Thursday, October 23, 2008

"5 Questions Heading Into the 2008 World Series"

2008’s World Series isn’t one that has a great deal of sex appeal, if you can apply that term to baseball. We won’t get to see Manny Ramirez return to Boston on the biggest stage in sports, nor will we see former Yankees' manager Joe Torre lead another team against his nemesis Red Sox. Indeed, this series is a ratings disaster. However, there’s no doubt that the Rays and the Phillies are the best teams from their respective leagues. Both teams belong where they are, they’ve proven that. It will be exciting to see new, young faces in brand new places. The series will be a showcase of two powerhouse teams that will each be putting on display the innovative faces to the league that have boosted each organization to the top of the baseball world. Get your cowbells ringing and your white towels spinning, be prepared to see the catwalks of Tropicana Field come into play, and be ready to see home-runs blasted over the short porches of Citizens Bank Park. It’s going to be a fun series to watch, despite it being one that not too many fans rooted to see.

Here are five questions that are apparent heading into this series:

Brad Lidge: How good is the Phillies bullpen? Many have asked me this question. Well, I have an answer: it’s absolutely, positively, undoubtedly sensational. They truly are first-rate. I mean, after all, Philadelphia is 79-0 in games they led entering the ninth inning. Whose to credit for that? Brad Lidge. Lidge is yet to blow a save this season, including in the playoffs, and there’s nothing that indicates to me that he is going to blow one in the World Series. His hard, down-breaking slider is virtually unhittable, and the bridge to Lidge is hard to burn down with Ryan Madsen, Chad Durbin and J.C. Romero.

The constant of nearly every World Champion over the last 20 years is a good bullpen. We recall the most recent champions of 2004 and 2007, Boston teams which featured Jonathan Papelbon, who has never allowed a run in his postseason career. The New York Yankees, champions in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000, showcased the best closer of today's generation, Mariano Rivera. Also, we can go even farther back to bring up Toronto’s duo of Duane Ward and Tom Henke, the Cincinnati Reds’ “Nasty Boys,” and even La Russa’s 1989 A’s, who were unbeatable when Dennis Eckersley was brought in. The Rays showed some weakness in the ALCS, but David Price’s two-inning save in Game 7 is a hint that the Phillies might see more of him.

B.J. Upton: Where in the world has all this power come from by the Rays? Previous to the ALCS, they had never hit 10 home-runs in any three-game stretch in franchise history, then, they proceeded to do so against the Red Sox. The Rays finished tied for fourth in the American League in homers in 2008, but became the first team to hit at least three homers in three consecutive games in the postseason. They made it four straight in Game 5.

They did it with youth and health. B.J. Upton hit just nine round-trippers in the regular season, partly due to his bad shoulder. He basically didn’t pull a ball with authority for two months, yet, he tied Troy Glaus (2002) for the most home-runs by an American League player in one postseason (7). Evan Longoria missed a month with a wrist injury, but now he’s healthy and pounding baseballs over the walls. He is the youngest player to hit six home runs in one postseason. Carlos Pena missed a month due to injury. Now he’s healthy. With the three of them swinging hot bats, Tampa Bay set the record for most home runs in a single postseason series (16) with their performance in the ALCS. They’ll play the middle three games of the World Series in Philadelphia’s little band-box, Citizen’s Bank Park.

Carl Crawford: How fast are the Rays? I mean, honestly, how fast? They’re REALLY FAST. They started a defensive outfield in Game 4 of the ALCS with Carl Crawford in left, Upton in center, and Fernando Perez in right.

“Fastest outfield I’ve ever seen,” stated Rays’ coach Don Zimmer, who has been in the game of baseball for over 60 years.

The speed makes each player a steal-threat at almost any time. The Rays swiped 10 bases in 11 attempts during the ALCS. Perez helped win Game 2 by tagging up and scoring on a 180-foot fly ball just out of the infield. Also, their speed helps them on defense, one which just might be the best in baseball, especially in the infield. Jason Bartlett charges the ball as well as anyone in the league at shortstop and second-basemen Akinori Iwamura, in his first year at the position, turns the double-play as well as anyone in the league.

Ryan Howard: What about the 1-through-9 production by the Phillies? It sure is hard to believe that Philadelphia has won seven playoff games without a home run, and with only 3 RBI’s, by first-basemen Ryan Howard. He is without a doubt the streakiest hitter in the game today, but he may go wild in the World Series. However, to advance this far without big production numbers from Howard shows how great a team Philadelphia really is. In the NLCS, the Phillies had a different offensive hero every night.

Imagine what will happen if they get Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Pat Burrell going at the same time.

Matt Garza: Really, how good is the back-end of the Rays’ rotation? Well, plain and simple, it’s one of the best in baseball, which is crucial in a seven-game playoff series. Matt Garza, the Rays’ number 3 starter, was absolutely dominant and unhittable in Game 7 of the ALCS (he was good for seven innings, allowing only two hits while striking out nine). Garza tops out at 98 M.P.H. I don’t care who you are, that’s blazingly fast and it’s virtually unhittable when he locates the pitch correctly. Garza also features a fantastic slider in his repertoire. Andy Sonnanstine blanked the Red Sox for the first six innings in Game 4; he throws 87-89, but he has an amazing feel for the art of pitching.

Scott Kazmir could easily be the fourth-best starter, but he sure looked great in hurling six shut-out innings in Game 5. A 14-game winner in 2008, Edwin Jackson is the number 5 starter. That’s an unbelievably deep rotation, and it’s certainly deeper than that of the Phillies, given that Jaime Moyer has been hit hard in this postseason (first by the Brewers, and then by the Dodgers). However, Philadelphia possesses the best starter of either team in the World Series, ace Cole Hamels.

I originally predicted the Rays in 4, but after a much deeper look into the pitching matchups and incredible lineups both teams feature, I’ve changed my mind on that prediction, at least on the number of games that will be played.

Not to discount the Rays, but the Phillies look to have the better 1-through-9 lineup. However, that’s only if they can all stay consistent with one another. Sure, their bullpen is great, but their downfall lies in their starting rotation in the days following a Cole Hamels start. I do not expect Moyer, Joe Blanton, or Brett Myers to be successful in quieting the Rays. But can the Rays’ lineup keep producing like they have been this postseason? The answer to that question lies in how they tore apart the Red Sox excellent starting five. I’ve got news for you, the pitchers taking the mound for Philadelphia, with the exception of Cole Hamels, are nothing compared to the Red Sox's monster arms. If the Rays were able to do what they did against guys like Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, there’s no telling how hard they are going to hit the Phillies’ guys they have in their rotation. The key for Tampa Bay will be to score runs early and often. I expect the Phillies to put on an offensive display at some point in the series, but, for the most part, the Rays’ deep rotation shouldn’t allow an excessive amount of hits or runs too often. Pitching, as it usually is in the postseason, is the biggest key for both teams heading into the series.

Here are the expected pitching matchups for the first four games of this World Series:

Game 1: Phillies (Cole Hamels) @ Rays (Scott Kazmir)

Game 2: Phillies (Brett Myers) @ Rays (James Shields)

Game 3: Rays (Matt Garza) @ Phillies (Jaime Moyer)

Game 4: Rays (Andy Sonnanstine) @ Phillies (Joe Blanton)

To me, the Rays looked to be the strongest team coming into October, that’s why I had them in an easy 4 over Philadelphia. But, after the Red Sox came storming back from down 3 games to 1 to square up the ALCS, I, like everyone else, came to wondering how good the Rays actually are.

Was it purely Red Sox magic all over again that led to the Rays blowing that seven-run lead and the series lead overall, or, was it a showing of the only way the Rays can be beat? I seem to lean towards the fact that it was Red Sox magic once again, especially after witnessing Boston miraculously and heroically come from behind on countless occasions in the postseason over the last decade. Yet, there is one fact that is for sure: to beat the Rays, you’ve got to score many runs often. I don’t believe the Phillies can do such a thing against Tampa Bay’s deep rotation. However, I do believe we are going to see a much better World Series than what many people, myself included, had originally thought.

My NEW prediction: Rays in 6.

-Chris Barfield

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