An Angels-Yankees seventh game would have kept Sabathia from pitching until Game 3 of the World Series and would have forced the Yankees to use Chad Gaudin against a ferocious Philadelphia lineup.
The Amtrak Series offers macro intrigue as two evenly matched clubs play the final series of the season. Ryan Howard is every bit the threat of Alex Rodriguez in run-producing situations, and of the position players, the Yankees have the clear advantage at third base and DH; the Phillies in right field, center and left.
The Yankees can run, and so can the Phillies. The Yankees have ace pitching, as do the Phillies. The Yankees have Rivera, but neither bullpen -- neither Phil Hughes nor Joba Chamberlain has had a distinguishing moment this postseason -- is infallible.
Underneath the global issues lie delicious subplots: Pedro Martinez pitching once again against the Yankees in a pressure situation; Lee and Sabathia, the two former Cleveland aces, pitching against each other instead of as the front end of a pitching rotation as they once did. Two homer-friendly ballparks not necessarily favoring either home team will provide the stage, two rabid fan bases providing the acoustics. And there will be no shortage of stars: Cy Young winners Martinez, Lee and Sabathia; World Series MVPs Rivera, Cole Hamels and Derek Jeter; and regular-season MVPs Rodriguez, Howard and Rollins. If the World Series has been something of a dud this decade -- three of the past five Series have been four-game sweeps and none has gone beyond five games, while the Series hasn't reached a Game 7 since the Angels beat the Giants in 2002 -- Phillies-Yankees portends to provide the antidote.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.
The New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies are the best teams not just in their respective leagues but also in all of baseball.