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Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Shades of the 2004 ALCS?

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The Yankees are still in control of this World Series. Despite the Phillies' rousing revival in Game 5, the stakes, at least ostensibly, have not changed: Philadelphia cannot lose another game this season. New York needs to win one of the year's final two games, both to be played on their home field, where they won a league-best 57 games this year and are 6-1 in the postseason.

But the first leg of manager Joe Girardi's all-in gambit to win the championship with only three starting pitchers collapsed badly Monday night in Philadelphia, when A.J. Burnett became the first Yankees starting pitcher in 14 games this postseason to fail to reach the seventh inning.

Girardi's gambit has two more match points; Andy Pettitte versus Pedro Martinez on Wednesday night at the Stadium, and, if necessary, CC Sabathia in the dramatic, winner-take-all finale. Both Yankees starters will be on three days' rest.

Andy Pettitte
Andy Pettitte survived a shaky start to Game 3 to earn his 17th career postseason victory.
Burnett's failures are more a commentary on the global state of the Yankees -- that a 103-win, $200-million club is without a fourth starter is a byproduct of the Chien-Ming Wang injuries and the failed Joba Chamberlain starting pitching experiment -- than a direct criticism of Girardi's World Series strategy. Against the ace Cliff Lee, it was either Burnett or Chad Gaudin. Girardi, even with a 3-1 lead in games when it might have been more understandable to risk a Gaudin start, made a sound though risky baseball decision.

But while the outcome of a Yankees world championship is probable, it no longer feels absolutely certain. While victory would require a spectacular comeback, the Phillies can win this World Series.

A few interesting points should be noted.

The Yankees have spent the past five seasons attempting to rid themselves of the moment that represents the nadir of the franchise: losing a 3-0 lead to the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 American League Championship Series. By losing Game 5 on Monday, this World Series is suddenly taking on a personality somewhat similar to that one.

In 2004, leading three games to one, the Yankees needed to win a critical Game 5 at Fenway Park for two main reasons. One was that the Red Sox were gaining so much momentum by winning games in such dramatic ways that the longer Boston could extend the series, the greater the advantage shifted to them, even though Games 6 and 7 would be played in Yankee Stadium.

The second, more important reason the Yankees needed to win that game was because of Joe Torre's pitching problems. The bullpen was exhausted. Neither Tom Gordon nor Paul Quantrill had enough gas to get the game to Mariano Rivera. Gordon, it should be remembered, after 80 games and an All-Star appearance, posted an 8.10 ERA in the ALCS.

And -- thanks to a lack of confidence in Javier Vazquez, letting Pettitte go to Houston the winter before and crazy Kevin Brown's putting his fist through a wall weeks earlier -- Torre had no clear-cut starting pitcher in the event of a Game 7.

The rest, as they say, is history: The Red Sox won a spirited Game 5, 5-4 in 14 innings, then battered the depleted Yankees pitching by racking up 24 hits over the final two games, winning the pennant by scores of 4-2 in Game 6 and 10-3 in the stunning clincher.

Both points that transformed certain victory into a colossal defeat in 2004 are salient here.

The Yankees' pitching is not as thin as it was in 2004, but a similar tightrope is being walked. Before Game 5, Burnett was excited about pitching on three days' rest. His numbers, 4-0 with a 2.33 ERA, seemed to reinforce his confidence. During the game, he was awful, recording but six outs, failing to give the Yankees a chance to win on a night when the untouchable Lee was beatable. By rights, this series should be over.

Afterward, Girardi said he would not veer from the Pettitte strategy.

"If Andy physically feels good, he's going to go on Wednesday," Girardi said. "This is something that we talked about all throughout. We check with our guys. If he feels good, he's going."

For his career, Pettitte is 2-6 with a 4.70 ERA in 12 career regular-season starts on three days' rest. In the playoffs, he is better on short rest, with a 3-1 record and a 2.80 ERA in five playoff starts.

Like the ALCS, which Burnett failed to clinch on the road, Pettitte is home for the honors. He is quietly and directly making a Hall of Fame push with his combined regular-season and postseason win totals. He showed in Game 3 that toughness comes in many forms, and should rise to the combined challenge of pitching for a fifth championship and needing to beat the great Martinez to do it.

But while Pettitte was not dominant in Game 3, he provided the stability the Yankees needed during the most important stretch of the game: After the Phillies took a 3-0 lead in the second, Pettitte didn't allow a hit for the next three innings as Cole Hamels melted a like a waffle cone in July.

The second similarity to the Boston series -- that the Phillies finally came alive offensively -- can create a double effect: The Yankees' pitching is thinning just as the Phillies are beginning to feel a hot streak. Though the Phillies are hitting only .232 as a club and Ryan Howard is totally lost, the Phillies were their most aggressive as they faced elimination. Some of Burnett's problems can be traced to a team's seeing him for the second time in a series. After taking first-pitch fastballs in Game 2, the Phillies made the same adjustment on Burnett that the Los Angeles Angels did in Game 5 of the ALCS: they attacked.

Chase Utley's first-inning, three-run homer was on a first-pitch fastball, transforming a 1-0 deficit into a 3-1 lead. Jimmy Rollins attacked early in the count. Burnett faced 15 batters, nine of which swung at the first pitch. In Game 2, when Burnett struck out nine and evened the series with a 3-1 win, the first eight batters of the game took a strike looking from Burnett. It wasn't until the fifth inning when consecutive Phillies batters swung at the first pitch on Burnett. They did not make the same mistake Monday.

Utley is having a gargantuan World Series, with six hits, all of them for extra bases -- five home runs and a double -- but it was Rollins' getting on base three times coupled with a big home run by Raul Ibanez in Game 5 that should bolster the Philadelphia spirits.

The Phillies were the one club with, like the Yankees, the power to change the game with one swing -- and hitting in Yankee Stadium is nearly as inviting as hitting in Philadelphia. Five of their eight runs came on home runs in Game 5. Jayson Werth hit two home runs off Pettitte in Game 3.

Pedro Martinez
Pedro Martinez, in Game 2 of the Series, proved himself worthy of getting the ball against the Yankees, in the Bronx, on the big stage.
And what else do the Phillies need to force a Game 7? They need a pitching performance. Lee has done his job for the series -- though if there is a Game 7 he would almost certainly see action -- setting the drama for a best supporting actor.

In 2004, Game 6 was the infamous Curt Schilling "Bloody Sock" game at Yankee Stadium. This year, Wednesday could be Martinez's last stand. He pitched proudly and toughly in Game 2, but was beaten by Burnett and home runs by Mark Teixeira and Hideki Matsui.

Martinez relishes the big stage. This is his moment, the best opportunity to put to rest once and for all the narrative that the great Martinez may have solidified his legacy, but the Yankees are always slightly better, on the biggest stage. He seems to have enjoyed this World Series, knowing that every inning, every pitch, might just be his last in the World Series. He almost certainly will have earned from his play this season another contract opportunity, but a return to the World Series is never a given. If ever Martinez needed to will a final performance in a Hall of Fame career, it is now.

Nevertheless, a Philadelphia comeback is, at least statistically, a long shot. The Yankees are in better shape than they were in 2004 for two reasons: the first is that they have Sabathia, who has pitched twice this postseason on short rest and reached the seventh inning both times; he is 1-0 with a 2.45 ERA. He is not Kevin Brown. He is not Javy Vazquez. Sabathia wants the ball. He wants to be a champion.

The second thing is that, unlike 2004, the Yankee bats are not collectively cold as they were during the final three games of the ALCS. During the final four games, Alex Rodriguez, for example, went 2-for-17, along with the rest of his frozen mates. Today, he is rewriting the Yankees' playoff record book with almost every at-bat. Rodriguez began the series 0-for-8, but over his past 10 at-bats he is 4-for-10 with a home run and three doubles. Johnny Damon, who hit a grand slam off Vazquez in the 2004 ALCS finale, is revived as tenacious and dangerous, wearing out the Philadelphia pitchers -- Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge most recently -- with long, difficult at-bats.

Despite the Yankees' having taken a 3-1 lead, the Phillies were never mere stick figures in the way of an inevitable championship run. The Phillies are still the defending champions, who must be beaten four times before relinquishing their crown. A performance from Martinez is what the Phillies need and why they signed him, and if they can somehow force a Game 7, anything can happen. As the Yankees found out Monday, the fourth one is still very much within their grasp, but it is always the hardest to secure.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.