October 28, 2009
Back from the Future
That was what we needed. After the previous five World Series had been played in just two games over the minimum, the Yankees and Phillies provided nine days of baseball that put the "Classic" back in the Fall Classic. After a postseason that had been thrilling and entertaining, but also sloppy and larded with controversy, the 2009 World Series reminded us of what baseball looks like when it is played at the highest level, with the most passion, for the most valuable stakes.
I was asked on the radio earlier today what my most vivid memory from the 2009 Series would be, what play we'd be associating with this Series 30 years from now, the way Kirby Puckett at a wall is the 1991 World Series, and Joe Carter in the air is 1993, and Reggie Jackson on one knee is 1977. Truth be told, the question stumped me. Under certain circumstances, you'd remember Derek Jeter tearing around third base in the 11th inning of Game Five, carrying the winning run like he stole it, and beating Jayson Werth's throw by an eyelash to give the Yankees their first lead at 11-10. It was one of ten runs Jeter scored in the Series; his strong performance on the biggest stage gave the nation a chance to appreciate a player who has flown under the radar for so many years.
Then again, Game Five also gave us not one, but two confrontations for the ages between Ryan Howard and Mariano Rivera. The first came in the ninth, with the Phillies 90 feet away from repeating as champions, with the entire city of Philadelphia, the entire baseball world, on its feet, screaming at the top of its lungs and holding its breath at the same time. Rivera pounded cutters in on Howard for what seemed like hours in the damp Philly night, finally ending the eighth inning with his eighth pitch of the at-bat, getting the genial slugger to pop meekly to Alex Rodriguez. An hour later, the two met again, Rivera going deeper into a game than he had since he was a starting pitcher. This time, Howard worked a nine-pitch walk with two outs in the 11th that briefly extended the game before Rivera closed it out by getting Werth to fly to right. Those 17 pitches could run on a loop on ESPN Classic all winter; no one would mind.
Howard had it rough, batting .148/.303/.407 in the seven games. The matchup was tough for him, as he faced either a left-hander or Rivera in 25 of his 33 plate appearances. He did manage a long home run off of Sabathia in Game One, and his big game against A.J. Burnett was key in Game Two, but he did little after that.
Game Five was the best of the Series, but the other six provided memories as well. Shane Victorino's back-to-the-infield catch in Game Four, which snuffed out the Yankees' only real rally against Cliff Lee, was the defensive play of… well, maybe the year, much less the series. Chase Utley bounced back from his poor defensive NLDS to remind everyone that he's arguably the best defensive player in baseball, making plays from deep in the 3-4 hole all the way to the second-base bag. Mark Teixeira continued to play defense in a way that made you forget he wasn't hitting, starting a 3-6-1 double play that helped the Yankees escape a bases-loaded situation in Game Six and picking at least three bad throws out of the dirt, including a full-stretch snag that kept Game Seven tied early on.
Of course, that glove work just delayed the inevitable. Cliff Lee was too good for that. Making his third start in nine days, Lee pitched like it was his only start of the year. In fact, after a shaky Game One outing in which he allowed three home runs and failed to pitch into the seventh for the first time this month, Lee bounced back to fire 16 innings of two-run baseball in his next two starts, striking out 14 and walking just one. In both Game Four and Game Seven, Lee outpitched Sabathia, shutting down the Yankee lineup long enough for his teammates to get to the higher-priced southpaw. When Werth continued his big World Series with a two-run homer off Sabathia in the fourth last night, you could feel the air go out of the Stadium; the fans knew getting to three runs was unlikely. Lee deserved his MVP trophy, and if he lets Werth (or even Alex Rodriguez, who hit four homers, including the game-tying three-run blast in Game Five) keep it in his house about half the time, that seems appropriate.
The Series just had so many storylines. There was Pedro Martinez, back at the scene of some of his best work in Game Two, spinning not the overpowering pitches of his youth but the crafty repertoire of a baseball lion in winter. Martinez's seven shutout innings, on the heels of his NLCS start against the Dodgers, will almost certainly bring him a number of contract offers this offseason. The memory of his five shaky innings in Game Six will be overpowered by the way in which he carved up the two best offenses-well, the two best not supporting him, anyway-in the game. Andy Pettitte, the "other" great veteran starter in this series, reached back for one of his best nights ever as the Yankees faced elimination in that Game Six, throwing seven shutout innings to keep hope alive for one more night. The roar for Pettitte as he walked off the field in the seventh, clearly spent after 110 pitches, was perhaps the loudest the new park in the Bronx has heard. Rodriguez didn't lead the Yankees to a title, but he capped his amazing October by hitting .407/.485/.888 and forever shedding-please, dear god, make it so-his undeserved reputation as a player who fails in the postseason. On the other hand, A.J. Burnett combined to allow 11 runs in 8 ⅓innings in his two starts, ending a successful first season in pinstripes as one of the goats of the Series. The Phillies were never going to be a good matchup for Burnett, but the extent of the damage was unforeseen. Only a miracle comeback from six runs down in Game Five kept Burnett from becoming a curse word on the Grand Concourse.
Yankee fans are going to look back to Game Three with regret. Cole Hamels channeled 2008 by throwing eight innings, striking out nine and allowing just two baserunners. Pettitte was just as good through six, but Joe Girardi, perhaps looking ahead to a short-rest start in Game Six, pulled Pettitte in favor of Joba Chamberlain to start the seventh. Chamberlain walked Werth, and allowed a double to Raul Ibañez, and by the time the inning ended, Girardi had used four relievers to allow five runs and put the Yankees down 2-1 in the Series. There's no guarantee that Pettitte would have continued to shut down the Phillies, but the decision to use Chamberlain instead of Philip Hughes was inexplicable no matter the outcome. Girardi didn't overmanage to the extent that he did in the ALCS, but between that call and some overaggressiveness with the bench in the wild Game Five that left him short of options in extra innings, he gave his critics plenty of ammunition.
All of these things will make the highlight reel. None of them will be at the front. No, I think the first thing I'm going to remember from this World Series happened after the final game. At a little after midnight, with the rain picking up and the temperature dropping, when they might well have rushed for the exits, the disappointed Yankee Stadium crowd cheered raucously. As the Phillies' were unpiling, a couple of minutes after Brad Lidge got Melky Cabrera to pop out to end the game, the remaining fans, maybe 80 percent of the ones in attendance, let forth a roar for their conquered heroes, and for the villains from Philadelphia who had added the team in the Bronx to the one in Queens to its list of victims. It was out of place, and unexpected, and beautiful.
They weren't cheering the Yankees. They weren't cheering the Phillies. They were cheering baseball.