Yankees, Phillies Begin Quest For Baseball's Best

Game 1 of the World Series gets under way Wednesday night in New York. The Yankees host the Philadelphia Phillies. Both teams lead their leagues in home runs. But the best team may come down to the closer — the last man in the bullpen.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The World Series begins this evening in New York. The team with the most championships overall, the Yankees, faces the team with the most recent championship, the Philadelphia Phillies. There should be plenty of offense. Both teams led their leagues and home runs. But it may be two pitchers who are key to this series.

NPR's Mike Pesca advises us to keep our eyes on the closers, the pitchers who make their appearances when it matters most.

MIKE PESCA: Life is to be understood backward but has to be lived forward. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard couldn't have known that his famous statement describes baseball pretty well. To understand who has the edge going in, it helps to start at the end. The closer, the last man in the bullpen. Here's how WCBS announcer John Sterling describes the Yankees' closer Mariano Rivera.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Mr. JOHN STERLING (Sportcaster): And the third out is made. One of the best pitching exhibitions you'll ever see from the greatest relief pitcher in the history of the game, Mariano Rivera.

PESCA: Rivera is so good, so steady, has given up so few runs in the post-season and has been such an important part of so many championship teams that he gives the Yankees a huge advantage. His cut fastball is routinely described as the hardest pitch to hit in baseball. It's flummoxed righties and handcuffed lefties for 15 years now. MLB network analyst Mitch Williams, himself a former closer, says Rivera also beats you with his mind.

Mr. MITCH WILLIAMS (MLB Network): There is no situation you can put him in that he hasn't dealt with, and he doesn't get wound up, and it's a great attribute of his that he has and I think he has it better than any other closer in history. You look at him, there is no tell on his face. If he's going good, if he's going bad, you'll never be able to look in his face and tell one way or another.

PESCA: The Phillies stopper, Brad Lidge, takes a different tact. Last year he was perfect, converting every save opportunity in the regular or post-season. This year, Lidge struggled badly, blowing 11 saves in the regular season. Williams says you didn't even have to watch the pitches to see what was happening.

Mr. WILLIAMS: I think Brad's an emotional guy and he wears a lot of what's going on on his face, and that has been one of my big criticisms of him this year, that you can look in his face and see that he has worry. If a hitter sees in your face that you aren't sure, they know it's time to go and it's time to pounce on you. Hitters miss nothing.

PESCA: But now that it's the post-season, when the Phillies need him most, Lidge has so far converted every save opportunity. Lidge's explanation is mostly physical.

Mr. BRAD LIDGE (Philadelphia Phillies): I started feeling I could really push off my back side and not even have to think about mechanics or, you know, what I'm doing out there physically if I feel good.

PESCA: He's gone through this before, great stretches followed by lousy performances. In fact, last year's perfect season was preceded by an awful one. Lidge, in a moment of reflection in the Phillies clubhouse after last year's World Series, suggested that he actually drew strength from the ups and downs.

Mr. LIDGE: Sometimes people don't realize that things can make you better. Even though it may not seem it at that time, it can make you better, if you let it. If you're willing to let it make you better, and I think that's - all the experience of my career have helped me this year.

PESCA: This should scare the Yankees. Brad Lidge has a template for absorbing failure and turning it around to his advantage. There is no reason to doubt the dominance of the Yankees' Mariano Rivera. There is also plenty of reason to believe that Lidge has regained a genuine belief in himself.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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