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2008 World Series Preview
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2008 World Series Preview
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
October 22, 2008

One of the first things I learned about when I moved to Philadelphia was the Curse of Billy Penn. If you ever watch Rocky, you can see downtown Philadelphia behind Sylvester Stallone in one of the Museum steps scenes, and there are no tall buildings. Apparently there was once a time when a “gentleman’s agreement” guaranteed that no buildings would be built taller than the top of the hat of the statue of William Penn atop City Hall. For decades this agreement was kept, but in the early 1980s, the gentleman’s agreement was breached, and Philadelphia now has several buildings that tower over the statue of the state’s namesake.

And in case you haven’t heard, the city’s major professional sports teams haven’t won a championship since, despite the fact that they have all had their shots.

The day I moved to Philadelphia seemed, to me, to be a dark day in Phillies’ lore, as it happened to be the very day that the Phils traded away Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle to the Yankees. But after that day the Phillies made an unexpected run at the wild card, which fell short, but subsequently won their division each of the next two years.

Maybe a new day has arrived. And maybe I am somehow a part of that.

If this isn’t my wildest dream come true, it is certainly close. I live in a city that is hosting the World Series (well, three games of it anyway) and my “hometeam” is playing a team I adopted and called my own and cheered for all season. Would it be sweeter to see the Cubs beat the Yankees in the World Series? Sure, but we had our chance in 2003, and it didn’t happen. This is certainly second place, but a close second.

As many of our readers know, the BaseballEvolution.com staff fared poorly at picking the playoffs the last few years – so bad, in fact, that in the most recent ALCS I actually picked against the team I wanted and thought would win. With the intention of jinxing the Red Sox and guaranteeing the Rays move in the final round of the baseball playoffs, I picked the Red Sox, and stated that there was no way they could lose. And it worked. I have gotten so bad at this that you can bet on it.

But just because we’re bad at it doesn’t mean we stop trying. How ever would we break the Curse of Billy Penn if we had that attitude?

The Matchup

I am not sure what the sine qua non of this World Series is, and I am not sure there is one. The Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays are very different teams on the field who have arrived at this moment in very similar manners. Last year’s Phillies eeked out the division against the Mets when the Mets suffered one of professional sports’ greatest collapses. New York responded by acquiring Johan Santana, and the Phillies looked dead this year. But the Phillies made some moves of their own this off-season, albeit less glamorous moves, and they paid big dividends. As a result of shipping Michael Bourn out to the Astros for Brad Lidge, the Phils lost a mediocre offensive player and gained a dominant closer who was arguably the key to the team this year.

If the Phillies had trouble from New York last year, the Tampa Bay Rays have spent their existence having trouble from their entire division. But as so many commentators have said, when you are that bad for that long, eventually you start to succeed simply on the basis of having high draft picks every year. Add in some savvy, underrated trades of their own – chiefly the one that brought stud pitcher Matt Garza and stud defensive shortstop James Bartlett over to the Rays in exchange for problem child Delmon Young and change – and the Rays startled the world by making themselves a lean, mean, pitching-and-defense machine in a division dominated by big money.

Offense

What they have in common is how they got here – where they differ is, well, pretty much everything else. The Phillies are an offensive team first, and the combination of Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth, and Chase Utley makes for a pitcher’s nightmare. In the playoffs, both this year and last, Utley and Howard have been relatively quiet, and now that the World Series has arrived, it will be interesting to see if they remain so quiet. Both players have shown signs of late of breaking out of their slumps.

The Rays offense spent most of this season hovering just under league average before finishing with a spurt at the end of the year. They have some bats in B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, and Carlos Pena, but none of these guys is without their weaknesses, and offense for the Rays has generally not been a plus this season. Oddly, the Rays busted out the whoopin’ sticks against the Red Sox – after being shutout in game one the Rays scored 43 runs in the remaining six games. If they can keep this up, they could be deadly.

Pitching Staff

The Phillies pitching staff was surprisingly effective this season, with Cole Hamels and Brett Myers leading the staff, and Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton pitching the “hope-we-can-get-through-them” games. The Phillies staff cannot compare with the Rays staff, however, which will be a clear advantage for Tampa – Scott Kazmir and Jamie Shields are one of the top duos in baseball, and either Matt Garza or Andy Sonnanstine would be the number two guy on the Phillies.

Bullpens

The bullpens could not be more different. The Phillies end of the game guys – Lidge and eighth inning wonder Ryan Madson – have been essentially making baseball games seven innings long for the Phils for the last two months, and the supporting cast of J.C. Romero, Clay Condrey, and J.A. Happ have all been excellent. The Rays have a very good bullpen as well – in fact, so good that many think this is a one-year wonder – but where the Phillies have one of baseball’s most dominant closers, the Rays currently have no closer at all. David Price got his first career save in the clinching game seven against the Red Sox, but Joe Maddon has indicated that he is not now the de facto closer in the absence of Troy Percival. Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell, and Grant Balfour have also gotten looks in the role this season, with varying success. Make no mistake about it – this series could quite possibly be won and lost in the eighth and ninth innings as the Phillies continue to roll out their dynamic duo and the Rays continue to try to make due.

And by the way, something to watch for: baseball fans will be treated to a little glimpse of the future as these two teams use two of their biggest prospects – J.A. Happ of the Phillies and David Price of the Rays – out of the bullpen.

Home Field Advantage

One cannot help but to be pleased with how home field advantage worked out this season. When Major League Baseball developed this cockamamie idea about the winner of the All Star Game getting home field advantage in the World Series, I immediately knew what it meant – players who had no interest in the playoffs deciding the outcome for players that did. Never did I think that we would have a situation like this – the 2008 All Star Game winner was the Rays’ Scott Kazmir, and the loser was the Phillies’ Brad Lidge. This is as it should be – the home field advantage should be decided by the performance of the teams in the Series, and now we can pretend it was.

As a result, the Rays play four games in this Series at home, where they went 57-24 this year. But the Phils went 44-37 on the road in 2008, which made them the National League’s best road team. This is still advantage Rays, but not by nearly so wide a margin.

Momentum

As the Colorado Rockies taught us last season, sometimes the name of the game is momentum. The Rockies steamrolled the National League in September and October of last season, but then had to sit and wait for the AL to be won. As a result of sitting for what seemed like ten days, they looked rusty in the World Series and it was over before it started.

The Phillies last played on Wednesday, October 15th, on the road in Los Angeles, where they clinched the National League pennant against a good but one dimensional team. The Rays last played on Sunday, October 19th, at home against the Red Sox, where they beat one of the best teams in baseball in an electric game seven after been pushed to the brink by a team they once had down 3-1. The Phillies had to go through Milwaukee, who stumbled into the playoffs, and Los Angeles, a team with a losing record before they acquired Manny Ramirez who barely won the worst division in baseball. The Rays best three of the best teams in the AL to win their division before handling the Chicago White Sox and then being pushed to the limit by the Red Sox. Situations like these generally favor the team that hasn’t been off for a week and that has been facing the better teams in must-win games.

Conclusion

Again, and I don’t mean to brag, but this is really just a great series for me. If the Phillies win, I am going to be ecstatic, and I will forever remember being in a city that won a World Series. If the Rays win, I am going to be ecstatic, and I will forever brag about seeing this team coming before the season (though, in truth, there is a difference between “making a run at the wild card,” which is what I predicted, and winning the World Series).

At the end of the day, though, having no clear favorite, and not desperately hoping for one outcome over another really clears up your judgment and allows you to see straight. At the end of the day, the pitching, the defense, the momentum, the home field advantage, and the made-for-Disney-Movie glory of it all will just be too much for the Phillies to overcome. If I were a bettin’ man, I’d say the Curse of Billy Penn will live on.

You heard it here first: Tampa Bay Rays over the Philadelphia Phillies in six games.


Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at asher@baseballevolution.com.

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