THE YANKEES have the home-field advantage in the best-of-seven series, but the importance of the early games at Yankee Stadium is even more magnified by the pitching alignment of the Mets. They'll use strong left-handers Al Leiter and Mike Hampton in Games 1 and 2, which will leave the rotation soft for the first two games at Shea Stadium. The Mets have to split the first two in the Bronx to have a chance to exploit their decided statistical advantage at Shea. They really need to win the first two to have a real good chance of winning the World Series -- and that's a tall order. The Yankees already have proven they can win on the road, so they should be able to beat at least one of the Mets' lesser starters. If it's even after four games, the Yankees will have Roger Clemens going in Game 5 and an inside track to their fourth world title in five years.
Prediction: Yankees in seven
-- Peter Schmuck
Todd Zeile vs. Tino Martinez
Converted third baseman Zeile has found a home at the other corner of the Mets' infield, and he is a solid postseason performer. He arrived in October with a .320 career batting average in postseason play and was the Mets' most productive hitter in the NLCS with a .368 average and a team-leading eight RBIs. Yankees veteran Martinez is coming off one of his worst run-production seasons, but he also has stepped up in the postseason, batting .364 in the ALCS and playing his usual solid defense. Zeile actually had better power numbers this year, but more games at Yankee Stadium and more experience at crunch time benefits Martinez.
Key matchup stat: Zeile has a .350 career average and two home runs against Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte.
Edgardo Alfonzo vs. Chuck Knoblauch
The Yankees' unstable situation at second base created a postseason opportunity for journeyman Sojo -- who is surprisingly clutch in big games -- but manager Joe Torre said he will play undependable Knoblauch at second in the three middle games at Shea Stadium to keep him at the top of the batting order. Knoblauch likely will continue to DH at Yankee Stadium, with Jose Vizcaino playing the field in Game 1. The Mets' Alfonzo has developed into one of the best all-around players in the game -- and has proven to be a force in the postseason. Hit three home runs in last year's Division Series against Arizona. Batted .444 and led the Mets with eight hits in this year's NLCS. This guy can really play.
Key matchup stat: Alfonzo batted just .167 against Yankees pitching this year in interleague play.
Mike Bordick vs. Derek Jeter
Yankees superstar Jeter did not have a standout ALCS (.268 batting average), but don't be fooled. He's a big-time postseason player, as evidenced by his strong career numbers in every playoff tier. If you had to pick a favorite to be World Series MVP, he might be it (though he may have to wrestle it away from clutch outfielder Bernie Williams). With Rey Ordonez hurt, veteran Mike Bordick shored up the position for the Mets and had some key hits during the regular season, but has yet to be a major offensive factor in the postseason. He continues to play his usual great defense, but had just one hit in 13 at-bats against relatively soft pitching in the NLCS.
Key matchup stat: Jeter also was the Yankees' best hitter against the Mets in interleague play, with a .407 batting average.
Robin Ventura vs. Scott Brosius
Mets veteran Ventura does not have a reputation for being a major postseason threat, though he has had some big hits this October. His career postseason average was below .200 coming into this year and he had only three hits in 14 at-bats in the NLCS. But when he puts the bat on the ball, he drives in runs.
The Yankees' Brosius was the World Series MVP a few years ago, but the 2000 season was a struggle and the postseason hasn't been a cakewalk either. Brosius batted just .200 in the ALCS.
Key matchup stat: Ventura has four hits in 12 career at-bats against Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
Mike Piazza vs. Jorge Posada
Mets fans hope "the monster" can stay out of the cage. Piazza hit .412 in the NLCS and showed why he looked like the front-runner for National League MVP for much of the year. His offensive numbers tailed off some down the stretch, but he appears to be back in a groove. If so, he might be the Mets' best hope for World Series MVP. Yankees starter Posada is one of the sport's up-and-coming stars. He hit 28 home runs during the regular season, but struggled to make an impact this postseason until his big two-run double off John Halama in Game 6.
Key matchup stat: Before this year, Posada had hit .125 and .143 in the first two rounds of the playoffs but .294 in the World Series.
Benny Agbayani vs. David Justice