November 5, 2009
The Crown Rests Lightly
What was perhaps most interesting about last night's Game Six was the feel in the Yankee Stadium in the late innings. In Philadelphia Monday night, the Phillies took a 6-1 lead in the third, pushed it to 8-2 in the seventh, but when it was cut to four, you could feel the tension. You could sense the fear in the ballpark. With an incredibly unreliable closer, and a shaky bullpen in front of him, Phillies fans sweated the final outs of what would be their team's last win of the season. They never got comfortable, never got to treat the game like a party. It was nail-biting time until a few seconds after the final out.
In the Bronx, it was completely different. A 2-0 lead became 4-1, then 7-1, and even after a Ryan Howard homer cut the game to 7-3, there was an air of inevitability to the process. There was no fear, no worry, no sense of impending doom. Even with two runners on and two outs in the seventh, the ballpark never felt the way Citizens Bank Park had 48 hours prior. That, as much as anything else, is the difference between Mariano Rivera and anyone else. Every fan, every media member and nearly every player in that ballpark knew how the game was going to end once the Yankees pushed their lead to 4-1 in the third: with #42 on the mound, 50,000 people out of their minds, and a very happy dog pile.
They won! My god, they won and I'm here for it! This place is crazy, the upper deck is shaking… and oh my God, they won! The Yankees are the champs! The Yankees are the champs! Mariano!!! Hideki!!!! A-Rod!!! This is amazing! Number 27, baby! The first one in The House That George Built! Don't clap! Don'tclapdon'tclapdon'tclapdon'tclap! [one small clap]
The Yankees' win was as workmanlike as a May victory over the Indians might be. Andy Pettitte worked quickly through his first six outs on 24 pitches, getting a double play out of Chase Utley-it was very tense in the park during that at-bat-along the way. In the bottom of the second, Hideki Matsui hit an 89 mph fastball into the right-field second deck that lit up the building, his first of three big hits on the night that would, in the end, make him the World Series MVP.
Martinez never looked as good as he did in Game Two. He didn't crack 85 mph in the first inning, and he didn't get above 90 mph in the game. What had made Martinez so effective in his two postseason starts was the constant change of speeds along a range from the mid-70s through the low-90s. He didn't have that top-end velocity last night, maxing out with three pitches at exactly 90 mph, so he didn't have the Yankee hitters as off-balance as they'd been in Game Two. This was obvious from the very start, and if there was a point where Charlie Manuel might have been able to save the game, it came in the third inning, when Martinez loaded the bases with one out. He managed to strike out Alex Rodriguez, but that moment-a 2-1 game, bases loaded, two outs, a struggling pitcher unable to break 90-called for reinforcements. Manuel had J.A. Happ up in the bullpen, and some deft stalling might have provided him enough time to make a change that seemed necessary. He elected to leave Martinez in, and when Matsui hit a 0-2 fastball that wasn't as high and away as it should have been into center field, the World Series was essentially over.
I'm standing on the field. I'm standing on the infield! I'm standing at second base at Yankee Stadium!!! I had this dream once, I think it was from 1977 to 1986. I feel light-headed. I should take some grass. No, take some pictures! No, get someone to take a picture of you! I have to take the credential off! Don't take the credential off! God, I must look like amateur hour. Who's that guy hugging his dad?
Nick Swisher, who was benched the last time the Yankees faced Martinez, was back in the lineup last night. Swisher had been to the postseason in 2006 and 2008 and had had exactly one good series in six shots with the A's and White Sox, bounced back from a Game Two benching to have two big hits in Game Three's comeback win in Philadelphia, the game that swung the series to the Yankees. Last night, decked out in World Series gear and carrying a banner, that night off seemed like it was a million miles away.
"This is a dream come true," Swisher said after a long hug on the infield with his father and some pictures with his family. "I could not be more honored."
Rodriguez didn't have a big game, just a pedestrian single and two walks, coming home twice on Matsui knocks. Perhaps no player gets as much from the championship as does Rodriguez, who presumably sheds any number of labels that have been unfairly slapped on him. Rodriguez didn't just go along for the ride; he was a devastating force in the Yankees' 15-game run, their best player during the postseason, who combined overall performance with the kind of signature moments that will be central to his career highlight reel. Rodriguez has rarely engendered sympathy, but his role in bringing a championship to the Yankees changes the narrative around him, and should, if nothing else, cut off one line of criticism forever.
The stadium looks so very big from down here. The lights are incredibly bright. How can you play like this? How do these guys do it? It feels like the fences are a million miles away, but I can hit a sand wedge into the bleachers. OK, a pitching wedge. Who are… oh, the wives and girlfriends. They're so excited! One of them just asked another, "Is this your first?" I guess that's a club, too, maybe with even bigger rings. Am I shaking? I'm never going to be able to read my notes. I'm standing on the field at Yankee Stadium after the Yankees have won the World Series!!!!
Any losing team in the World Series becomes something of an afterthought, but the Phillies deserve a bit more than that. They went 9-6 this year on the heels of 11-3 last year, a 20-9 run over two seasons that stands with any team's two-year performance in the decade. It's a testament to the talent assembled, first by Mike Arbuckle, then Pat Gillick, and now Ruben Amaro Jr., that a six-game loss to the best team in the baseball in the World Series can leave a bit of a bad taste in their mouths. The Phillies' talent base is such that a stretch like this doesn't necessarily have to be a peak. With one of the best cores in baseball, a reasonable payroll and some top-tier prospects set to make their debuts in the next two seasons, the Phillies have some chance to become a perennial playoff team along the lines of the Braves of the 1990s.
On November 4, 2009, though, they had to watch as a different team ended their season, as they had a year ago, celebrating a title in front of their hometown fans. The Yankees are the World Champions.
The Yankees are the World Champions!!!!