BY MARK SPECTOR
NEW YORK — And so we have what most baseball fans believed deep down inside what this would be: A World Series befitting the two best teams in the game, and one that we’ve said all along will boil to a high-tension at-bat between Mariano Rivera and Ryan Howard, or Brad Lidge and A-Rod five or six days from now.
Take a breath, baseball fans. Watch a hockey game on Friday night.
Or better yet, get some time in with the wife or girlfriend. Because if this series evolves the way we’re thinking it will, the next three nights after this one are spoken for. And likely Game 6 and 7 back at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday and Thursday as well, after New York squared this series with a 3-1 win Thursday night in the Bronx.
Derek Jeter wouldn’t predict how long this series might last, but the Yankees shortstop didn’t have to when he said of the Phillies, “They have a great team. Probably the best we’ve played all year.”
Thus far pitching has dominated the 105th World Series, with Philadelphia’s Cliff Lee owning Game 1, and former Toronto Blue Jay A.J. Burnett perhaps coming of age under baseball’s hottest spotlight in Game 2.
He dueled veteran Pedro Martinez through five innings of a 1-1 ballgame, then firmed up while Martinez cracked, getting the Yankees through seven innings and to closer extraordinaire Mariano Rivera, who finished the job as he nearly always does. Burnett was almost as good in Game 2 as Lee was in Game 1, while Martinez only spoke afterwards about all the sickness, and loss of appetite he has felt for the past two days.
You would never have known he was sick the way he banged his own drum in front of the microphone for the past 48 hours, however. Martinez never coughed once as he pumped his own tires, so we’ll spare you the excuses he issued post-game Thursday after coming out the loser in a well-thrown game on both sides.
So whose turn will it be Saturday night in Philly, where Cole Hamels and Andy Pettitte will work the south side of the mound in Game 3?
“Their fans are going to be all over us,” said Mark Teixeira, the Yankees first baseman who awoke with a solo shot in Game 2. “It’s going to be a great couple of games out there.”
The only imperfection on what is shaping up to be a lovely World Series canvas is, yes, the umpires. Praised for huddling together to ensure that a relatively simple double-play was correctly called in Game 1, they folded in the clutch in a stunning display of consecutive cock-ups by first base umpire Brian Gorman Thursday night.
In the bottom of the seventh, Gorman thought that Philly first baseman Ryan Howard caught a ball on the fly that replays clearly showed hopped off the infield dirt and into his glove. That resulted in two New York outs — neither of which would have been recorded had Gorman correctly made the call.
Then an inning later he called Philly’s Chase Utley out on the back end of a 4-6-3 double-play, and was again made a fool by replay. On deck, with a chance to tie the game — had the play been correctly umpired — was Howard.
The umpires giveth, and the umpires taketh away.
“Utley was safe,” Manuel said. “Go look. Yeah. He was safe.”
It is, as any baseball purist knows, a portent of bad things to come once the umpiring starts to turn in a Fall Classic. Somehow bad calls beget bad calls, and even though this group was selected for their experience after a particularly poor playoff thus far by the men in blue, they couldn’t work more than one solid game in a row without screwing up royally in Game 2.
And speaking of messing up, what happened to Alex Rodriguez? Surely his game hasn’t withdrawn, like a turtle’s head, into that shell of a playoff performer he has been throughout his career. Not after the way he hit the ball in the first two playoff rounds.
As this Series began, the stock quote from the Phillies on the prospects of getting A-Rod out was, “There is no one way to get him out. You’ve got to find different ways, and not fall into a groove.”
Well, they’ve found different ways to get the same result on a suddenly ice-cold A-Rod.
The Yankees third baseman was hotter than molten lava coming into the World Series, and has promptly gone 0-for-8 with five strike outs through the opening two games.
On the other side of the diamond, Ryan Howard struck out on all four trips to the plate Thursday, and you have to ask yourself: How many World Series games does one have to watch to see two clean-up hitters of this pedigree go a collective 0-for-8 with seven Ks?
“I told you, and I’ve been telling you for a long time,” Jeter warned reporters. “Pitching is what dominates a playoff game.”
It has thus far in this World Series. But we still get the feeling that the best is yet to come.