I've known Phillies general manager Pat Gillick a long time, and I've never seen him as confident as he was before the start of the 104th World Series.
Usually Gillick is just the opposite, fretting over this and that, almost paranoid. But just this once, he was bouncing around like a kid who couldn't keep a secret. And when I asked him the reason for his confidence, his answer floored me.
The Phillies' starting rotation.
Most of the supposed experts, including this one, gave the Rays the edge in starting pitching. Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels figured to be the best starter in the Series—and he was—but the Rays looked deeper.
Well, Gillick knew what he was talking about, and now he is a World Series champion for the third time, his first two titles coming with the Blue Jays in 1992 and '93.
The Phillies caught a break in the Division Series when Brewers left-hander CC Sabathia had to pitch on short rest to start Game Two. They caught a similar break in the World Series when Rays right-hander Matt Garza was unavailable until Game Three. But my goodness, how Cole and Co. performed.
Including their 4-3 victory in the finale—the completion of the first suspended game in Series history—the Phillies' rotation had a 3.34 ERA in their five-game victory over the Rays.
Hamels, the Series MVP, finished the postseason with a 1.80 ERA in five starts. Right-hander Brett Myers overcame a rocky beginning to pitch seven innings in Game Two, left-hander Jamie Moyer pitched a masterpiece in Game Three, and righty Joe Blanton did the same in Game Four.
Few saw this coming; Moyer was awful in his two previous postseason starts, while Myers and Blanton did not merit great trust. But Gillick liked the Phillies' chances because of the ability of their starters to change speeds. The Rays' hitters feast on fastballs, in particular B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria.
All hitters prefer fastballs, of course, but the Phillies' five scouts who watched the Rays in the ALCS—Jim Fregosi Jr., Charley Kerfeld, Hank King, Gordon Lakey, and former Rays GM Chuck LaMar—also detected holes in several of the Rays' approaches.
With Longoria, who was 1-for-19 with nine strikeouts in the Series, the plan was to attack his inexperience by teasing him with off-speed stuff. With Carlos Peña, who was 2-for-16 with six strikeouts, the Phillies made sure to keep changing patterns, knowing he was a guess hitter.
The Phillies' starters obviously had to follow the plan. Their relievers had to continue their season-long excellence. And their hitters had to score enough to hold off a 97-win team that fought to the very end.
It all worked out. The Phillies' bullpen allowed only two earned runs in 11-2/3 innings, striking out 14 and walking just one. Virtually every position player made offensive contributions, from the revived Ryan Howard to utility man Eric Bruntlett.
Pinch-hitter Geoff Jenkins, who led off the resumption of Game Five with a double, turned his fourth at-bat of the postseason into the biggest hit of his 11-year career.
Pat Burrell, who capped off perhaps his final game with the Phillies by leading off the seventh with another double, previously had been 0-for-13 in the Series.
Pedro Feliz, who drove in the go-ahead run, had the second-lowest on-base/slugging percentage of any National League third baseman with 400 plate appearances during the regular season.
The resumption of play in the bottom of the sixth inning Wednesday night provided one of the more exciting finishes in recent Series history, triggering a breathless sprint that ended with the tying run on second.
Rays manager Joe Maddon will be second-guessed for allowing left-hander J.P. Howell to hit with one out and one on in the seventh and the score tied, 3-3. But he wanted Howell, who delivered the first sacrifice bunt of his career, to face Burrell leading off the bottom half.
In fact, Maddon seemed eager for such a matchup in his pregame meeting with the FOX broadcasters, citing statistics that showed Burrell had difficulty hitting sliders off lefties. But Burrell hit a hanging 1-1 breaking ball off the center-field wall, and his pinch-runner, Bruntlett, scored the go-ahead run.
Maddon was emotional afterward, and why not? The Rays won more than 70 games for the first time, stunned the Red Sox and Yankees to win their first A.L. East title, defeated the White Sox in the Division Series, then the Red Sox in the ALCS. It was a magical season by any measure. After Maddon completed his postgame address in a quiet clubhouse, his players applauded.
Stuart Sternberg, the Rays' principal owner, walked through the clubhouse, saying it was only the beginning for the franchise, the first step toward even better days. His team undoubtedly will grow from this experience, and with the addition of a closer and power-hitting right fielder or DH, could be a World Series favorite in 2009. But as the Rays discovered, it takes time to develop the fierce resolve that the Phillies routinely displayed while driving toward their first World Series championship in 28 years.
Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who talked often about the importance of changing the culture of the organization, never backed down from that challenge. Rollins described the process as "tedious"—he was drafted by the Phillies in 1996 and joined them for good in 2001. But ultimately, Rollins, Burrell, and the rest achieved the greatest possible reward.
Ed Wade was the GM when most of the Phillies' core players were drafted. Gillick took over in November 2005 and added the final touches, none bigger than closer Brad Lidge, whom he acquired last offseason from the Astros, shortly after Wade took over as the Houston GM.
Wednesday night offered the final catharsis. The crowd at Citizens Bank Park was electric. The Phillies mobbed Lidge after the final out. After the customary champagne celebration in the clubhouse, the players returned to the field, meeting their families, savoring the moment. Rollins posed for a picture with at least a dozen members of the Philadelphia police.
Gillick, elusive to the end, refused to confirm for reporters that he was retiring from the Phillies, even though he has said as much numerous times over the past several months. His friends say he is tired of the grind, and he is expected to be replaced by Ruben Amaro, one of his assistants.
Even at 71, Gillick is full of energy, and he no doubt will resurface somewhere, most likely as a high-level consultant. If he truly is finished as a GM, he is going out a winner. And the amazing part is, he knew how it all would end.
This article originally published on FOXSports.com.
Read more of Ken's columns here.