NEW YORK -- Star Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, an amateur Jimmy the Greek, says his Phillies are going to win the World Series in five games. Rollins is on a few-year roll with his predictions, although the Yankees generally seemed more amused than concerned about Rollins' latest. "Nostradamus,'' Jorge Posada called him, though it was hard to tell whether Posada was lauding or mocking Rollins.
In any case, most experts see this as a much tighter series than that.
The Yankees and Phillies offer the game's two best and deepest lineups, two true ace pitchers, several more talented starters and a pair of star closers (now that Brad Lidge has found himself again). For most of us, it is very difficult to separate these two teams, so difficult that I am more confident in my prediction of seven games than my prediction of the Yankees.
Before making your own call, here are some things to consider that you may or may not know ...
1. The Phillies are supposed to be more vulnerable vs. left-handers, but the numbers don't bear that out. This is extremely important since the Yankees will likely employ a left-handed starter in five of seven games. Three of the Phillies' four biggest power threats (Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez) are left-handed, and one scout said, "None of their left-handed hitters is as comfortable against lefties as righties.'' But somehow, the team stats don't really prove that. The Phillies were actually 29-16 vs. left-handers in the regular season, which was slightly better than they fared against right-handers. Their .248 batting average vs. left-handers was worse than their .262 mark vs. right-handers, but they made up for it with a .787 OPS vs. lefties compared to .779 vs. righties. During the season, though, Howard's OPS was 1.088 vs. righties and .653 vs. lefties, as mentioned in the New York Times.
2.Howard's hot streak is no fluke. The longer he plays, the better he does. His career .255 batting average before All-Star Games stands in stark contrast to his .303 mark after All-Star Games. "He can be pitched to. But you better be very careful to execute those pitches because if you make a mistake he's going to make you pay,'' one AL scout said. That scout said the best plan is to go "soft,'' while the Dodgers' idea was going inside. That plan obviously didn't' work too well. Hey, here's an idea: Pitch around him. This is his time of year.
3. Neither is Alex Rodriguez's. He's just catching up after some oddly weak Octobers. His 1.516 OPS is 300 points higher than the best of the Phillies (Howard's 1.207, Jayson Werth's 1.203 and Shane Victorino's 1.161). He is a "more complete hitter'' than Howard, said the scout.
4. The Phillies might want to avoid too big a role for Joe Blanton. Blanton is a versatile and useful pitcher who could still get a start in game 5 or 6. But against the Yankees, he has pretty much been a punching bag -- 0-3 with an 8.18 ERA lifetime.
5. Pedro Martinez had that famous quote about how the Yankees were his "daddy,'' but in reality, the son often rises. Contrary to popular belief, he's pitched about as well against them as everyone else. His career WHIP vs. the Yankees is 1.08, compared to 1.05 against all other teams. But he is 12-13 lifetime vs. the Yankees, which might have frustrated him, since he has a winning record against nearly every other team. Pedro was brilliant against the Dodgers, but skepticism remains since this isn't primetime Pedro. "Pedro has to come with smoke and mirrors,'' one scout said. "To beat these Yankees you need not only power but great command.''
6. The idea that there's no such thing as a clutch player makes no sense when Derek Jeter is considered as an October player. That his career OPS in the postseason is higher than the regular season (.858 to .847) is amazing, considering hitters only see the best pitchers on the best teams in the worst conditions. "The regular season and the postseason are two different things,'' Jeter said. "People bear down in the postseason. On 3 and 0 in the regular season the pitcher might just lay one in there. But not in the postseason.'' Better than anyone in this era, he has figured out how to navigate October (and November).
7. Age isn't catching up to the old-guard Yankees. Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte actually all improved from last year to this one despite being in their mid- or late-30s. "Last I checked, a career's not over in the mid-30s,'' Jeter said to a question about age.
8. Ben Francisco is dangerous, and so is Matt Stairs. Philly won't be at quite the disadvantage some National League teams have felt in the World Series in past years. Francisco had 15 home runs this year and 14 stolen bases, and he had a .526 slugging percentage since coming to Philly with Cliff Lee. Francisco will be in the Phillies' lineup in New York vs. left-handers, and Stairs will be in there when A.J. Burnett pitches.
9. Brad Lidge isn't the same fellow who stunk it up for 162 games. He said his knee is better now, allowing him to employ his regular windup. But other people have different theories. "He's found his slider,'' one scout said. In any case, he's not the guy who blew 11 saves within those first 162.
10. CC Sabathia is terrific. But he isn't necessarily much better than his ex-Indians teammate Cliff Lee. In fact, Lee has the lowest ERA in postseason history for pitchers who had at least three starts, currently at 0.74 (following him are Harry Brecheen 0.83, Claude Osteen 0.86 and Babe Ruth 0.87).
11. Here's a myth: These teams need the home run to survive. Though they do hit more home runs than anyone else in their respective leagues, they do other things, as well. The Phillies posted the best stolen-base percentage in baseball (81 percent), while the Yankees were tied for second (80 percent).
12. The Phillies' defense is a little better, especially in the outfield. They have an above-average defender at six positions (center, right, shortstop, second, third and catcher), and Ryan Howard is improved at first. One worry could be All-Star second baseman Chase Utley's recent throwing problems. "It looks like he has a bit of the yips,'' one scout said. Utley's two errant throws came with base runners bearing down on him, so maybe he doesn't. But it'll be something to watch for.
13. If outfield arms make the difference, the Phillies have an edge.Jayson Werth has the best outfield arm among starters, while Melky Cabrera's isn't bad. Johnny Damon is the worst of the outfield arms.
14. The Phillies are phamous for their late comebacks. But they had better start them earlier than the ninth inning. Rivera's postseason ERA is nearly two-thirds lower than his regular-season ERA (0.77 compared to 2.25). In 18 of 28 postseason series, he has allowed no runs.
15. The Yankees are just as great a threat late. Their 51 come-from-behind wins and 16 walk-off wins in the regular season led the majors.
Manny Ramirez is planning to exercise the $20 million player option that returns him to the Dodgers for 2010. His original plan was to shop around, but after a year in which he was suspended for 50 games, he must have realized this is his best option.
Manny's plan to stay should come as no surprise the Dodgers. Dodgers people have said all along they expect Ramirez to pick up the option.
It's interesting to look at how much he improved his lot by forcing the trade to L.A. in the summer of 2008.
Had Ramirez simply stayed in Boston and played out his old contract, the Red Sox almost certainly would have declined what was a $20 million team option in that contract. So with the extra $5 million he made this year ($25 million instead of the $20 million in the old contract), he will have profited by $25 million by forcing a trade last season.
Not that anyone condones the way he went about forcing the trade to L.A..
The Diamondbacks are planning to pick up Brandon Webb's $8.5 million option now that he's turned down their other compromise offers. Arizona was hoping Webb would be willing to share the "risk'' -- to accept a slightly lower guarantee with incentives that could push him past $10 million. But Webb said no to that.
The D-backs also offered to add an option for 2010, but he turned that down, too. So he'll be a D-back in 2010, but will become a free agent after the '10 season.
• The Red Sox would still love to make a run at Felix Hernandez. "Everyone's available at a price,'' one AL exec said. But folks would still be surprised if Seattle traded him. Roy Halladay might be the more realistic option. Boston's offer of Clay Buchholz, Michael Bowden, Justin Masterson, Nick Hagadone and a positional prospect can't be repeated as Masterson is now in Cleveland. Plus, Halladay's value is expected to be lower now that only one year remains before he is free-agent eligible.
• The Red Sox were thought to have offered Jason Bay about $15 million. They know they need a big hitter if they don't keep Bay, and Matt Holliday seems like an obvious target in that case.
• The Cardinals' grand plan to sign both Albert Pujols and Holliday doesn't appear to be off to a great start. Pujols told them it was too early to talk. Unfortunately for them, next year may be too late.
• The Mets are hiring Tim Teufel to manage their Double-A team and are planning to hire Wally Backman and Mookie Wilson, too, which is one way to honor their great 1986 team. Backman will likely manage at the Class-A level.
• When respected longtime baseball man Paul Beeston couldn't find anyone better to replace him as CEO of the Blue Jays, he hired himself Tuesday, a year and a few days after he came in as interim CEO. Not a bad hire. But that shouldn't have taken him a year and 12 days.
• The Mariners and Brewers are expected to be in the mix for Jarrod Washburn, who was terrific for Seattle last year before struggling with the Tigers (2.64 ERA in Seattle, 7.33 in Detroit). A knee issue is thought to be the culprit for his poor performance in Detroit.
• While the Yankees are leaning to a three-man rotation, "it isn't set in stone,'' pitching coach Dave Eiland said. They may want to see how A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte come out of their starts in Games 2 and 3.
• Yankees manager Joe Girardi revealed on Mike Francesa's radio show on WFAN in New York that he hasn't ruled out using Hideki Matsui in the outfield for the first time this year. Matsui needs surgery on both knees, but perhaps their consideration shows how concerned they are about Nick Swisher's slump (.167 in the postseason).
• OK, now that he's been hired as Cardinals hitting coach, it's time for Mark McGwire to come clean.