Dream pitching matchup hinges on Game 6

After the Phillies wandered back onto the field at Citizens Bank Park in celebration of their repeat pennant, one television crew pulled ace Cliff Lee aside for an interview.

Lee stood along the fence near the first base line, in close view of some raucous fans who lingered at the late hour. They quickly took up a chant, expressing gratitude to the organization that made it all possible.


The cheers were haughty, but justifiably so. Baseball fans across the country — at least those who love pitching — may soon express the same sentiment.

Lee is almost certain to be Philadelphia’s starter in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night. And CC Sabathia, his friend and former Cleveland teammate, could oppose him.

In order for that to happen, though, the Yankees must close out the Angels in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday.

Los Angeles defeated New York, 7-6, in a riveting, back-and-forth Game 5 on Thursday night. If the Angels avoid elimination again on Saturday, Sabathia will be called upon to pitch a winner-take-all game for the AL pennant at Yankee Stadium on Sunday.

So, unless you’re a fan of the Angels, or unless you truly loathe the Yankees, then you should probably root for a New York win on Saturday night. Because that’s the only avenue to what would be one of the most intriguing starter vs. starter matchups in recent postseason history.

Sabathia starred and Lee struggled for the Indians in 2007, when Cleveland came within one victory of the World Series. Now, the buddies could make their Fall Classic debuts in the same game.

Even if you set aside their relationship and ties to Cleveland, the buzz for this potential encounter would persist for days.

Sabathia won the 2007 AL Cy Young Award. Lee was the next year’s recipient.

Sabathia joined the Yankees as a $161 million free agent. Lee came to the Phillies in baseball’s biggest midseason trade.

Sabathia has been superb in three postseason starts (3-0, 1.19 ERA). Lee has been superb in three postseason starts (2-0, 0.74 ERA).

Sabathia has more power. Lee has more pitchability. Both belong in any discussion of the best starting pitchers anywhere.

As the Phillies sprayed champagne on Wednesday night, Lee was asked about the possibility of squaring off with Sabathia in Game 1.

“It’s hard to comment on that until they’ve won the series,” Lee said. “But if that does happen, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Lee said the two have kept in touch since Sabathia left Cleveland in a midseason trade last year.

“I’ve been pulling for him every step of the way,” Lee said Wednesday. “But if we have to match up against him, that might be the first time that I pull against him, except for when we faced him (with) Cleveland.

“He’s a class act, one of my most favorite teammates. I highly respect him as a person and a player.”

Lee and Sabathia have opposed one another in the majors only once before — on April 16, when the Yankees christened their new ballpark in the Bronx.

The two had similar pitching lines, with each allowing one earned run, but the New York bullpen faltered late. The Indians won, 10-2. Lee earned the victory. Sabathia took a no-decision.

Cleveland fans would probably be somewhat disillusioned at the sight of Lee and Sabathia facing one another in a World Series — particularly since the Tribe is in such disarray. The Indians went 65-97 this season and are still looking for a new manager.

The Indians’ inability to match Sabathia’s price on a contract extension represented a key juncture in the eventual dismantling of the ’07 team. The team has a modest payroll, and general manager Mark Shapiro has never been shy about trading veteran players who he believes will soon leave via free agency.

That was the case in 2008, when he traded the defending American League Cy Young Award winner (Sabathia) to Milwaukee.

And that was the case in 2009, when he traded the defending American League Cy Young Award winner (Lee) to Philadelphia.

But while Sabathia is known for his consistency — with 17 or more wins and 230 or more innings in each of the past three seasons — Lee has had a winding career. He came to Cleveland in the famous Bartolo Colon trade and didn’t fully emerge until 2005, by which time Sabathia had already established himself as one of the majors’ top young arms.

Just when it appeared that Lee was entering his prime, he endured a disastrous 2007 season. He was injured and/or ineffective for much of the year. He spent time in the minors. He finished with a 6.29 ERA and didn’t pitch in the playoffs.

Then he rebounded with a sensational 2008. Most wins in the league. Best ERA. Highest winning percentage, despite pitching for a mediocre team. He won the Cy Young by a comfortable margin.

Lee was almost as effective this year, but the Indians believed that trading him was a necessary move for their future.

The end result: He’s heading to the World Series.

“I’ve had ups and downs in my career,” Lee said Wednesday. “It all led to right here. It’s been a fun ride, and this is a great opportunity. I hope I can make the most of it.”

Lee’s emergence for the tough-minded Phillies is a great story. And if he shares the brightest spotlight in baseball with Sabathia next week, he will become an even better one.