Tuesday, October 21, 2008

World Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays vs. Philadelphia Phillies

Overview: By most analysis from high-paid sports reporters, the upcoming Fall Classic is going to be an uninteresting snooze-fest. With two East Coast teams, there will be limited West Coast interest, thus, no big national audience. By many accounts, the pitching is sub-par, the story lines have minimal appeal and the teams are forgettable. Well, that's the mainstream point of view. For pure love of the game of baseball, the showdown between the Phillies, from Philadelphia, where championships go to be buried, and the Tampa Bay Rays - the 200-1 longshot, worst-to-first, modern-day Horatio Alger story team - is the stuff of dreams. Tampa Bay has never won anything, much less a World Series. And the Phillies haven't won the World Series since 1980, when they beat the Kansas City Royals, 4 games to 2, in a series that might have been one of the most forgettable ever. Both teams have intense motivation to win this year. While the Phillies have been building a solid organization over many years, the Rays burst onto the scene with a flourish. There's a youthful vibe and exuberance to the Rays; a business-like confidence to the Phillies. Compare and contrast. This has the makings of being a classic. American League: Tampa Bay Rays Recent History: The Rays took out the Chicago White Sox 3 games to 1, in the divisional playoffs. As winners of the AL East, they were barred by rule from playing the wild card Boston Red Sox in the opening round, so played the lowest-percentage division winner, Chicago. In the ALCS, the Rays nearly had the Red Sox beaten in 5 games, only to blow a 7-run, 7th inning lead in Game 5, losing 8-7, as the bullpen let down. After Boston won Game 6, the Rays eventually got to them, winning Game 7, 3-1, riding the electric arm of starter Matt Garza and rookie finisher David Price. Strengths: Team spirit. Tampa Bay is one of the youngest teams in the majors, but the kids have a strong team attitude, picking each other up and playing with passion and determination. Strong starters. Scott Kazmir, James Shields (Game 1 starter), Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine make up a solid rotation though nobody won more than 14 games. Kazmir and Shields are the two most reliable, with ERAs of 3.49 and 3.56, respectively, though the other two aren't far behind. Steady in the middle. Short relievers Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell have been game-changers for the Rays with a combined record of 12-3 and an ERA of 1.96. Speed: Tampa led the AL with 142 steals. B.J. Upton led the team with 44. Carl Crawford had 25 in 109 games and Jason Bartlett swiped 20. Weaknesses: Fanball. Four starters - Longoria, B.J. Upton, Akinori Iwamura and Pena - struck out more than 100 times each. Against Hamels and Myers and the Phillies' relievers, that's not a good sign. Defense. Iwamura and Jason Bartlett aren't the greatest middle infielders, but they are steady. However, little things get amplified in the playoffs. Youth. The inexperience of this squad is prescient. Their leader, in many aspects, Evan Longoria, is a rookie, and this is the Rays' first-ever appearance on the post-season stage, so there's not much exposure to pressure upon which to draw. Closing comment. Troy Percival, who was the Rays' regular closer much of the season is off the roster, replaced by Dan Wheeler, who's been shaky. David Price, who worked the final 1 1/3 of game 7, Players to Watch Evan Longoria (R) A sure-fire choice for Rookie of the Year honors, Longoria hit 27 home runs and drove in 85 runs in just 122 games, both good for second on the team. He's the heart of the Rays' youth movement. Carl Crawford Though he played in only 109 games due to a late-season injury, Crawford is a key element in the Rays' attack. Possessing both speed and power, if Crawford hits, the Rays go, period. He can be a one-man wrecking crew. Carlos Pena Speaking of wrecking, Carlos Pena has done serious damage to the psyche and records of many AL pitchers. His 31 HR and 102 RBI led the Rays, and he can't be pitched around because there are too many other weapons in the lineup. Pena has extraordinary power. He's hit 77 homers the past two seasons. B.J. Upton In just his third year, Upton has significant upside. Like Crawford, he can hit for power and has speed to burn. In 2007, he hit 24 homers. In 2008, he stole 44 bases. In the playoff series against the White Sox hit three homers and drove in 4 runs. Though one may not know what to expect from Upton, he's sure to provide some thrills. J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour As middle relievers go, these two are probably the best tandem in the majors. Tampa Bay's young starters sometimes need to get out of jams and these are the go-to guys who really produced all season. Without them, the Rays literally would not have won the AL East. National League: Philadelphia Phillies Recent History: After winning the NL East for the second straight season, the Phillies made quick work of the wild card Milwaukee Brewers in the divisional series, winning the best-of-five in four games, winning both of their games in Philly, dropping Game 3 and winning Game 4. In the NLCS, the Phillies once more took the opening two games at home, then took two of three in Los Angeles to whip the Dodgers in 5 games. The Phillies have been off since Wednesday, and are as well-rested as a team can be. Strengths: Power. The Phillies led the NL with 214 home runs, the bulk of those off the bats of Ryan Howard, who led the majors with 48, Chase Utley and Pat Burrell, who knocked 33 apiece out of the park. Speed. with 138 steals, the Phillies were third in the NL. Most of those were by leadoff man, Jimmy Rollins (47) and #2 hitter Shane Victorino (36). Bench. The versatile roster includes Pedro Feliz, Jayson Werth, Matt Stairs and Geoff Jenkins, each of whom can be plugged in as needed. Bullpen. The Phillies are blessed with an abundance of middle relievers. Chad Durbin, J.C. Romero and Ryan Madson are all capable of getting the ball to closer Brad Lidge, who had 41 saves in 41 tries, 92 Ks in 69.1 innings and an ERA of 1.95 in the regular season and remained perfect in the playoffs. Weaknesses: Whiffers. The three power players - Utley, Burrell and Howard - all have a tendency to swing and miss. Between them, they struck out 439 times, the worst offender being Howard, with 199. Starting Pitching. After ace Cole Hamels (14-10, 3.09 ERA), there isn't much there. Brett Myers and ancient Jamie Moyer will have to step it up. Players to Watch Ryan Howard (right) is the big gun in the lineup, with 48 homers and 146 RBI, he led the league in both categories. If he's on, ball will be flying over outfielders' heads and out of the park. Jimmy Rollins Outspoken and with the stats to back up his talk, Rollins is the team leader and leadoff hitter. Rollins is great at the plate in pressure situations and can hurt you with the long ball and can steal. Very steady at shortstop as well. Shane Victorino This youngster doesn't get much press, but the Phillies probably wouldn't be where they are without him. His .293 BA led all regulars. He was second on the team in hits (167) and third in runs scored (102). Chase Utley Dubbed "The Machine" by teammates, Utley's rare blend of power and consistently produced a .292 BA, 104 RBI and 33 HRs in 2008. He can - and has - hurt opponents in many ways. Capable of carrying the team alone, as he did in April and May. Cole Hamels Led the team in innings with 227.1, strikeouts (196) and all starters in ERA (3.09). The game one starter may get two more shots if the series is extended to 7 games. He is the Phillies' best defensive weapon. If he's on, a very tough guy to beat. Brad Lidge Without argument, the best closer in the league, Lidge earned comeback player of the year for his outstanding season. He's simply lights out in the 9th inning. Prediction: The oddsmakers in Las Vegas made Tampa Bay the favorite in the series. A bettor would have to put up $145 to make $100, whereas a bet on the Phillies would only be $100 to make $125. Having seen easy money before, this one is almost a no-brainer. The Vegas gambit is based upon money already bet on the Rays in the futures at odds of 100-1 to 200-1. If they Rays win, they are looking at some monumental payouts, so they made the Rays a false favorite in order to try to recoup some of their potential losses. This little tidbit of knowledge can go a long way in this series. The Phillies have some advantages, and some possible stumbling blocks, not the least of which is their lack of starting pitching. However, should the series go seven games, Cole Hamels, ostensibly the best pitcher on either team, could start games one, four and seven, though he'd be pitching on three days rest in games four and seven. Even if manager Charlie Manuel decides to stick to the rotation and risk having Jamie Moyer on the mound in game seven, the Phillies have a significant experience edge and a killer lineup, especially when they play at Tampa Bay with the addition of the DH. The Rays have been a great story and they could win this series, but Philadelphia, despite not having home field advantage, has the hitting, speed, relief pitching and emotional steadiness to win the World Series in 5 or 6 games. World Series Schedule Game 1 @ TB, Kazmir vs. Hamels, Wed, Oct 27 8:29 pm EDT Game 2 @ TB, Shields vs. Myers, Thu, Oct 23 8:29 pm EDT Game 3 @ PHI, Moyer vs. Garza, Sat, Oct 25 8:35 pm EDT Game 4 @ PHI, Blanton vs. Sonnanstine, Sun, Oct 26 8:29 pm EDT Game 5 @ PHI, Hamels vs. Kazmir, Mon, Oct 27 8:29 pm EDT Game 6 @ TB, Shields vs. Myers, Wed, Oct 29 8:35 pm EDT Game 7 @ TB, Garza vs. Moyer, Thu, Oct 30 8:29 pm EDT

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