In probably the most unlikely World Series matchup since the double Worst to First Series in 1991, the 2008 World Series features the upstart Tampa Bay Rays, a team whose previous franchise-best win total was 70, versus the Philadelphia Phillies, whose sordid, disappointing history has been dwelled on and parsed out ad nauseum on the virtual pages of this blog.
One thing is for certain: the Phillies enter this Series as underdogs. No, it wouldn't shock the world if they won. But the superiority of the American League over the National League has been well-established, in the big picture and in this precise case (Phillies interleague record: 4-11). Nonetheless, we're going to try to separate the wheat from the chaff, and look at the teams in a vacuum, away from the baggage of their own previous poor fortunes and the quality of their respective leagues. They're going to settle this thing between the lines.
Lineup: Edge Phillies
Opponents of the Phillies have said all season that they have an American League-style lineup. I guess now is the time to put that to the test. This Rays team was a good but less than great offensive squad that has been raking for the entire postseason... Longoria and Upton in particular. The Phillies, on the other hand, are 7-2 in the playoffs so far, with Ryan Howard slugging under .400. Now would be a good time to turn it on, Ryan...
Bench: Edge Rays
Rocco Baldelli has been a wonderful story, the long-time Ray who is fighting a rare mitochondrial condition and came back to contribute to his team's postseason run. In at least two of the games in this Series, the Phillies bench will take a hit, with one of its better bats, be it Dobbs, Stairs, or Coste, filling the DH role.
Rotation: Edge Rays
Cole Hamels is the best pitcher left, capable of beating anybody on any given day. The Rays, however, have four starters who are probably better than the Phillies #2, Brett Myers. Sure, Myers, Blanton, and (maybe?) Moyer are capable of throwing a couple of gems, but the Rays starting pitching, top to bottom, is just better.
Bullpen: Edge Phillies
Best bullpen in baseball? You can make thar argument. Particularly over the full season, the Phillies bullpen is clearly better than the Rays. Joe Maddon has crafted a sabermetrician-friendly "bullpen by committee" that has been more than capable of finishing off ballgames. And the introduction of David Price makes this much closer than it otherwise would have been. However, the Game Five collapse against the Red Sox looms large. Brad Lidge remains terrific, and Ryan Madson is damn near unstoppable. Edge to the Phillies here, but it's not a huge one.
Charlie Manuel or Joe Maddon? Hard to pick a favorite here. One thing is for certain: these are both guys who diverge from the norm of the typical role of team manager. One is cerebral and urbane, the other folksy and "countrified." Both men, however, command the unwavering loyalty of their teams, and have created a clubhouse environment conducive to winning. Flip a coin.
I am not sweating the Phillies one week layoff very much. Cole Hamels is the great equalizer here; he pitched Game One of the NLDS on eight days rest, and threw one of the best games of his career.
I've picked both the NLDS and NLCS correctly so far, so let's hope my luck holds out. I expect Cole Hamels to pitch a couple more gems, and for one of Chase Utley or Ryan Howard to get red hot and carry the offense. It'll be a terrific, competitive, dramatic Series that might make my heart explode.
Phillies in 7.