We should have known all along it was going to come to this: the New York Yankees against the Philadelphia Phillies, the defending champions against the team with the $200 million payroll, the new stadium and the most to prove. It is a matchup of the best offensive team in the American League against the best offensive team in the National League, a sluggers' delight, led by Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Howard, who, this October, each tied Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive postseason games (eight) with an RBI. It is a matchup that will feature former Cleveland Indians teammates Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia starting Game 1. It is the New Jersey Turnpike Series, cold and intense and full of home runs in ballparks where the ball flies. Any way you look at it, this could be a World Series for the ages.
Here are five questions:
1. What are we to make of Brad Lidge?
Only in baseball can a pitcher go from the best in the game, to one of the worst in the game. Then, when all hope seemed lost, he delivered again when it counted most, in the postseason. After a horrendous regular season, which included 11 blown saves, Lidge saved three games and won one in the playoffs without allowing a run. His stuff was sharp, especially his slider. And his confidence appears to be back. Despite Lidge's apparent return to form, look for Phillies manager Charlie Manuel to continue to mix and match in the late innings. If a left-handed hitter starts the ninth, for instance, Manuel may go with Scott Eyre or J.A. Happ, then turn to Lidge when the matchup is more favorable. But make no mistake about it: The Yankees' lineup is much better than those of the Dodgers or Rockies.
2. What are we to make of CC Sabathia?
He has been about as good as a pitcher can be at this time of year. Three wins in this postseason, an ERA of 1.19 and only three walks in 22 2/3 innings. One of those starts was on three days' rest, and he manhandled the Angels with eight innings and 101 pitches, the last of which was clocked at 93 mph. Every year, it seems, a dominant pitcher comes forward in the postseason, be it Orel Hershiser, Josh Beckett or, last season, Cole Hamels. This year, that pitcher appears to be Sabathia, who was named the ALCS MVP. If the Series goes seven games, he might start three times. In Game 1, Sabathia will oppose former Indians teammate Cliff Lee, who has been as good (0.74 ERA) as Sabathia in this postseason. And that only begins the intrigue of the starting staffs. Is Hamels throwing well enough to be the No. 2 starter in a series against the Yankees? And Pedro Martinez pitching against the Yankees would be beautiful, especially if it's at Yankee Stadium, and if Pedro is at his best.
3. Does either team have the edge defensively?
For all the power on these teams, they both play very good defense. The Phillies are even better this year, given the improvement of Howard at first base. First baseman Mark Teixeira has changed the infield defense for the Yankees. "He is the best defensive first baseman I've seen in a long, long time,'' one scout said. His range on balls in the air, his ability to dig balls out of the dirt and his great throwing arm have turned the Yankees' infield defense from average to exceptional. And the one thing we've learned is that bad defense almost never wins in the postseason.
4. What about the running game for each team?
The Phillies have been the most efficient base-stealing team in the major leagues the past two years. They steal a lot of bases and rarely get caught (see Chase Utley, who was 23-for-23), a tribute to first base coach Davey Lopes, who handles the running game. This year, the Phillies stole 119 bases and had only 28 caught stealing, an 81 percent success rate, the highest in the game. The Yankees were second with 111 steals and an 80 percent success rate. The Yankees did a good job controlling the Angels' running game in the ALCS, allowing only two stolen bases, but that was mostly because the Angels had so few baserunners. Sabathia's slide step that he developed four years ago makes him quicker to the plate, and Andy Pettitte has one of the best pickoff moves in the game. A.J. Burnett is slow to the plate, which would be a bigger problem if not for his personal catcher, Jose Molina, who throws better than Jorge Posada.
5. How great is Mariano Rivera?
"I have the trademark on Mr. October,'' Reggie Jackson was saying Wednesday, "but if there's another Mr. October out there, it's Mariano.'' Rivera has had another remarkable postseason. His escape from a none-out, runner-on-third situation in Game 3 was miraculous even by Rivera's standards; it was one of several times he was summoned earlier than usual in this postseason to stop a rally. He has lowered his career ERA in the postseason to 0.71, which is remarkable on any level, but especially given how many innings he has thrown. With left-hander Phil Coke, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, Alfredo Aceves and the rest, the Yankees' bullpen is good, but Hughes isn't throwing as well now as he did during the season, and Chamberlain is a mystery. But it starts and ends with Rivera. "I've seen him do this for so long,'' said one scout, "he just amazes me. I've seen so many left-handed hitters get jammed by that cutter, I really think a right-handed hitter has a better chance against him. But as soon as I say that, he breaks another bat, and the game is over.''
PREDICTION: YANKEES IN SEVEN
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.