Rays-Phillies: Why Watch? Why Not??

Michael GlaessnerCorrespondent IOctober 20, 2008

The names you'll see in this World Series are not the same names you're used to. It's not the classic storyline that everybody in the sports media wanted. They would have loved to see Manny Ramirez go up against the team that he forced a trade from, the Boston Red Sox. They would have also loved to see Joe Torre get to a world series on the opposite coast with the LA Dodgers and stick it to his former bosses, Mr. Steinbrenner and Mr. Cashman. Alas, it was not to be, but give the teams credit that did make it. The Tampa Bay Rays, after years as a sad-sack franchise that had finished no higher than fourth in the AL East, finally developed that farm system that many baseball insiders kept buzzing about. The common fan probably knows little about BJ Upton and Evan Longoria and probably assumes that Scott Kazmir is the Rays' best pitcher, after all, he's the only Ray player you know about from all the hot stove trade rumors he's been involved in. The Rays are so much more than a few stars, though. They're a team in the truest sense of the word. Joe Maddon, a 54-year-old baseball lifer, got his opportunity to manage this bunch and what he's created is a timely-hitting, good-fielding team with three ace-caliber starters in James Shields, Matt Garza, and Scott Kazmir, and a bullpen that lacks a dominant closer but has as much depth as anyone. What this team also has, however, is character. They fought off division rallies all year from the Red Sox and Yankees, clinching the pennant in the last weekend of the season and obliterating their previous franchise-high in wins, 70, with 97. After pushing aside the White Sox, 3 games to 1, they took a 3-1 series lead on the Red Sox in the ALDS and held a 7-0 lead in Game 5 before inexplicably collapsing. Boston rallied in the last 2 and a half innings to stun the Rays 8-7 and won Game 6 on the road to even the series at 3. The Rays would need a great team effort to beat the Sox and they got just that. It didn't seem things would go the Rays' way at first, as Matt Garza gave up a home run to Justin Pedroia in the first inning. Everyone I'm sure assumed at that point that the Sox would win in decisive fasion. Garza settled down, however, and wound up pitching a masterful Game 7, allowing just two hits and striking out nine. The Rays didn't need much offense, but got it from an unlikely source in DH Willie Aybar. Aybar led off the 5th inning with a double with the game tied 1-1 and eventually scored on a Rocco Baldelli single. He then came up in the seventh inning and smashed a fly ball to left field, giving the Rays the insurance they needed at 3-1. Still, the Red Sox managed to load the bases in the eighth inning. Dan Wheeler and JP Howell, the two victims in the Game 5 collapse, did get key outs in spot relief duty, but after Howell walked Kevin Youkilis, the bases were loaded with JD Drew at the plate. Drew was instrumental in rallying the Sox in Game 5 with a two-run homer and later the winning RBI. Maddon, in a risky move, trotted out little-used rookie David Price. Price was the #1 pick in the 2008 draft. He was talented enough to make the Rays' postseason roster, a rare feat for a player in his first year out of college. He progressed though the farm system so fast and here he stood, all 6'5" of him, staring down Drew, who was looking to be a hero once more. Price was unphased, whizzing a pair of blazing fastballs right by Drew. After his third pitch went high, Prince bore in on Drew and fired another laser, forcing a check-swing strikeout for Drew and leaving all three runners stranded. One inning later, Price cleaned up the ninth, earning his first career major league save in the biggest of games. It was Maddon's faith in Price, just like the faith he showed in his bullpen to fight through the rest of the eighth inning jam, that proved to be key.

The Philadelphia Phillies have rebuilt too, but unlike the Rays, the process has been much more gradual. Since a 65-win season in 2000, the Phillies have posted an 80+ win season in every year since. They've established a good nucleus of hitters in Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins, yet they had a knack for coming up short. They've had to patiently wait behind the powerhouse Braves and the upstart Mets, but last year, the team finally broke through after failing to get to the playoffs so many times. The team rallied from a 7 game deficit in the last 17 games to shock the Mets and reach the playoffs for the first time since 1993. Despite being swept by the Rockies, the team's fortunes were starting to turn and they made a risky trade in the offseason, acquiring the talented-but-much-maligned closer, Brad Lidge. Since giving up a back-breaking home run to Albert Pujols in Game 5 of the 2005 NLDS, the former Astro had failed to live up to expectations. Lidge would prove to be the one thing the Phillies seemed to lack, a reliable closer, as a change of scenery gave him renewed confidence. He didn't blow a save the entire season and earned back the "Lights Out" moniker that had made him so popular in Houston. Still, the Phillies would again have to rally to hold off the Mets. Once they got to the postseason, the Phillies were determined not to go quietly. They pushed aside the Brewers in four to meet up with an upstart Dodgers team that had just upset the Cubs in a stunning sweep. With Manny Ramirez having a postseason for the ages, the Dodgers were the chic pick to represent the NL. What the Phillies proved, however, is that one man can't beat a great team. Manny continued to get hits in the NLCS, finishing the series with an eye-popping .533 batting average. Manny alone was not enough, however. The Phillies managed to shut down the rest of the Dodgers' key hitters. Rafael Furcal, Blake DeWitt, Jeff Kent and Russell Martin were a combined 7-for-57 in the NLCS, accumulating as many hits as a group as Manny did by himself. The Phillies, meanwhile got key contributions from their role players. Shane Victorino hit only .222 in the series, but he made arguably the two biggest plays in the series. He robbed James Loney of a potential game-tying home run in Game 2 to preserve an 8-5 Phillies' win and a 2-0 series lead. The Dodgers won Game 3, a game in which tempers flared and a brawl nearly erupted, and held a 5-3 lead in the 8th inning of Game 4, determined to take back the momentum in the series. That's when Victorino hit a game-tying two-run homer in the 8th inning of Game 4. The man to hit the go-ahead homer, 40-year-old Matt Stairs, was an even less likely source. The win in Game 4 set up ace Cole Hamels to pitch a masterpiece in the series-clinching Game 5 win. The fightin' Phils were now in their first World Series since 1993.

These aren't the teams you, the fans, want to see, but if you're a purist of baseball, you'll see that these were truly the best teams. They get the job done in different ways, the Phillies with power hitting and power pitching, the Rays with speed and depth. The key in this series will be getting the lead in the late innings. Save for that two-game fluke against the Red Sox, the Rays' pen has been a strength. The Phillies' pen, once a huge shortcoming, is also as good as any, with fireballers Chad Durbin, JC Romero and Ryan Madson.

Most importantly, this will be a World Series worth watching, with two evenly matched teams. Isn't that what we want? The Last four World Series have featured 3 sweeps and a 5-gamer. I don't care if it's not a cool headline, I just want a competitive series that's worth watching!