Thursday, November 5, 2009

Yankees win 27th title behind MVP Matsui's 6 RBI

You could feel it in the Yankee Stadium air after Hideki Matsui's two-run home run off the hated Pedro Martinez gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead in the second inning of Game 6. The "Who's your daddy" chants got louder and the Yankee Stadium crowd braced themselves for another championship.

The Phillies got a run back in the third, when Jimmy Rollins hit a sacrifice fly off Andy Pettitte to score Carlos Ruiz, who had tripled. But Matsui would answer right back in the bottom half of the inning, hitting the ball hard for the fifth time in two at-bats (three went foul) and scoring two with a based-loaded single to center.

The score remained 4-1 into the fifth inning when a tiring Pettitte walked Ruiz with one out and the bases empty. Up came Rollins, who grounded into a key 5-4-3 double play that proved his mouth runs much faster than his legs, after his radio-show prediction that the Phillies would win the series in five and "close it out at home."

The Yankees would extend their lead to 7-1 in the bottom of the inning with an RBI single from Mark Teixeira and a two-run double from Matsui, who ripped one off the base of the right-center field wall against lefty J.A. Happ, who came in to pitch to the slugger. It didn't matter who was on the mound for the Phillies last night, because Matsui was arguably more locked in than Alex Rodriguez was in the first two series.

A Ryan Howard two-run homer cut the lead to four in the top of the sixth and, after allowing a double to Raul Ibanez, Pettitte was pulled to cheers from the Stadium faithful. He threw just 50 of his 94 pitches for strikes and walked five, but made big pitches in key spots to get himself out of trouble and preserve the Yankees lead.

The Phillies threatened in the seventh, putting two on against Joba Chamberlain to bring the scorching Chase Utley to the plate with two out and a chance to cut the lead to one. But Damaso Marte came on to strike out Utley and the Phillies never saw another big opportunity, as Mariano Rivera entered with one out in the eighth to get the final five outs and clinch the title for the Yankees.

When Shane Victorino ended a ten-pitch at-bat against Rivera by grounding out to Robinson Cano, nine years of frustration for Yankees fans were alleviated as the crowd erupted and the players mobbed each other at the mound. My voice was hoarse by that time and, considering I witnessed both the final World Series-clinching game at the old Yankee Stadium and the first at the new Stadium, it's something I felt extremely lucky to be a part of.

I said throughout the second half that this team had a special feel to it, and they proved me right by stepping up when it counted in the playoffs. The Yankees got contributions out of so many different players, from the 18 post-season RBI of Rodriguez and World Series heroics of Matsui and Johnny Damon to the four victories by Pettitte and great bullpen work by Marte, Chamberlain and David Robertson, who combined to throw 15-plus innings of two-run ball in the playoffs.

New York 27 titles are 17 more than any other major-league franchise, and this may be the last witnessed by under-the-weather owner George Steinbrenner. Many have complained that the Yankees bought this championship after the off-season signings of Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, but the youthful exuberance and chemistry shown by this team throughout the season was reminiscent of the championship teams of the mid-1990s.

That camaraderie, over anything else, was the major reason they hoisted the trophy last night. Let's not forget how many titles this team attempted to "buy" in the early part of the decade and how unsuccessful they were.

This year's Yankees had plenty of home-grown stars, from Rivera, Pettitte, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada (who all won their fifth ring last night) to new blood like Chamberlain, Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner. It took nine years since their last title, but general manager Brian Cashman and the Yankees finally found the right mix to get back to their winning ways.

Moving on, there are plenty of questions for this team heading to the offseason. Damon and Matsui are free agents, and I think it would be a mistake to bring either back. They played key roles in this year's World Series win, but the Yankees can replace Damon in the lineup with Gardner and Matsui's age, injury issues and streaky nature make him a risky signing.

The other major question is what to do with Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. I have been on the bandwagon to start Chamberlain since the season's inception, but I'm now leaning towards him as next year's eighth-inning guy and New York's future closer.

Chamberlain's fiery makeup (a la Jonathan Papelbon) fits well at the back end of the bullpen, while the calmer demeanor of Hughes as well as a deeper repertoire of pitches seems to point him towards the rotation. They can both have success in either role, but this arrangement seems like the best one to me. Of course, there's a reason I'm not making the decisions in the Bronx.

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