Over the course of the first four games of the World Series the Yankees have conquered all but one of the Phillies star players. Ryan Howard has generated little other than strikeouts, Jimmy Rollins has made more noise with his mouth than his bat and Chase Utley's been quiet whenever CC Sabathia hasn't been on the mound. They even got Jayson Werth out on Sunday night. Pedro Martinez was game, but he lost. Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge weren't, and they lost as well. Cliff Lee, author of a Game 1 masterpiece, stands alone as a Phillie without a chink in his armor.
It's fitting, then, that he's the guy standing between the Yankees and a champagne shower on Monday evening. You'll hear a lot between now and gametime about A.J. Burnett's history on three days rest and how Howard and Rollins are due to break out, but that's all window dressing. Tonight's game is about Lee and whether or not he can make the Yankees look foolish for the second time in six days.
Burnett needs to pitch well, of course, and the bullpen needs to avoid a meltdown of Lidgian proportions, but Lee will determine whether we wait two days or six months for meaningful baseball. The lefthander was so dominant last week that it felt like he could have pitched 20 innings without getting anything more threatening than the Johnny Damon popup he caught underhanded at his waist. If he does that again, the Yankees probably aren't going to win unless Burnett pulls a Don Larsen out of his hat.
But if he doesn't, things tilt heavily in the Yankees' direction. Assuming Burnett doesn't get rocked, a good Lee performance, say seven innings of two or three run ball, might not be enough. It would leave work to do for a Philly bullpen that's underwhelmed all season and all series against a Yankee lineup that has done some of its best work in the late innings. You saw how well that worked out on Sunday.
That's the massive mountain looming for the Phillies and their hopes of repeating as champions. Little to no margin for error and even less ability to sustain another punch to the gut adds up to a situation that calls for nearly perfect baseball. Lee has been the only guy they have capable of providing it so, at the very least, they'll go down fighting.