Since spring training began, the Tampa Bay Rays have used some unusual math to get their point across.
First it was Joe Maddon's now-famous mantra "9=8." Then Troy Percival upped the ante by wearing a shirt during warmups proclaiming that "Kazmir, Shields, and Garza = Glavine, Smoltz, and Avery."
As the post-season went along, that 9=8 eventually became 9=4 and most recently 9=2, even as Ernie Johnson ask Maddon if "9=1?" But now a new rule is in play, one that amazingly has nothing to do with the number 9 or even the 1991 Atlanta Braves.
For the Rays to emerge from this year's fall classic as World Champions, they are going to need four to equal one. Those four will need to be Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, and Andy Sonnanstine. That's right, there's the new t-shirt slogan, "4=1."
The old post-season adage is that good pitching beats good hitting, and nowhere was that more obvious than the first 24 innings at Fenway Park in the ALCS. Garza, Sonnanstine, and Kazmir combined to give up 4 earned runs and 14 hits, with 14 strikeouts in 19.1 innings pitched. The trio of starters had a 1.86 ERA at Fenway, where the Red Sox average 5.7 runs per game.
Now the Rays must take their young quartet of starters into another lions den in Philadelphia. Kazmir and Shields are scheduled to start the first two games in the friendly confines of Tropicana Field before heading off to Citizens Bank Park, with Garza, Sonnanstine, and Kazmir on the hill.
Philadelphia's offense is much like the Rays in that they are full of young, athletic hitters who can manufacture runs the old-fashioned way or bludgeon you with the long-ball. How Tampa Bay's starters handle them will be the determining outcome of the series.
If the Rays starters are able to go deep into games, limit the times that the Phillies can turn their lineup over, and control the flow of the game, it will allow their bullpen to stay fresh. It will also allow Joe Maddon to control the way that he wants to use the bullpen and match up against the Phillies in key situations.
When rested and healthy, the Rays had one of the most steady bullpens in the game this year, and adding David Price to a more prominent role only strengthens them. As we saw in Game 5, however, things can go very badly very quickly when situations get rough. That is why the key for the Rays will be the starting pitching.
Scott Kazmir was at his best for six innings to start Game 5 of the ALCS. With a plus fastball and devastating slider, the two-time All-Star can be virtually unhittable against lefthanders at times.
The only question here may be his stamina. Kazmir is not known for eating up innings, but he will need to give the Rays 6 good innings for them to have a chance. As the 2007 American League strikeout leader, as well as being the Rays all-time leading K-man, Kazmir can usually reach back for a little extra when the situation calls for it. This should work out well against a free-swinging Phillies team that struck out over 1100 times in 2008.
In an odd coincidence, it was Kazmir that earned the win in the All-Star game that gave home field advantage to the Rays in this series, a game he was not even scheduled to pitch in due to having started the last game before the break.
If his nickname is any indication, the Rays will not have to worry about the pressure of the World Series getting to their new ace, James Shields. "Big Game" James will start games 2 and possibly 6 at home at the Trop, and will be counted on to maintain that home field advantage.
Possessing a fastball that tops out in the low 90s and a very good changeup, Shields relies on changing speed location to keep hitters off-balance. When the situation dictates it, though, he can also blow the fastball by hitters with his sneaky quickness and above-average movement.
With his calm, controlled demeanor and solid gameplan on the mound, "Big Game" James is truly the ace of the staff.
Every pitching staff has to have its "wild one," and that guy for Tampa Bay is Matt Garza. While the rest of the starters are generally cool and calm, Garza has always been one to wear his emotions on his sleeve. He will have to focus these emotions and his non-stop energy on the mound to live up to his potential in the series.
He will no doubt have the adrenaline pumping heading into the first game in Philadelphia, surrounded by Phillies fans who have not had a World Series game in 15 years. Garza will no doubt be helped immensely if the Rays are able to knock around the 92-year old Jamie Moyer in the top of the first.
Though he features a fastball that can reach the upper 90s, Garza will have to be careful not to over-throw his pitches, leaving them flat in the zone. His changeup away to lefthanders and a big breaking ball can also be used for out pitches.
The fourth, and most unheralded started of the group is Andy Sonnanstine. Almost the polar opposite of Garza, Sonnanstine uses movement, off-speed pitches, and breaking balls almost like a young, left-handed Greg Maddux.
Sonnanstine must keep the Phillies off-balance and keep them guessing to be successful in Citizens Bank Park. Since he does not rely on the blazing speed of his fastball, Sonnanstine can remain effective into the late innings of the game, as long as he keeps fooling the Philadelphia batters. The big question is how the 11 days between starts will affect a guy who relies on feel and control.
Probably the best thing about trotting the starters out in this order is the different looks that this rotation will give the Phillies. All four pitchers have vastly different styles on the mound. The lefties at the top and bottom of the rotation vary greatly in their velocity, while the two righties in the middle are vastly different in their demeanor.
The Phillies will never be able to get into a groove from one game to the next because of the vastly different styles of the pitchers. That is, so long as the pitchers can work deep into the games and not let Philadelphia see the same relievers over and over again.
As long as the Rays are able to score enough runs to enable them to stick to their game plan, their starting pitchers should be the key to the World Series. At least the five games that it goes before the Rays are crowned world champions.