One of the greatest things about baseball is its unpredictability. In April, no one would have suggested the possibility of a World Series between the Charlie Brown of all sports franchises, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Philadelphia Phillies, a team that has not won a postseason series since 1993. But fast forward six months and the Mets, Yankees, Cubs, Tigers, Dodgers and Red Sox are all sitting at home watching the Rays and Phillies prepare to take baseball’s greatest stage.
How They Got Here
Philadelphia Phillies (92-70): The Phillies disposed of the Brewers in a four-game NLDS and overcame Manny Ramirez and the Dodgers in five games to make it back to the World Series for the first time since 1993.
The real key to that series was the momentum the Phils got from their comeback victory in Game 4. The Dodgers, looking to tie the series, were leading by two in the eighth when Shane Victorino hit a two-run homer. A few batters latter, Matt Stairs homered to give the Phils a 7-5 lead, and the team never looked back.
Tampa Bay Rays (97-65): After defeating the Chicago White Sox 3-1 in the ALDS, Tampa Bay scraped by Boston 4-3 in the ALCS, clinching the first pennant in franchise history.
In the ALCS, the Rays were up 3 games to 1, with a seven-run lead in Game 5, when all hell broke loose. The Sox stormed back to win Game 5 and then took Game 6 in Tampa. But an old baseball adage states that momentum is only as good as that day’s starting pitcher — and never was that more true than in Game 7. Rays’ starter Matt Garza was spectacular, going seven innings and only giving up one run. It was Garza who kept the Rays from going down in history, not as the upstart team of the century but as the biggest chokers since the 2004 Yankees.
Why The Series Matters
If you aren’t already a Phillies or Rays fan, this is probably a rather unappealing series. There are no “Manny returns to Fenway” headlines to read, no Boston or New York teams to root against and no reason to care, right?
Wrong. While Fox Network executives may be cringing at the idea of a Rays-Phillies World Series, baseball fans should be rejoicing. The Phillies and Rays are two solidly built teams who defied the predictions of pundits. They can make this an exciting series, despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of hype surrounding the franchises. Think about it: Don’t we refer to the Yankees as an “evil” empire for a reason? And didn’t we see more than enough of the Red Sox, Angels and Mets on ESPN this season? This year’s World Series has a great storyline, and you don’t have to be the Phillie Phanatic or Dick Vitale to appreciate what this series means for these two teams and their fans.
The Phillies won their first, and only, World Series 18 years before the (then-Devil) Rays played their first game. Although that might seem insignificant when compared to the 84 years that the “Curse of the Bambino” reigned over Fenway or the 100 years of “lovable losers” Cubs fans have had to endure, it has coincided with a quarter-century championship drought among all Philadelphia sports teams. Since the Phillies’ 1980 victory, poor Philadelphia has had to deal with Mitch Williams blowing a Game 6 World Series lead over the Blue Jays, the Sixers losing to the Lakers in the 2001 NBA finals, Donovan McNabb puking at the end of the Super Bowl, Smarty Jones’ loss in the 2004 Belmont Stakes, and a city ordinance banning trans fat. Living in Chicago doesn’t seem that bad now, does it?
A Phillies victory would liberate a sports-crazed city, but a Rays win would also be historic. No team has ever won the World Series after owning the major league’s worst record the season before, giving the Rays the chance to become the ultimate worst-to-first story. With the second-smallest payroll in baseball, the Rays can prove that baseball is about a lot more than TV ratings and overpaid “superstars” (here’s looking at you, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Zito).
How They Can Keep Winning
Philadelphia: The key for Philadelphia will be taking a lead into the 9th inning. Closer Brad Lidge, who has yet to blow a save this season (with five of his 46 chances coming in the postseason), is looking to move beyond the infamous “Pujols home run” and create a new playoff legacy for himself. For the Phillies to get to Lidge, stars Chase Utley and Ryan Howard will need to get the bats going after hitting an anemic .250 and .258, respectively, through the playoffs thus far.
Tampa Bay: Tampa Bay has the benefit of both home field advantage (after posting a major league best 57-24 record at Tropicana Field this season) and momentum (the Phillies have sat for a week since winning the NLCS). Pitching was the centerpiece of the Rays’ extraordinary regular-season run, but both the bullpen and key starter Scott Kazmir looked shaky during the ALCS. If they can fix those problems, the Rays should be able to continue the Florida tradition of winning playoff series, adding a World Series title to the long list of firsts accomplished this year.
Players to Watch
Philadelphia: Despite a less-than-spectacular regular season, starter Cole Hamels has been crucial to the Phillies’ success in the postseason. Named the NLCS MVP, he has won all three of his starts this October, posting a 1.23 ERA and averaging one strikeout per inning. Hamels will look to continue his winning ways when he takes the mound in Game 1.
Tampa Bay: It’s impossible to choose just one so I’m going to go with B.J. Upton and A.L. Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria. The duo has combined to hit 13 of the team’s 22 playoff homers.
Prediction: Visiting teams have struggled in Tropicana Field. It’s extremely loud (even if it is full of octogenarians), infielders have trouble reading hops because of the artificial surface, and outfielders lose balls in the roof. All of this should combine to give the Rays a huge home-field advantage. Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia will also be loud, of course, but with four games at home, the Rays don’t have to win in Philly. Because of their home field advantage and because the long wait has most likely cooled the Phillies’ hot arms, I expect Tampa to take the World Series in six games.