Sunday November 1st, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- At stake for the Phillies on Sunday night is a season, a repeat, possibly a dynasty. On the mound is Joe Blanton. He is 6 foot 3, 250 pounds, a former first-round draft pick who is built like a beer-leaguer, only with high stirrups and a sharp curveball. He pitched wonderfully in last year's World Series, won more than he lost this season, and was decent enough against the Dodgers in the NLCS. The main problem with Blanton is that he is not Cliff Lee.

While Yankees manager Joe Girardi tabbed C.C. Sabathia to start Game 4 on three days rest, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was not willing to take the same gamble with Lee. On Saturday morning, Manuel's reasoning seemed sound. After all, Lee has never pitched on three days rest before and Blanton already won Game 4 of the World Series against the Rays last year. But by Sunday morning, after the Phillies had fallen behind 2-1 in the series, Manuel seemed like the one who was actually taking the risk.

By pitting Blanton against Sabathia, the Phillies are basically matching a No. 4 starter against a No. 1 in the most important game of their season. If they lose, they fall behind 3-1, and it doesn't even matter if Lee dominates in Game 5. The Yankees would go home for two games, needing just one, and they would not have to face Lee again.

Lee said he would do whatever was asked of him, and although he has never worked on three days rest, this would appear to be the time. But Manuel cannot know what to expect from Lee on short rest, while Girardi can be more confident in Sabathia, given that he pitched extensively on three days with Milwaukee last season. "I think you're taking a chance on really pushing him," Manuel said. "He's the kind of guy that gets into the game, and with his adrenaline going and everything, definitely we don't want to hurt him. But at the same time we want him to stay strong when he does pitch."

Manuel's decision could very well define this series, and if it backfires, it will inevitably be chewed on in Philadelphia all winter. Lee could start Game 4 and come back again for a possible Game 7, an important footnote considering that the Phillies now cannot win this series unless they extend it at least six games. But by waiting until Game 5, Lee likely takes himself out of the mix for Game 7, and the Phillies would not have a lot of attractive options left. They could turn to rookie J.A. Happ, who has been in the bullpen, or back to Cole Hamels, who came into Saturday night with a 6.75 ERA in these playoffs and then gave up five runs in 4 1/3 innings. "That's been the story of my season," Hamels said with a sigh. "I don't hit a small speed bump. I hit a big one."

Unless Lee is on the mound, the Yankees have an advantage in every conceivable starting pitching match-up. A.J. Burnett has already out-dueled Pedro Martinez. Andy Pettitte has thumped Hamels. The Phillies won only when Lee worked a complete game in the opener against Sabathia. To take this series, it looks like the Phillies may need Lee to carry them to three wins and hope that Blanton or Martinez can sneak out a fourth.

Even though Blanton had an ERA over 4 this season, he is actually the kind of pitcher who has given the Yankees problems. In many ways, he is comparable to Minnesota starters Nick Blackburn and Carl Pavano, who logged a combined 12 2/3 innings in the ALCS, holding the Yankees to three runs. The Yankees withstood the Twins mainly because of their own stellar starting pitching.

The Phillies had reason to believe that this World Series would turn into an offensive onslaught, rendering the pitching match-ups almost moot. Everybody would be scoring, no matter who was on the mound. But the home-run derby that was so widely anticipated has not transpired. The Yankees are leading the series mainly because their starting rotation has been deeper. It is up to Blanton to change perception and momentum.

"It's a big game, but it's another game," Blanton said. "The experience from last year, the fact that you've been there before, you've been in that environment, you've been in that atmosphere, you've been in that big-game situation, you can kind of draw back."

If Blanton can somehow get past Sabathia, the Phillies will be well-positioned in Game 5 with Lee. But to capture their second straight World Series title, they would still need another pitcher to win at Yankee Stadium, and right now they have no idea who that might be.

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