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Archive for Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Look for Phillies to win it all … in seven

October 28, 2009

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— A position-by-position look at the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees going into the World Series, starting tonight at Yankee Stadium:

First Base

Phillies: Ryan Howard. The NL championship series MVP was downright fearsome in the first two playoff rounds, batting .355 with two homers, 14 RBIs, four doubles, a triple and seven walks. All that after hitting 45 home runs and tying for the major league lead with 141 RBIs during the regular season. One of baseball’s premier sluggers, the 2006 NL MVP lost 40 pounds last offseason and became a much better all-around player. Without sacrificing power, he improved his defense and speed — and even cut down on strikeouts a bit.

Yankees: Mark Teixeira. After striking it rich as a free agent by signing a $180 million, eight-year contract with the Yankees last offseason, Teixeira was everything his new team could have hoped for. A switch-hitter with a sharp eye, he topped the AL in RBIs (122) and tied for the league lead with 39 homers, making him an MVP contender. While he’s hitting only .205 with a homer and five RBIs in the postseason, Teixeira’s Gold Glove has made a huge difference and saved the Yankees on many occasions.

Edge: Even.

Second Base

Phillies: Chase Utley. The top second baseman in the National League, Utley is a gritty gamer who has started the past four All-Star games. He returned quickly from hip surgery that followed last year’s World Series championship, batting .282 with 31 homers, 93 RBIs and 23 steals this season. Steady, smart and dangerous at the plate, his defense can be shaky. Utley made two key errors in the NLCS against the Dodgers.

Yankees: Robinson Cano. With his smooth and sweet left-handed swing, Cano is a big reason New York’s relentless offense is so hazardous on pitchers. He provides something most teams don’t have: power near the bottom of the lineup. Bouncing back from a 2008 slump, he batted .320 with 25 homers, 48 doubles, 85 RBIs, 204 hits and 103 runs this season. He’s a skilled defender with terrific range and soft, quick hands, but in the past he tended to lapse in the field. This year, better concentration and fundamental footwork.

Edge: Phillies, barely.

Shortstop

Phillies: Jimmy Rollins. The 2007 NL MVP picked up his production in the second half this season. A switch-hitter with speed, Rollins is an aggressive swinger and his .296 on-base percentage hardly seems conducive to the leadoff spot. But he’s a pint-sized energizer who often makes the Phillies go. Rollins loves the bright lights and big stage. His two-run double with two outs in the ninth inning gave Philadelphia a 5-4 victory in Game 4 of the NLCS. Often overlooked is Rollins’ outstanding defense — he made only six errors this season.

Yankees: Derek Jeter. Back in the World Series for the first time in six years, Jeter already owns four championship rings from the 1996-2000 dynasty. The club’s career hits leader has a tenacious and tireless drive to win, and plays that way every day. For him, October is no different from May — the margin for error is just smaller. Known as Captain Clutch by adoring fans in Da Bronx, the 2000 World Series MVP excelled at the plate after being moved up to the leadoff spot this year. At age 35, he even improved on defense.

Edge: Yankees.

Third Base

Phillies: Pedro Feliz. A complementary role player with a knack for big hits, Feliz knows nothing but winning in two seasons with Philadelphia. A free-swinger who rarely walks, he had 82 RBIs during the regular season. Like Cano, Feliz can supply power near the bottom of the lineup. He also owns a very strong arm, giving him an aptitude for spectacular defensive plays. He went 5 for 31 (.161) in the playoffs with a homer and two RBIs.

Yankees: Alex Rodriguez. After accomplishing almost everything else, the three-time AL MVP is in the World Series for the first time in his 16-year career. Jeered in the past for all those October failures, he’s carried New York’s offense at times this postseason. Thriving under late-inning pressure, he batted .438 with five homers, 12 RBIs and nine walks in the first two rounds. Rodriguez’s season started with a tense spring training news conference to admit steroids use from 2001-03 with Texas, then hip surgery that sidelined him until May. He has a chance to end the year with a championship ring and a new reputation.

Edge: World Series experience gives Feliz the nod over A-Rod ... uh, no. Yankees.

Catcher

Phillies: Carlos Ruiz. Appreciated by teammates for his game-calling and solid defense, “Chooch” has proven to be a tough out at the plate the past two Octobers. Batting at the bottom of the lineup, he hit .346 with a home run and seven RBIs during the NL playoffs this year. He also batted .313 in the 2008 NLCS and .375 with a homer and four walks in the World Series win over Tampa Bay.

Yankees: Jorge Posada. A key member of the Yankees’ old guard that dates to the 1990s dynasty, the 38-year-old Posada is a sometimes-fiery leader who provides rare power and offensive production for a catcher. The switch-hitter returned from offseason shoulder surgery to hit .285 with 22 homers and 81 RBIs this year. He’s patient at the plate, but his defense behind it is a question mark.

Edge: Yankees.

Left Field

Phillies: Ben Francisco. Acquired from Cleveland in the July trade that brought ace pitcher Cliff Lee to the Phillies, Francisco has spent most of his time with Philadelphia on the bench. But because there’s a designated hitter in the AL park, he’s expected to start the World Series opener against lefty CC Sabathia. By making regular left fielder Raul Ibanez the DH, manager Charlie Manuel can get Francisco’s good glove and right-handed bat in the lineup. Francisco batted .257 with 15 homers and 46 RBIs this season, but is hitless in four postseason at-bats.

Yankees: Johnny Damon. Helped by hitter-friendly conditions at the new Yankee Stadium, Damon matched a career high with 24 homers this year. He also drove in 82 runs and scored 107 from the No. 2 spot in the lineup. A potential free agent after the season, the 35-year-old Damon slumped in the division series against Minnesota but came through in the ALCS against the Angels, including a go-ahead hit in the clincher. Damon can still run, though he lacks the blazing wheels he once had. His arm is one of the weakest in baseball.

Edge: Yankees.

Center Field

Phillies: Shane Victorino. Another diminutive switch-hitter with speed, Victorino teams with Rollins at the top of the lineup to spark the Philadelphia offense. The Flyin’ Hawaiian is a pest with occasional power, and he plays Gold Glove defense in center. He batted .361 during the playoffs with three homers, seven RBIs and eight runs.

Yankees: Melky Cabrera. Like his buddy Cano, the switch-hitting Cabrera rebounded from a 2008 slump and put together a quality season. Beaten out by Brett Gardner for a starting spot in spring training, Cabrera quickly regained his job by producing at the plate and delivering clutch hits. A versatile role player who can run and play defense, he set a career high this season with 13 homers and batted .391 in the ALCS. Not bad for a No. 9 hitter.

Edge: Phillies.

Right Field

Phillies: Jayson Werth. What a player Werth has become. Hampered by an unusual wrist injury earlier in his career, he earned an everyday role after arriving in Philadelphia and enjoyed a breakout season this year. He had 36 homers, 99 RBIs and 20 stolen bases, making the All-Star team in his first full season as a regular. Long and strong at 6-foot-5 and 222 pounds, Werth provides lineup protection for Howard and has tremendous power to all fields. He batted .281 with five homers and 10 RBIs in nine playoff games this year.

Yankees: Nick Swisher. The effervescent switch-hitter brought his bubbly personality into New York’s staid clubhouse and fit in just fine. Obtained in an offseason trade with the Chicago White Sox, he took over full-time in right field when Xavier Nady went down with an early-season elbow injury. Swisher was productive all year, contributing 29 homers, 82 RBIs and 97 walks from the No. 8 spot in the lineup. But he went 4-for-32 (.125) with one RBI in the playoffs.

Edge: Phillies.

Designated Hitter

Phillies: Raul Ibanez. A free-agent find last winter, the 37-year-old Ibanez has flourished in Philadelphia after 13 seasons in the American League with Seattle and Kansas City. He set a career high with 34 homers, batting .272 with 93 RBIs. A steady and professional producer for years, Ibanez uses the whole field. He is hitting .226 with a homer and nine RBIs in the postseason.

Yankees: Hideki Matsui. Strictly a DH these days because of balky knees, Godzilla can still hit. He batted .274 with 28 homers and 90 RBIs this season, and his professional approach from the left side of the plate always makes him a tough out in key situations — even against left-handed pitching. The 35-year-old Matsui, in the final year of his contract, batted .233 with a homer and five RBIs in the playoffs.

Edge: Phillies, in a close call.

Starting Pitchers

Phillies: The acquisitions of Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez, signed in mid-July, transformed Philadelphia’s pitching staff. Lee gave the Phillies an ace to go with last year’s No. 1 starter, Cole Hamels, who hasn’t been able to recapture his dominant form from last October. The 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP, Hamels went 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA this season and then 1-1 with a 6.75 ERA in three playoff starts that covered only 142⁄3 innings. Martinez, who turned 38 on Sunday, pitched well down the stretch and threw seven scoreless innings of two-hit ball against the Dodgers in his only playoff start. Lee was 2-0 with a 0.74 ERA in three playoff starts spanning 241⁄3 innings. The left-hander could pitch three times in the series if Philadelphia chooses to use him on short rest. With the Indians, he won the first game at the new Yankee Stadium this year. Right-hander Joe Blanton and rookie lefty J.A. Happ, mostly used in relief during the playoffs, give the Philadelphia rotation more depth than many realize.

Yankees: CC Sabathia came to New York as a free agent last winter, signing a $161 million, seven-year contract. He was a workhorse during the season and has really proved his worth in October, putting past playoff failures with Cleveland and Milwaukee behind him by going 3-0 with a 1.19 ERA in three starts. The ALCS MVP struck out 20 and walked three in 222⁄3 innings. He will be well-rested for a Game 1 start against Lee because the Yankees wrapped up the ALCS in six games. Sabathia and Lee, former teammates with the Indians, are the past two AL Cy Young Award winners. New York used a three-man rotation in the first two rounds and seems to be leaning that way for the World Series, too. That means A.J. Burnett and 37-year-old Andy Pettitte might be called on to pitch on three days’ rest, as Sabathia did once in the ALCS. Otherwise, it’s possible right-hander Chad Gaudin will make a start. Pettitte is a postseason pro, with a record 16 wins. Burnett, pitching in the postseason for the first time, did not receive a decision in three playoff starts. The left arms of Sabathia and Pettitte could help neutralize Howard, who hit .207 with six homers and 33 RBIs against lefties this season. The slugger batted .320 with 39 home runs and 108 RBIs against right-handers.

Edge: Even.

Bullpen

Phillies: A major strength during last year’s championship run, the bullpen was a weakness for Philadelphia during the 2009 regular season. The unit has bounced back in October, with closer Brad Lidge leading the way. Lidge was 48-for-48 in save chances last year, including the postseason. This year, he went 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA and a major league-high 11 blown saves during the season. Two came during a three-game series at Yankee Stadium in May. But he did not allow a run in the NL playoffs, going 1-0 with three saves in five appearances covering four innings. Chad Durbin is reliable in middle relief, Ryan Madson is a durable setup man and Scott Eyre is an experienced and effective left-handed specialist. Former starter and closer Brett Myers was added to the roster for the World Series. Still, this group appears vulnerable against the powerful Yankees, who made a habit of late comebacks this year.

Yankees: With a record 37 postseason saves, Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer in baseball history. At 39, he hasn’t lost an inch on that nasty cutter. His looming presence in the ninth inning — sometimes earlier — gives New York an advantage in the bullpen over anybody, anytime. But getting to Rivera is always the issue. The conversion of Phil Hughes from starter to super setup man was a key development this season, yet Hughes struggled in the playoffs. Joba Chamberlain, an inconsistent starter all season, is back in the bullpen, providing a power arm and more depth. Left-handers Phil Coke and Damaso Marte could be crucial against a Philadelphia lineup loaded with left-hander power. Alfredo Aceves is versatile and David Robertson has been effective. Still, trusting anyone other than Rivera in an important situation might be difficult for manager Joe Girardi.

Edge: Yankees.

Bench

Phillies: Greg Dobbs and Matt Stairs are the best bats off the bench for Philadelphia, both from the left side. They can be dangerous. Veteran infielder Eric Bruntlett is available, and Paul Bako is the backup catcher. This is far from a dazzling unit, but the Phillies don’t necessarily use their bench that much, unlike other National League teams.

Yankees: A mostly experienced group that offers a little bit of everything. Gardner is a speedster who lacks power but can come off the bench to run or play defense. Jerry Hairston Jr. is versatile, and he helped manufacture a game-winning run in the playoffs. Defensive whiz Jose Molina has been catching Burnett. New York put Freddy Guzman on the ALCS roster for pinch-running duties, but might go back to Eric Hinske in the World Series. Hinske, who offers left-handed punch, homered against Philadelphia in last year’s World Series for Tampa Bay. He also made the last out.

Edge: Yankees.

Manager

Phillies: Charlie Manuel. The magic touch in Philadelphia belongs to the 65-year-old Manuel, who seems to make all the right moves — even if he doesn’t explain them so clearly. Phillies players and fans alike have grown to love the folksy skipper, and his team is on the cusp of becoming the first NL squad to win consecutive World Series titles since Cincinnati in 1975-76. Manuel has done an admirable job with a pitching staff that was in flux for much of the season. But really he’s a hitting guru — and his club most definitely hits.

Yankees: Joe Girardi. The 2006 NL Manager of the Year with Florida, the 45-year-old Girardi is in his second season at the helm in New York. This is his first postseason as a manager, but the former catcher had plenty of October experience during his playing days — including three championships with the Yankees from 1996-99. Intent on fostering camaraderie, he guided his $201 million roster to a major league-best 103 wins this season. Criticized of overmanaging, the detail-oriented Girardi has looked and sounded tight at times in this postseason. There’s a lot of pressure when you’re supposed to win. But so far, he’s done exactly that.

Edge: Phillies.

Pick: Phillies in 7.

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