Commentary

Phillies hold slight edge heading home

Awaiting offensive explosions from Howard and A-Rod as World Series shifts to Philly

Originally Published: October 30, 2009
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The score was only 1-0 Phillies when A.J. Burnett took the mound in the fourth inning of Game 2 at Yankee Stadium, but the weight of increasingly difficult circumstances -- the depressing prospect of facing an 0-2 hole after two home games, playing an opponent every bit as tough and even more championship-tested -- began to suffocate the Yankees and their partisans.

Pedro Martinez was dominating the Yankees, as Cliff Lee had done the night before, and the anxiety that stirred throughout the stadium produced a low hum of Fenway-like nervousness instead of the usual Yankee Stadium crackle, particularly as Martinez struck out three of the first four hitters of the game.

They had played 12 innings of World Series baseball to this point, and the flagging Yankees, in their home park where they had won 57 games and were undefeated through the first two rounds of the playoffs, not only had not taken a lead in the series but were still waiting to score their first earned run.

Jose Molina's pickoff of Jayson Werth in the fourth inning changed the tenor of the game and, by extension, the series, which had the beginnings of a Phillies mandate. Mark Teixeira homered to tie the score in the bottom of the inning; Hideki Matsui homered two innings later (with two outs and a 1-2 count) to provide what wound up being the game-winning run; and the fog lifted.

The result, as the venue changes to Philadelphia for the next three games, is a return to the dynamic that had been originally forecast for this World Series: two completely evenly matched teams. CC Sabathia, brilliant in a grinding, imperfect way in Game 1, made two mistakes to the same batter, Chase Utley, and lost. Martinez, lionish and proud, made mistakes to two different batters, Teixeira and Matsui, and lost. All four mistakes were turned into home runs.

Both teams are unafraid, both so much better than their previous two opponents, and both with slight advantages over the other. The Phillies and Yankees are playing a taut and tense style of baseball in which neither team has much room for error.

Forget the narrative that the Phillies are somehow underdogs in this series. They aren't and never were. The offenses, sexy and explosive, get the attention, but the starting pitching has been superb. Sabathia and Burnett have a combined ERA of 1.92, pitching 14 of 18 innings, and Lee and Martinez have a 1.80 combined ERA, pitching 15 of 17 innings.

Yet entering Game 3 on Saturday, the Phillies are in a better position to just barely take control of the next phase of a series that appears headed for the duration, and a Game 7 on Thursday.

Phillies

1. The Phillies got virtually everything they wanted after the first two games, learning important lessons in practice that they had believed existed in theory. By winning the opener, they kept the pressure on the Yankees and maintained a streak of having won the opener of a series for the sixth straight time. They did not win both games, but neither was any part of their offense neutralized, and their starting pitching was so good that bullpen questions still live only in the hypothetical. Unlike the Twins (Joe Nathan versus Alex Rodriguez) and Angels (Brian Fuentes versus everybody), the Phillies do not fear any individual matchups with the Yankees hitters.

At the outset, a critical difference between the Phillies and the Yankees' two previous opponents had been the Phillies' combination of power and patience, and in the first two games, the Phillies are hitting just .231 but have a team on-base percentage nearly 100 points higher, at .324.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Rollins
Brad Mangin/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesJimmy Rollins has reached base in four of his nine plate appearances in the first two games of the World Series.

The Phillies' offense is struggling. Ryan Howard has struck out six times in nine at-bats. Jimmy Rollins has one hit, and Pedro Feliz doesn't have even one. But when the championship points have been played, the Phillies' offense has been anything but dormant. The two runs Rollins scored in this series -- in the eighth and ninth innings of Game 1 -- proved to be critical insurance runs as the Yankees tried to mount a feeble comeback against Lee, and Howard's two hits have been doubles, the first extending Sabathia's first inning in Game 1, the second scoring Rollins in the ninth. And Raul Ibanez, previously quiet, is 3-for-8 in the series.

2. For the second time this postseason, Yankees manager Joe Girardi used Mariano Rivera in the eighth inning for a two-inning save. Against the Angels, Girardi had more flexibility. The ultra-aggressive Angels hitters proved a poor matchup for Rivera.

The Phillies are a different animal entirely, more reminiscent of the Boston Red Sox teams that gave Rivera so much trouble, and exposing him to the Philadelphia hitters six outs at a time might prove costly.

On Thursday, the Phillies brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the eighth and the tying run to the plate in the ninth. Only a blown call by first-base umpire Brian Gorman on Utley's inning-ending double-play grounder -- television replays showed Utley beat the relay throw to first -- prevented Rivera from facing deadly Howard with two runners on in a two-run game.

The at-bat that might give Girardi pause was Rivera's battle with Rollins. Rivera started Rollins off with a ball before nudging ahead in the count at 1-2. Rollins then spoiled five pitches before earning a walk off of Rivera with an 11-pitch at-bat.

"Yeah, we can hit Rivera," Rollins said. "We can hit any closer. We've proved that. He's good. He's one of the best if not the best, but I've seen our team handle good pitching. We're definitely capable of scoring runs late in the game."

Yankees

1. The Yankees are even in the series because they lost a starting pitching duel in the opener and won the rematch in Game 2. Yet if the Yankees -- because of their heavy reliance on Sabathia -- might have felt a bit more pressure from losing a Sabathia start for the first time in the playoffs, they gained something else perhaps even more valuable: a great performance from Burnett.

In his previous three postseason starts, Burnett had been good -- good in the sense that he pitched into the seventh inning in all three starts, and good because even though he had received three no-decisions, his customary loss of his game did not mushroom into ugly, game-losing innings.

But in the sense of providing the Yankees with that dominant, must-win, gotta-have-it night, Burnett did not deliver until Game 2. And now all three starters -- Sabathia, Burnett and Andy Pettitte -- have stepped into the breach of must-win games and have performed at a big-time level, a critical test that must be passed in playoff baseball.

[+] EnlargeAndy Pettitte
William Perlman/The Star Ledger/US PresswireAndy Pettitte, 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA in three starts this postseason, will get the start for the Yankees in Game 3 on Saturday.

Burnett's stellar performance also gives the Yankees confidence that Burnett might be less apt to allow the moment -- he admitted candidly that these October games are not your average Sunday afternoon against the Royals, no matter how many times he might think one is -- to devour him in a quake of anxiety.

"It wasn't pressure. I knew it was a big game. It's no lie," Burnett said. "It was the biggest game I've ever thrown for this team, but at the same time, you can't let that affect you and I tried not to let it affect me. CC threw a great game [in Game 1], seven innings, two runs, you couldn't ask for anything more. I knew I had a big task ahead of me with Pedro on the mound, and I wanted to go out and pitch the best I could."

In his first start against the Angels, in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, Burnett was electric in the first four innings, firing low, accurate fastballs across both sides of the strike zone. He was so good he was predictable: 13 of 15 batters saw first-pitch strikes, and Burnett had so dominated the Angels that he did not even have to elevate his fastball.

But in the rematch, the Game 5 elimination game in Anaheim, the Angels recalibrated their strategy, tagging Burnett for four runs in the first inning, primarily by leaping on his first pitch. Expect the Phillies to make a similar adjustment.

2. Rodriguez, meanwhile, looks lost, his telltale signs of discomfort -- attacking the first pitch regardless of location, flailing at breaking balls low and away and out of the zone -- are apparent, a clear departure from his compact efficiency of the earlier rounds when he would wait, salivating, for a pitcher to meet him in the strike zone.

With Rodriguez, there is always the psychology of the game, and when he struggles, the discussion of whether he is overthinking the moment grows more pronounced.

But let's have a little perspective, shall we? Rodriguez is merely trending the way most players who reach the World Series trend: It is virtually impossible to stay white-hot for three rounds of playoffs. It generally does not happen.

Derek Jeter is rightfully considered one of the great clutch performers in October. He has a career .311 postseason batting average and so many memories in reserve that it should be noted that in the seven times he has gone to the World Series, Jeter has had only one playoff stretch -- in 1999, when he hit .455 against Texas in the AL Division Series, .350 versus Boston in the ALCS and .353 against Atlanta in the World Series -- in which he did not cool off dramatically for at least one round:

1996 World Series: .250
1998 ALDS: .111
2000 ALDS: .211
2001 World Series: .148
2003 ALCS: .237
2009 ALCS: .259

It should be noted that in each of those playoff series, Jeter also had one round in which he hit at least .353. Thus, A-Rod was bound to struggle. It is the natural order of things.

Trouble

Girardi, meanwhile, has two big problems, both even greater than Alex Rodriguez (0-for-8, six strikeouts) being suddenly unable to reset his direction finder. The first is that although the series is tied, it feels as though the Yankees have expended tremendous energy just to stay even, and because the Joba Chamberlain experiment essentially failed during the season, it's likely that Game 4 on Sunday will feature Sabathia pitching on three days' rest and Game 5 will feature Burnett pitching on three days' rest.

That makes Game 3 a must-win, for without even a little cushion, the 103-win, $200-plus million Yankees are asking their entire season to come down to their best pitchers pitching on short rest.

Yeah, we can hit [Mariano] Rivera. We can hit any closer. We've proved that. He's good. He's one of the best if not the best, but I've seen our team handle good pitching. We're definitely capable of scoring runs late in the game.

-- Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins

"If I'm called to do that, I'll do that," Burnett said. "I've thrown on three days' rest in the past. I'm a big fan of it. It was midseason when I did it, not October, but I feel strong right now and I'm up for anything, absolutely."

Sabathia destroyed the Angels on three days' rest in Game 4 of the ALCS, but the uberaggressive Angels did not even try to extend him. In his 10-1 win, Sabathia had thrown just 38 pitches after four innings. The patient, tenacious Phillies likely would not be so generous.

The second problem relates back to Chamberlain. If the Phillies feel confident they can get to Rivera, Girardi's treatment of Chamberlain is even more noteworthy. Before the game, Girardi said he would not hesitate to turn to Phil Hughes in the eighth inning of Game 2, yet he avoided his bridges entirely after Burnett's excellence. Chamberlain did not pitch in Game 1, and with a two-run lead to start the eighth, Girardi chose to go directly to Rivera.

Obviously, Girardi could not be faulted for not wanting to take a chance when already down a game, and had the Yankees won Game 1, maybe he would've gone to his kids and then to Rivera.

But that he did not use either Hughes or Chamberlain in a critical game still speaks volumes. If he does not doubt his two pitchers, he is at least reluctant. Hughes does not look afraid of the moment, but he might be tired, and Chamberlain, tinkered with a great deal, needs to find some success before the end of the World Series. Without confidence in and subsequent performance from those two pitchers, the advantage shifts heavily to the Phillies.

In the end, the first two games of the series served only as reinforcement: Neither team has faced an opponent this talented, but the discovery has just begun. Officials suggest a rainout of Game 4 on Sunday is a strong possibility, which would aid the pitching-thin Yankees. Brad Lidge, still perfect this postseason, did not pitch in New York, and thus it is still unclear what he will bring. And the weather question is, of course, ubiquitous. Howard and Rodriguez have combined for two hits and 12 strikeouts, but the two could ignite at any moment. It is only fitting that they must face one another down for a title.

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.