NEW YORK - On Oct. 22, 2008, Chase Utley's power, combined with the brilliance of an ace pitcher, enabled the Phillies to open the World Series with a win.
In the year since, much has changed for the team. The Phils have lived for 12 months as defending champions, gaining in fame and self-assurance. But while the ace is different in 2009, and the Series opponent higher-profile, the script seemed familiar last night.
Cliff Lee, the Phils' coping mechanism for Cole Hamels' disappointing year, followed three dominant performances in the division series and National League Championship Series by outpitching his good friend CC Sabathia last night. Lee allowed just one unearned run while pitching a complete game, and the Phils defeated the New York Yankees in Game 1 of the 105th World Series, 6-1.
"This is the stage I've wanted to get to since I was a little kid," Lee said. "Now that I'm here, there's no sense in being nervous and worried."
The lefthander also played sharp defense, snagging one pop-up with a basket catch while standing comically still, and later snaring a hard shot behind his back.
"That was pretty cool," a smiling Lee said of the basket catch.
"He was trying to pull a Willie Mays on us or something," said manager Charlie Manuel.
Utley, who hit a first-inning home run to open the Series against Tampa Bay last year in a game that Hamels controlled, hit two solo homers off Sabathia last night.
"My approach was trying to make him work a little bit," Utley said. "I was trying to hit the fastball."
The Phillies did not solve Sabathia immediately. Jimmy Rollins attempted to surprise his fellow Bay Area native by bunting the first pitch of the series.
Had Rollins known that he would push the bunt toward first base and be tagged out, and had he seen the trouble Sabathia would encounter throwing strikes later in the inning, he may have made a different decision. It did not begin immediately: Shane Victorino followed Rollins with a pop-up, and Sabathia appeared ready to breeze through the first.
But Utley drew a walk, and Ryan Howard moved him to third by doubling to the right-field corner. Jayson Werth walked to load the bases, and Sabathia went to a 3-1 count on Raul Ibanez. Ibanez bounced to second, stranding three runners, but Sabathia threw 25 pitches, and just 12 strikes, in a difficult inning.
Lee's initial World Series inning was far breezier; the Phils' ace threw 11 pitches while retiring three straight batters, and striking out Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira. That forced Sabathia right back onto the field.
As the rain built from a mist to a heavier drizzle, Lee allowed his first hit of the night in the bottom of the second, a single by Jorge Posada, although the catcher did not score.
When Utley homered in the third, it benefited the Phillies in a number of ways: Not only did it give them a 1-0 lead, but also it punctured the groove that Sabathia appeared to be developing. And Utley's nine-pitch at-bat, which came with none on and two out, further elevated Sabathia's pitch count.
Utley fouled off five pitches before poking a ball over the right-field wall. It was the first home run Sabathia had allowed to a lefthanded batter at Yankee Stadium all year, and by the end of the inning, the Yanks' ace had thrown 58 pitches.
Lee did not labor at all, leaving with another playoff masterpiece.
"It does not surprise me at all," said catcher Carlos Ruiz. "It was the same process as the regular season. In his mind, it was the same game."
Rollins contributed clever defense. After a settled Sabathia retired the Phillies in order in the fifth, Lee allowed a leadoff single to Hideki Matsui. The Yankees' designated hitter was quickly erased when Rollins snagged a low liner from Robinson Cano, touched second in an apparent decoy play, and threw to Howard.
With Rollins scampering across the infield and telling Howard to tag a seemingly confused Matsui, who acted as if he had already been erased in a groundout double play, the first baseman obliged. After a brief meeting, the umpires correctly ruled it a double play.
By the sixth, no Phillie had reached base since Utley's home run - until Utley sent another shot to right, this one deeper, with one out in the inning. The Phils had just three hits, but they led 2-0. That was the score when Sabathia left after seven.
Utley provided enough offense for Lee, who continues to build a reputation for postseason dominance.
"When we got him, I knew he was good," Manuel said. "But if you want to know the truth, I didn't know he was as good as he's been."
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Contact staff writer Andy Martino
at 215-854-4874 or email@example.com.