22 October 2008

World Serious

A lot of observers have been comparing this Series to the 1991 matchup between Minnesota and Atlanta, who were both, like Tampa Bay this season, last-place teams the year before. Like the Braves of the early '90's, the Rays have erased a decade of futility with a nucleus of great young pitchers, and, like the Twins, they play in a quirky domed stadium that gives them a pointed home field advantage. If that's any indication, we should be in for a hell of a series.

For that to happen, though, the Phillies will have to rise to the occasion. The Rays are a superior team, winning 97 games in the best division in baseball, and Philadelphia must overcome the pratfall of a long layoff like the one that has felled the past two World Series losers. They'll need several things to go right to make this a long series.

  • Philadelphia's starting pitching will be at a disadvantage in every game Cole Hamels doesn't start, therefore it's almost a necessity for Hamels to win both of his starts for the Phillies to have any chance in this series. This will be especially apparent on the back end of the Phillies rotation, where the ageless Jamie Moyer has been hammered in both outings so far, and what the Rays lack in a top-end ace, they make up for with terrifying depth.
  • The middle three games are always crucial for the home team, but especially so for Philadelphia, which can't count on getting much out of its visit to the Trop. Additionally, the first two of those games will be started by the aforementioned soft end of the Phillies rotation. Luckily for them, thanks to MLB's ridiculous postseason schedule dragging the Series into late October, the city of Philadelphia may be uninhabitable by the time the series hits town. If Citizens Bank Park is an icy bog this weekend, the Phillies should have a significant advantage over the inexperienced team from a domed stadium.
  • The Rays bullpen--which had been the team's most improved element over 2007--seemed to revert to its old form in the last three games of the ALCS. In Game 7, manager Joe Maddon went to Dan Wheeler--who had taken over as the closer when Troy Percival went down late in the season--to start the eighth inning, a spot normally reserved for Grant Balfour, who was roughed up in the Game 5 meltdown. He then turned to David Price, a projected ace with exactly 14 big-league innings under his belt, to get the final four outs. The Phillies should be decidedly more comfortable on the back end of games with Brad Lidge, perfect on the season in save chances.
  • Say it with me now; it's a short series, and crazy things happen.

The Phillies do have more quality than recent National League champions, so I can see them extending this series to a second visit to Florida. However, they just can't match Tampa Bay's incredible depth, which is the best antidote against the Rays' hot hitters regressing to the mean somewhat. Double A's--gotta get that in one more time--in six.