Keys for the Phillies: The bullpen; getting solid starting pitching behind Cliff Lee; score, score, score; wait for Joe Girardi to make a mistake (of two, three or four).
The entire post-season for the Phillies was going to be determined by how their bullpen performed. If Brad Lidge and company were able to get the big outs when necessary, they were going to advance; if not, they were going to get bounced early. After the year he had, I didn't think Lidge would be able to right himself sufficiently and get the job done----but he has. Because of that, the Phillies find themselves going for a second straight World Series win. Now, Lidge will face his toughest test yet in the nightmare commonly known as the Yankees lineup.
Lidge is so streaky and so mentally fragile that one great outing can send him onto a similar streak as he enjoyed in the magical year of 2008; or one pitch can send him into a tailspin as with the Albert Pujols homer in the 2005 NLCS. He's been pitching well although he's still dancing through the raindrops with walks and line drives hit right at people. The Yankees are not the Rockies or the Dodgers. If Lidge gets an opportunity to close a game early in the series and comes through, the Phillies are in great shape; if not, they're going to have to piece it together or ride their starters and hope for the best.
The rest of the Phillies bullpen has been up-and-down as well. Ryan Madson was wobbly in the Rockies series; Scott Eyre and Chad Durbin have proven themselves to be money pitchers; I don't trust J.A. Happ out of the bullpen at all----he's looked petrified so far, which should be motivation for the Phillies to start him rather than use him out of the pen (which they're apparently not doing).
I was totally and completely wrong about Pedro Martinez against the Dodgers. Having thought it was a massive mistake to start him, Pedro went out and spun a masterpiece using guile and craftsmanship instead of his formerly fearsome array of power, meanness and control. That said, pitching him at Yankee Stadium against that patient and powerful Yankee lineup could be a recipe for disaster. The Phillies trusted Pedro's intelligence in the NLCS and it paid off. If he can repeat that trick against his longtime sparring partners from his Red Sox days----the Yankees at the new Stadium----it improves the Phillies chances markedly. Pedro lives for this stuff, but he simply might not have the reserves to physically execute what his brain is telling his body to do.
Cole Hamels's struggles are being attributed to tipping his pitches. We'll know quickly whether that's the case in game 3. The Yankees have routinely abused Joe Blanton in the times they've faced him to the tune of an ERA over 8 in four career starts. Cliff Lee has been so masterful in the playoffs that he can got toe-to-toe with C.C. Sabathia.
The Phillies must score; they must take advantage of the Yankees lack of starting rotation depth by pushing the pitch counts up; and they must get into the Yankees bullpen.
One aspect that cannot be discounted is the Phillies ability to lie in wait for the inevitable Joe Girardi strategic gaffe(s) and capitalize. Charlie Manuel does some strange things as manager, but he has respect in the clubhouse and his style's worked for the past three years. He's pushed the right buttons even when they appeared wrong; the same cannot be said for Girardi.
Keys for the Yankees: Starting pitching behind Sabathia; the bullpen in front of Mariano Rivera; scoring early and often; Girardi.
Sabathia has been the horse the Yankees were expecting when they aggressively pursued him and lavished that $160 million contract on the big lefty. He's facing an old friend from their Indians days in Cliff Lee and whichever comes out on top in the games they're opposing one another will go a long way in determining who wins this series. Don't discount the importance of Sabathia's bat in the games of Citizens Bank Park----he can really hit, and for power.
A.J. Burnett is facing a tough task in the patient and powerful Phillies lineup. They're not going to help him with overaggressive swings; and they don't miss fat pitches. If Burnett is on his game, he can blow any team away; if not...
Andy Pettitte has gotten by on his playoff experience, his guts, his fierce competitiveness, and his remaining stuff. The veteran has shown himself to be a cash money playoff performer since he was a fresh-faced rookie. Left-handed bats have handled Pettitte better than righties this year, and the Phillies lineup is lefty-heavy.
Joba Chamberlain has been hideous out of the bullpen; his fastball has diminished in velocity and the JOBA RUINATION has begotten what he is now----a second-tier reliever who should be behind the ballsy David Robertson on the depth chart. Girardi has been using Damaso Marte in important situations; he got away with it against the Angels and Twins; against the Phillies, I don't know if it's a good idea. Phil Hughes has been misused by Girardi as well and his pitch selection has been wanting. The way the Phillies lineup punishes pitchers, the Yankees bullpen in front of Rivera is imperative.
The Yankees lineup doesn't give a break to the opposing pitchers and after Lee, the Phillies starters are very hittable. With their patience and power, the Yankees are never out of any game. Hideki Matsui and Derek Jeter have always been clutch and the newly relaxed Alex Rodriguez is a one-man-gang. Mark Teixeira has slumped horribly this post-season with a few big hits sprinkled in here and there and is due to really bust out; Robinson Cano's laziness should make him a candidate for strangulation, but too is a major threat.
I shudder to think what kind of strategic shenanigans Girardi is going to pull, especially in the National League games; and I'm sure the Yankees front office and veterans are thinking the same thing. His over/under-managing cost his club two games in the ALCS and could very well have cost them the series had the Angels played their normal game. His lack of experience as a manager and bizarre implementation of out-of-context stats is a major issue against the Phillies.
What will happen:
Lee has been so masterful that he and Sabathia are more than likely going to cancel each other out with the games in which they're matched up as the result comes down to who pitches deeper into the game and which club gets a big hit.
The second game will come down to a battle of bullpens because I doubt that either Pedro or Burnett is going to last very long. Pedro got away with his vast array of junk against the Dodgers, but he's doing it with a bag of tricks and you can't trick the Yankees more than one time through the lineup; they're not going to swing at his floating offerings as the Dodgers did. Plus, the weather promises to be chilly enough that it could take Pedro a couple of innings to get loose----by then there might be five runs on the board. If I were Manuel, I'd have a very quick hook on Pedro. The advantage for the Phillies in game 2 is that Burnett is just as likely as Pedro to get ravaged. The Phillies are going to massacre Burnett and get him out of the game early in both of his potential starts.
There's been so much discussion about Ryan Howard's atrocious splits against lefties that it's an invitation to a gigantic hit (or two) by Howard in the series----and he will bust at least one and probably two games open with big hits against the Yankees lefty relievers. If Girardi brings in Marte to pitch to Chase Utley and Howard? Everybody duck.
As the series wears on, the battering the Yankees starting pitchers have had to endure due to their lack of depth will come to the forefront as the relentless Phillies lineup puts up crooked numbers. The Phillies pitching behind Lee isn't great, but Hamels has shown himself to rise to occasions in the past.
Lidge and the rest of the Phillies bullpen (for the most part) put their horrendous regular season behind them and regained some semblance of form for the playoffs. The Yankees lineup is no picnic, but I feel better about the Phillies set-up crew than I do about the Yankees. Chamberlain and Hughes are in for a rough time.
The Girardi factor cannot be discounted. Never before in my life have I seen a manager single handedly cost his team not one, but two playoff games and have them survive. His horrific bouts of over/undermanaging are going to cost his club at least one game in this series. Manuel isn't a great manager, but he's not going to do something ridiculous and have it explode in his face.
The Phillies can match the Yankees power; their bullpen is good and battle-tested enough to hold onto late leads; and the starting pitching is going to be a wash. The shortness of their starting pitching; the rickety bullpen; and their manager will doom the Yankees as the Phillies take their second consecutive World Series.
PREDICTION: PHILLIES IN SIX.
WORLD SERIES MVP: CLIFF LEE