No doubt that upon watching the second of Evan Longoria's homers in Wednesday night's game, a few baseball fans thought about the 2008 World Series and the possibility of a rematch between the Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays. Most people thought the Phillies had a postseason berth in the bag from the day they signed Cliff Lee, and maybe even more so after their win from behind on Opening Day. The Rays were a different story, as they began the season with six straight losses, ending their regular season in spectacular fashion clutching the AL Wild Card with their final game. So how possible is it that these two end up at the top of their leagues and face off again come late October?
In order to become a threat in their respective leagues, both teams will need to up their offense. The Rays will need to increase the team's batting average and on-base percentage to one that's more comparable to the teams they are playing. All the team's offensive stats trail the other three teams in the playoffs, with the exception of home runs (they lead the Tigers by three). With the Rangers lineup hitting so well, an early exit is almost expected of Tampa Bay. But keep in mind that in last year's ALDS the Rays took the Rangers to five games.
The Phillies have their work cut out for them facing the Cardinals. St. Louis takes the crown in hits, batting average, RBI, home runs, and OPS. Some might argue that these numbers would be lower if they were forced to hit against Philadelphia more often. After witnessing the shaky final weeks of the regular season, the Phillies need to realize they can only rely on their pitchers so far. The offense needs to take it the rest of the way.
The Rays have only a pair of pitchers that played in the 2008 series, Shields and Price. The Phillies have Hamels, Blanton, and Madson. The Rays' rotation has a respectable ERA that looks sub-par only when compared to the Phillies'. If the Rays can keep their September magic going into October, they would give their pitching staff enough support to nab them a few wins and a bid for the ALCS and World Series.
There has been enough coverage of the Phillies pitching staff to last a lifetime so any team knows how difficult it would be to defeat a team so stacked. The Phillies left 2010 with a bitter taste in their mouths, and fixed it with the signing of Cliff Lee. People were quick to point out that despite the dominance of the Phillies' three aces and the individual dominance of Cliff Lee in 2010, both the Phillies and Rangers walked away empty handed. The major difference now is the rise of competitive nature due to having so much top talent in one club. Cliff Lee proved he is here to WIN a World Series by turning down millions to sign with Philadelphia, the club he thought would take him all the way to the end. That, in combination with his newly found slugging skills, would be killer to any team in the postseason.
Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and Jason Bartlett are no longer with Tampa Bay, and sadly, no longer in the postseason. These three were big contributors in the 2010 postseason for Tampa Bay as well as in the 2008 series. They supported the efforts of B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria throughout the playoffs adding their fair share of hits and runs. These veterans now stand largely on their own to lead a lineup of less experienced players into the heart of October. With concentration and fast learning, these players can mold themselves into the help Longoria and Upton need to drive them past the Rangers, Yankees, and Tigers.
The Phillies are blessed to have the majority of their 2008 and 2010 lineups back in 2011. Not only do they have a majority of veterans, they have an influx of fantastic players yearning to win a championship. The hole Jayson Werth left was a concern until the arrival of Hunter Pence. With the highest batting average on the team and an infectious dedication to the game, Mr. Pence will definitely be a catalyst throughout October. The effect of the upgrade in pitching staff since 2008 goes without saying.
The Phillies have the best record in baseball, securing home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Since the National League won the All-Star Game, they also have home-field advantage should they make it to the World Series. For a team that performs well both at home and away, this home bonus will be more for their fans and their business than their actual on-field performance. The Cardinals have the same record both at home and away, so a field advantage would seem to have had minimal effect in their case too.
The Rays play the Rangers first, and the Rangers have home-field advantage. In the Rangers case, it makes a big difference. Their winning percentage at home is 64% while the Rays have 58%. This becomes a bigger deal when taking into account their equal road records. The 6% the Rangers have on the Rays becomes crucial because of the common baseline they have for away games.
Halladay wants a ring. Lee wants a ring. Oswalt wants a ring. Pence wants a ring. The rest of the Phillies want another one. Halladay and Lee came close in seasons past but fell short to the Yankees and Giants. The team came into this season with a spotlight fixed on their stellar starting rotation. With the pitching staff particularly stacked, anything short of the World Series Championship would be seen as a failure. This team is hungry for a title, especially the pitchers. They emphasized their move to the Phillies was driven by their potential to win it all and each will definitely do their part to make it possible.
The Rays are coming off one of the most incredible season endings in baseball history. They were the team that was not supposed to be there. This might give them extra motivation to prove that they belong to be there and always have. Feeling unstoppable, they enter the postseason as the underdogs, which may propel them past the Rangers and Tigers or Yankees to meet with the Phillies in the World Series once again.