Baseball: Big hits are guaranteed in battle of the sluggers
Two blistering line-ups of home-run all-stars and the greatest pitchers in the game – the Yankees v Phillies showdown promises to be a classic World Series
Wednesday 28 October 2009
Call it what you will: "the Amtrak Series", or the "I-95 Series", after the train and interstate highway which link the two mid-Atlantic metropolises. Either way, the battle that starts tonight in the Bronx between the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies should be the most compelling World Series in a decade. And, baseball's high command would add, about time too.
For the last few years, the sport's showcase event, between the champions of the National League and American League has been a dud – a string of short, one-sided contests that were competitive flops and TV ratings busts. This one, though, should be different.
For one thing, after an unconscionable gap of six years, the Yankees are back. Love them or loathe them, every fan in the land has an opinion about baseball's richest, vainest and most successful franchise, winner of an unmatched 26 World Series.
And this time New York's opponents are no pushovers. Not only are the Phillies defending champions, courtesy of a comprehensive victory 12 months ago over the unheralded Tampa Bay Rays. They are beyond argument the best team in the National League, loaded with young stars with the makings of one of those dynasties of dominance that used to be the Yankees' preserve.
Baseball's oldest postseason adage is that good pitching always beats good hitting. And this year the very best pitching will be taking on the very best hitting – with no margin for error. Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and new Yankee Stadium where game one of the best-of-seven series opens, have yielded more home runs than any other ballparks in the major leagues.
Back in the 1920s, the Yankees patented the original "Murderers Row", a line of slugger-executioners built around two immortals named Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. World Series 2009 will pit the nearest contemporary equivalents against each other.
The Yankees' modern Ruth is named Alex Rodriguez, on pace to capture the career home runs record held by Barry Bonds. "A-Rod" always choked in the postseason when it really mattered, they said. This year he's given every critic the lie. Baseball's most talented player has finally shown he has the nerve as well, coming up with a string of clutch hits against the Minnesota Twins in the division series, and hitting .429 (better than four hits every 10 plate appearances) in the AL championship series against the Los Angeles Angels.
Then there's slugger Mark Teixeira, who's given value for every cent of the $180m (£110m) the Yankees are paying for his services over eight years, as well as Derek Jeter, the finest lead-off hitter in the game, the ever-dangerous Hideki Matsui, aka "Godzilla", the highest paid Japanese star in the majors, and Johnny Damon, who in his Red Sox days inflicted postseason grief of his own on the Yankees.
But one team in baseball may top this array: the 2009 Phillies, with four hitters in the heart of the line-up with at least 30 homers. Ryan Howard had 45 in the regular season, new sensation Jayson Werth 36, Raul Ibañez 34, and Chase Utley 31. And there's been no let-up in the postseason, as the Phillies blitzed first the Colorado Rockies and then the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL championship series.
But if these howitzer batteries are to function, they must overcome the meanest pitching in the majors. Tonight's game one pits CC Sabathia for the Yankees against the Phillies' Cliff Lee. A couple of years ago they were team-mates at the Cleveland Indians. Right now they are the most dominant pitchers in the game, with a combined earned run average over six starts of just 1.93.
The Yankees signed up the 6ft 7in, 20st Sabathia for a king's ransom in the close season, for one single reason: to win the World Series. The Phillies in mid-season acquired Lee's services for similar motives. His response in game three against the Dodgers was a three-hit shutout.
Game two promises more of the same – the gritty AJ Burnett, the Yankees third big close-season signing in 2008, against veteran Pedro Martinez, the former Boston ace, whose greatest pleasure in life is mowing down Yankee line-ups. "You have a history with the Yankees, don't you?" a reporter asked Pedro. "No," came the answer, "the Yankees have a history with me."
In the end though the final riddle of this perfectly balanced Series comes down to the closers. Both the Phillies and the Yankees make a habit of late innings comebacks. Standing in the way however respectively are Brad Lidge and Mariano Rivera. Both have ice in their veins. Neither has blown a postseason save. The one that doesn't now will surely end up with a World Series winner's ring.
Power players: Kings of swing...
The powerful 29-year-old is the fastest player to reach both 100 and 200 home runs in MLB history. Twice named in the All-Star game, Howard was also part of the side that won last year's World Series.
The youngest player ever to hit 500 home runs, 34-year-old third baseman Rodriguez signed a 10-year, $275m contract in 2007. 'A-Rod' has been named American League MVP on three occasions. He admitted past steroid use earlier this year after previous denials.
... and the perfect pitchers
The 32-year-old pitcher boasts 714 strikeouts and helped clinch the World Series in 2008, throwing the winning pitch in Game Five against the Tampa Bay Rays. Nicknamed 'Lights Out'.
Started his career with the Cleveland Indians but in 2007 the pitcher, 29, signed a seven-year $161m contract with the Yankees, the biggest for a pitcher in the history of the sport. Named in the All-Star Game three times.
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