Philadelphia Phillies' Weekend Series vs. Rays Is Most Crucial of the Season

Alec Snyder@@alec_snyder62Contributor IIIJune 22, 2012

CLEARWATER, FL - MARCH 06:  First baseman Matt Rizzotti #76 of the Philadelphia Phillies takes the throw at first as Joe Inglett #79 of the Tampa Bay Rays gets back safely during a Grapefruit League Spring Training Game at Bright House Field on March 6, 2011 in Sarasota, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
J. Meric/Getty Images

The Philadelphia Phillies aren't exactly where they'd like to be right now. The team sits in dead last in the NL East with a 33-38 record and is nine games out of first place. It's just a game over .500 on the road at 19-18 and has an abysmal 14-20 record at home.

Last night, the team had the opportunity to go for their first series sweep of the season against the Colorado Rockies. Alas, it wasn't meant to be—the Rockies won 4-1 despite a stellar outing by Vance Worley.

Yet because the offense couldn't get it done—it was 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position last night—and because the bullpen couldn't hold down the fort, the Phils took another loss in the City of Brotherly Love.

However, the Rockies aren't a contending team and the Phillies did manage to win the series. But this weekend, the Tampa Bay Rays come into town for a three-game series, and it's going to be the most important series this season—not only to date, but in the season as a whole.

Why, you ask?

Well, the Phillies are going to be facing one of the most complete teams in all of baseball. With the Rays having starting pitching depth that is the envy of the rest of baseball as well as an adequate offense, despite the fact that they sit in third in the AL East, they are pretty darn good.

Yes, the Rays' biggest impact hitter, Evan Longoria, is hurt, and that should give the Phillies a bit of relief. But the Rays are also sending their two aces to the mound this weekend in James Shields (Friday) and David Price (Sunday) and a serviceable pitcher in Alex Cobb on Saturday, which could and likely will stifle the Phillies' offense.

And while the Phillies are sending their own aces to face off against Tampa Bay's on Friday with Cliff Lee and Sunday with Cole Hamels, if it comes down to a pitching duel, the Phillies are the more likely team not to score any runs.

After all, Lee has no wins almost halfway through the season, primarily for that reason. That's just the way it's been this year.

The Phillies also have the advantage (at least, on paper) of playing at home. Granted, their play at Citizens Bank Park has been atrocious, as is evidenced by their 14-20 record this year. But being able to play in their own ballpark against a strong team like the Rays is also advantageous for obvious reasons. Their pitchers are comfortable on the mound, and the fans are there for support.

This series will be telling for the Phillies for a number of reasons. The Rays are stacked with pitchers and have an above-average lineup, even without Longoria.

In addition, the Rays are an AL team. That means that the Phillies will need to step up their game against the Rays because AL teams are built with more offense. And even though this interleague series will take place without the use of a designated hitter, a possible World Series matchup for the Phils against any AL team will require the use of one.

Perhaps the biggest reason why the series is the most crucial is just that Tampa is a contending team all season long. Many expected them to slide with the absence of Longoria after he partially tore his hamstring in May. Although they sit in third place, they're only three and a half games out of first place, and all it would take for them to get back to first is a very good stretch and for Longoria to return.

The Phillies' other crucial series (in my opinion) was against the Los Angeles Dodgers. That was a four-game set and it was at home. And what happened? The Phillies lost all four games.

The Phillies are going to have a big challenge on their hands this weekend. If they can win the series, there's still some hope that the team can bounce back. But this series will be telling for the reasons listed above.

If the Phils lose the home set or get swept, then there really isn't much hope left if they can't beat one of the better teams in baseball.