As the Philadelphia Phillies prepared to open defense of their World Series championship, a major historic stumbling block stood in their way.
The New York Yankees were 26-time World Series champions, and the current team had a powerful lineup of their own.
Playing their first season in the “new” Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Bombers had won 103 games, capturing the AL East Division crown by eight games over the rival Boston Red Sox.
The Yanks swept out the Minnesota Twins in three straight games in the ALDS, and then captured their 40th American League pennant by battling past the Los Angeles Angels in six games in the ALCS.
For their part, the Fightin’ Phils had won 93 games, but had stumbled down the stretch, losing nine of their final 15 games.
With the NLDS tied at a game apiece against the Colorado Rockies, the Phils went to frigid Coors Field and came away with a pair of hard-fought wins in the final inning to advance.
Then for a second straight season, the Phillies met the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS. Just as a year earlier, the Phillies held a 2-1 lead, but the Dodgers took a lead into the bottom of the ninth of Game Four.
The Phillies rallied to a victory when Jimmy Rollins ripped a two-run double into the right-center field gap off Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton.
The following day they pounded L.A., advancing to consecutive World Series appearances for the first time in franchise history.
The American League had narrowly won the MLB All-Star Game by a 4-3 score in July, thus giving the Yankees home field advantage. Members of both World Series clubs had played key late roles to help seal the deal.
Ryan Howard of the Phillies had struck out with two outs and runners at second and third in the bottom of the eighth with the NL trailing by that 4-3 score. The Yanks’ Mariano Rivera then came on to close it out in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Manager Charlie Manuel would send his veteran left-hander Cliff Lee to the mound for the opener, while Yankees skipper Joe Girardi started his own veteran lefty in CC Sabathia.
Lee had been acquired by the Phillies from the Cleveland Indians just prior to the MLB non-waiver trade deadline along with outfielder Ben Francisco in exchange for a package of four prospects.
Giving the Phillies a huge boost, Lee went 7-4 in a dozen starts following the deal. The 30-year-old who had won the AL Cy Young Award the previous season had a fantastic 74/10 K:BB ratio over 79.2 post-trade innings.
At 28 years of age, Sabathia had put together a strong 18-9 season in his first year in the Bronx after signing as a free agent in December of 2008.
He had been a rotation mate of Lee’s in Cleveland before the Tribe dealt him away to the Milwaukee Brewers. Sabathia then was a part of the Brewers team that lost to the Phillies in the NLDS on their way to winning the 2008 World Series crown.
The Phillies loaded the bases in the top of the first inning against the big lefty, but Raul Ibanez grounded to second base for the final out.
It was the first of six consecutive outs recorded by Sabathia. Then with two outs in the top of the third inning, Chase Utley stepped into the box.
Utley was perhaps the Phillies’ best all-around player during this great franchise run. In the 2009 season he had hit for a .282/.397/.508 slash line with 31 homers, 63 extra-base hits, 93 RBI, 112 runs scored, and had stolen 23 bases without being caught.
On a 3-2 pitch from Sabathia, Utley unleashed his typical short, powerful stroke, driving a ball five rows deep into the right field seats. The solo home run put the Phillies on top by a 1-0 score.
It would be the last that the Phillies hitters would touch Sabathia for a while. He retired the next eight straight hitters, striking out half of them.
The problem for the Yankees was Lee, who was pitching a masterpiece. Through the first five innings he struck out six batters, including the side in order in the bottom of the fourth, and had yielded just three hits.
With one out in the top of the sixth and the Phillies still clinging to that 1-0 lead, Utley again stepped in against Sabathia. This time the Yankees left-hander put the Phillies second baseman in a deep 0-2 hole. And then Utley got him again.
Sabathia tried to sneak a fastball past “The Man”, usually a mistake. Utley timed it perfectly, driving another solo home run out to right, this one deeper than the first.
It would be the beginning of a World Series show for Utley, who would go deep five times, drive in eight runs, score seven, and do everything that he could to try to push the Phillies to a second straight crown.
That 2-0 lead would hold into the top of the eighth, and with Sabathia having thrown 113 pitches, Girardi decided to bring in right-hander Phil Hughes.
Hughes had made 44 relief appearances and seven starts during the regular season as a 23-year-old experiencing his first full big league campaign.
Rollins led off the top of the eighth by working a walk on a 3-2 pitch, then stole second while Shane Victorino was at the plate. Victorino then also would eventually work a 3-2 walk.
Girardi had seen enough of his young righty, especially with two on, nobody out, and Utley and Howard, a pair of powerful lefty bats, coming to the plate.
He made the move to bring 34-year-old Damaso Marte into the game, a lefty from the Dominican Republic who was in his eighth season.
Marte did his job perfectly, striking out Utley and retiring “The Big Piece” on a fly ball to right field. Rollins tagged up and went to third on the Howard fly ball, but now there were two outs.
Girardi then continued playing chess. He again went to his pen, this time bringing in talented 24-year-old righty David Robertson. Only this time it didn’t work. Robertson walked the patient Jayson Werth on four straight pitches and now had to face the lefty-swinging Ibanez.
The Phillies left fielder worked the count to 2-2, and then drilled a single to right field, scoring both Rollins and Victorino to give the Phils some breathing room at 4-0.
Lee continued to mow the Yankees hitters down, retiring the side in order in the bottom of the eighth. In the top of the ninth, the Phillies would add two more runs to put a stranglehold on things.
Carlos Ruiz got it started with a one out double off the Yankees’ fifth pitcher of the game, Brian Bruney. Rollins singled “Chooch” over to third base, and Victorino scored him with another base hit.
Girardi then brought in his sixth pitcher of the night in lefty Phil Coke to face Utley and Howard. He got Utley, but Howard tagged him for an RBI double, and the Phillies had a 6-0 lead.
That little extra burst would prove important, as the Yankees would finally get to Lee in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon started the frame with singles. Mark Teixeira then hit into a potential 4-6-3 double play, but a throwing error by Rollins allowed Jeter to score the run that broke the ice for the home side.
As if ticked off about the error that ruined his shutout, Lee pitched angry. The intense lefty struck out both Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada to end the game, with the Phillies taking a 6-1 victory and a 1-0 lead in the World Series.
The Phillies were the defending world champions, and now had a 1-0 lead in the 2009 Fall Classic as they went for a repeat title. But the Yankees would storm back to take the next three straight games.
Down 3-1 in games after losing back-to-back contests at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies’ season and the defense of their crown would be directly on the line when we get to the next and final chapter in my Phillies Fall Classics series with Game Five of the 2009 World Series.