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

Monday, October 20, 2008

"Major League Baseball Playoffs: Is There a Better Way?"

Being that it is October and the postseason of Major League Baseball is currently in progress, I thought that I’d devote a few moments of my time to share my thoughts with all of you about some alternative ways Major League Baseball could use, or has used, to promote a great postseason experience for everyone. I firmly believe there are a number of scenarios that could improve the game. I’m going to share three of those scenarios with you, and also, I’ll be sharing some pros and cons of each scenario. You may also learn some history and facts about Major League Baseball that you may not have already known previous to reading this post.

First, let’s discuss Major League Baseball’s current postseason format.

Right now, Major League Baseball operates under the new “Divisional Play Rules,” which, when restructured following the 1994 player strike, state that there are to be three divisions in each league, the East, West and Central Divisions. The team with the best win-loss record in each division after the regular season ends will compete in the playoffs, and one Wild Card team (the team in each league with the best win-loss record out of all the teams who did not win a Division Title) will compete in the playoffs. The current MLB playoffs consist of a Divisional Series (best-of-five games), a League Championship Series (best-of-seven games) and World Series (best-of-seven games). Typically, the #1 seed (Division Champion with the best regular season record) plays the #4 seed (Wild Card) and the #2 seed (Division Champion with the 2nd best record) plays the #3 seed (Division Champion with the 3rd best record) in the initial, Divisional Series. Four total Divisional Series take place, two in each league. The winners of each Divisional Series will compete with each other in their corresponding league’s Championship Series. Two total League Championship Series will take place, one in each league. The winner of each series is crowned as either National League Champions or as American League Champions, depending on the league in which they compete. Each will represent their respective league in the World Series. The winner of the World Series is crowned as the World Champion of Baseball.

Your probably also wondering how Major League Baseball determines which teams will host certain games of each series, and how many games each team will host. Home-field advantage is based strictly on regular season records, but this only holds true in the Divisional Series and the League Championship Series. The #1 seed in each league entering the playoffs has clinched home-field advantage for their entire league playoffs. If the #1 seed is eliminated following Divisional Series play, the team with the next best record who is not a Wild Card will hold home-field advantage for the League Championship Series. A Wild Card team can NEVER hold home-field advantage during league playoffs. Usually, teams in each Divisional Series follow a 2-2-1 format (the team with home-field advantage hosts the first two games and, if necessary, the final game of the series), but this can vary depending on the length of the series that the top seeded team chooses to play (the top seeded team of each series can decide on the length of over how many days the games of the series take place). For example, the top seed can choose to have the series played over a total of 5 games in 6 days or a total of 5 games in 8 days. This choice could ultimately change the format of the series, which is at Major League Baseball’s discretion. The League Championship Series ALWAYS follows a 2-3-2 format (team with home-field advantage hosts the first two games, and, if necessary, the final two games.) The length of over how many days the series is played and, also, which days the teams do not play is decided by Major League Baseball. Again, the team with the best regular season record who is not a Wild Card will hold home-field advantage for the LCS.

The topic of home-field advantage in the World Series has become one of the most hotly debated issues in the sports world. Previous to 2003, the two teams competing in the Fall Classic decided who held home-field advantage based on who had the best regular season record. This was soon dramatically changed. Following 2002, Major League Baseball, and Commissioner Bud Selig, ruled that the All-Star Game each July would determine which league would hold home-field advantage in the World Series each October. This was, in large part, due to the All-Star Game disaster that took place in July 2002. During that game, which was held at Miller Park in Milwaukee, both mangers approached Commissioner Selig during the 7th inning and informed him that they were both out of players. Selig ruled that the game would end, right then, in a tie. In my opinion, Commissioner Selig had no other choice. Had he kept the game going, players would have been at an increased risk for injury and pitchers would have been overthrown, affecting their respective team’s strategy in the weeks following the All-Star Game. This decision resulted in much criticism from the press, players, and fans. Baseball had to do something to prevent this occurrence from ever happening again. So, the Commissioner, owners, board members, and MLB Player’s Association (MLBPA) heads got together to figure out a solution. The result: the All-Star game would determine home-field advantage each season for the World Series. The game was actually going to mean something more than just plain old bragging rights, and, in addition, extra players would be added to the rosters of each league’s team. This final decision resulted in even more criticism than that of the decision to end the game in a tie. I do not personally believe that making the game count was the best move, but that’s a topic for a future post. The All-Star Game was meant, simply, to be an exciting experience and a terrific opportunity for fans and players. People believed that Major League Baseball’s decision to make the game count demeaned the actual intentions the league had when it began the playing of the Summer Classic in 1933. (The All-Star Game began as a fun addition to the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. It was the brainchild of The Chicago Tribune sports editor, Arch Ward. The game has grown into one of the most prolific events in professional sports. In the years following Major League Baseball’s acceptance of the infamous game, every single professional sport in America has followed with its own variation of an All-Star Game.)

Anyhow, the World Series ALWAYS follows the 2-3-2 format, and home-field advantage is decided based on the result of the All-Star Game. The league that wins the Summer Classic will give their league champion home-field advantage in the Fall Classic. The “Designated Hitter Rule” is in effect when playing at an American League park (the “DH rule” was initiated in 1973 by the American League as a solution to having a much lower attendance rate than their counterpart National League). The rule is another controversial one, and it is one that I absolutely despise. It contradicts the first rule in the book of baseball. Rule 1.1 (Official Major League Rulebook) states that “baseball is a game of two teams, each side consisting of a total of nine players.” When the “DH rule” is in effect, it is in direct violation of Rule 1.1. Again, the World Series is a best-of-seven game series. The first team to win four games is crowned as World Champion.

Now that you are familiar with the current Major League Baseball postseason setup, here are three other possible scenarios baseball could go with, or once had gone with:

Scenario #1, “The Purist’s Way”: Previous to 1969 (the season in which Divisional Play began), the team in each league with the best win-loss record after the regular season would meet in the only playoff series of the year, the World Series. There are no Divisional Series or League Championship Series played when using this format. This format was used from 1901 (the first season in which a World Series was held) to 1968 (the final season of non-Divisional play). Baseball purists are almost always advocates of this format, as it was the first format ever used to crown a champion between the two competing leagues. A TON of arguments can be used when debating whether or not this format was a useful one. First off, purists argue that having only one team make the playoffs from each league results in a much more exciting and competitive regular season. They argue that a Wild Card team has no place in the playoffs and that Wild Card teams are winning and competing in too many World Series because of the current postseason format. Purists also argue that this is the way Major League Baseball had intended when crowning a World Champion.

Because of the way in which money and economic status dominate the game in modern times, owners and investors of the game have a much more formidable argument as to why this format is no good: including more teams in the postseason will result in a greater amount of profits from ticket sales, advertisements, and other resources. With more teams participating in October baseball, there are more games being played. This directly results in much, much more money being made from ads in the stadium and through alternative viewing platforms (such as television, the internet, 3G devices, and Apple Inc.’s iPod), a greater number of tickets sold because there are more games being played, and much greater non-ticket profits from a variety of team merchandise, concession sales, and also via franchise bonuses from Major League Baseball. Also, with more teams in the postseason, more organizations are able to present their “product” (or team) to a wider variety of consumers. Instead of their game only being broadcasted regionally, team’s games are broadcast to the entire nation and to different parts of the world. This attracts newer fans in huge numbers, something every MLB organization is trying to accomplish in attempting to compete in the playoffs.

Purists cannot stand the argument of business and economics being brought into the conversation of the game. They believe that baseball was never about the money and, also, that baseball being promoted as such a big-time, big money-making business is demeaning to the game itself. In reality, professional baseball is all about making money. The game going professional was a business venture that investors used to reel in the big bucks, although most want to believe that the formation of Major League Baseball held other meanings. Once again, every professional sport, baseball included, is all about making money. That is why “The Purist’s Way” will never again be considered as a legitimate format for Major League Baseball playoffs.

Scenario #2, “The Pre-Divisional Series Format”: If more games being played can result in even higher profits, why not incorporate more games, more teams, and maybe a whole new series into the postseason? This type of scenario is one that is not usually discussed when debating alternative MLB playoff formats, however, I’m not sure why. After all, the three other major professional sports in America (NFL, NBA, and NHL) have all incorporated an extra playoff series (NBA and NHL) or an extra week of playoff games (NFL) into their league’s playoff formats. All three sports have done so in different variations, but based on the same profitable concept. All recognized that a significant amount of money could be made by expanding on their sport’s playoff format. This theory has worked out exceptionally well for each sport, and it has resulted, not only in the expansion of each respective sport, but, in a profit increase for each team competing, as well as a profit increase for each individual league. This scenario also gives more teams more opportunities to get involved in the postseason. The greater probability of making the playoffs excites most fans and tends to encourage more fans to frequently follow up on how their favorite team is doing. If a team has fans that believe their team has a chance, those fans are going to come to the games more often. They may also tune into alternative viewing platforms, which could result in higher profits via advertisements.

Purists argue that allowing more teams into the postseason, once again, results in a much less competitive regular season. They also argue that when you allow too many teams into the playoffs, there will be significant numbers of sub-par teams that do not belong. The purists that buy into the concept of baseball as a business say that fans will not turn out to as many regular season games, believing the season is less competitive and far less important when you allow more teams into the playoffs. Purists deny that this scenario would be effective when considering baseball, although most purists intensely reject change to the game itself. There are many examples that lead me to believe that this scenario might actually work and be good for baseball.

The National Basketball Association is a prime example of this scenario being put to good use. The NBA decided, just recently, to incorporate an extra playoff series into their postseason format. The league came together and came up with the idea to add Conference Quarterfinals to the postseason. This decision resulted in a total of four extra teams from around the league being able to compete in the NBA’s playoffs each and every year. The decision to expand on their playoff format has led to good results for the NBA and for the game of basketball. Not only is more money being made, but the league is attracting a significant amount of new basketball fans. Take China for example. There are now an estimated 300 million basketball fans there now. That’s the entire United States population! The growth of the booming NBA market can be linked to the idea of expanding the playoffs. Of all major basketball broadcasts in China, over 60 percent are related to the NBA postseason. Generating millions of new fans provides a much larger consumer base that the league and its teams can profit from and draw upon. When new markets are created, there are millions upon billions of dollars of profit that have just been created as well.

Let’s also not forget how exciting the new NBA playoffs have become. The NBA playoffs provide some of the most improbable, stunning and exciting games of the year in sports. I’d also like to point out that having longer playoffs may also weed out the teams that do not belong. An NBA team must win a total of 16 games over four best-of-seven playoff series. Winning that consistently is what separates the good teams from the great teams, and it may also result in the sub-par teams eventually being eliminated. In a long playoff format, teams must prove themselves. This is the answer to the purist’s belief that too many sub-par teams are let in via this scenario.

NBA playoff series, as well as NHL playoff series, all consist of best-of-seven game formats. This brings us to our next type of scenario.

Scenario #3, “The Seven Game Divisional Series”: For the last decade, ever since the institution of the Divisional Series, people have been arguing over the length of the five-game playoff. They want to know why the series is so short and why it’s not the same length as the other two MLB postseason series that are now in effect. The only answers to these questions that I can provide is that the series is so short due to Major League Baseball and the MLBPA being iffy when finalizing the decision to expand with a Divisional Series. At the time this decision was made, the process of purifying the game of baseball was at a high point and was, you could say, on Major League Baseball’s “to-do list.” You may not believe this fact because of the amount of change that took place following the 1994 player strike. But just take into consideration that the idea of keeping the game pure may have been on the minds of people who factored into making the final decision to change the playoff format. These people of Major League Baseball faced the daunting task of trying to devise a plan to increase profits as a direct result of the players demanding higher wages. This, while trying not to upset baseball fans by enforcing too much change. Before the players declared a strike, fans were horrified by the thought that baseball may never again be the same. Major League Baseball knew this. They had to find a way to keep everyone happy. They did not want to over-expand the postseason, so they increased the number of games that would be played in the League Championship Series and equaled the number of games played in the Divisional Series to that of the League Championship Series from 1969 to 1993. By doing such a thing, Major League Baseball felt they had found a way to sufficiently increase profits while not interfering too much with the pureness of the game. (I’m still unable to answer why the LCS was a short five games when that type of format was instituted in 1969. I can say that pre-World Series playoff series were a brand new concept to Major League Baseball at the time, and the pureness factor has to also be considered. Keeping the game pure had to be even more important to baseball then when compared to the 1994-95 format changes. The postseason had been virtually the same for nearly 68 years up to that point, except for the change in the length of the World Series from nine games to seven games in 1920. At the time when playoff format was changed and expanded for the first time ever, changes in season routines were unheard of, as well as unwanted. Baseball had to do whatever it could as to not affect the routine too much, just like in 1994-95.)

Now that the acceptance of the current MLB postseason format has taken full effect, why not match the idea of the other major professional sports by making the number of games played in each series an equal one? Most believe that five games are not currently enough to decide on a series victor. I, for one, believe that the five-game Divisional Series has resulted in way too many Wild Card teams winning the World Series or, for that matter, even competing in the World Series. Remember the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals? That team won a total of 83 games in the regular season. 83 games! What a pitiful win percentage for a playoff team (.512). They entered the postseason as the #4 seeded Wild Card team in the National League and they proceeded to become World Champions. If you look at their performance in the Divisional Series, you might think that if there had been an extra two games added to the series (meaning the organization would have had to win one more game), the Cardinals would not have advanced. This concept can be applied to several teams playing in the Divisional Series since 1995. Adding two extra games to the Divisional Series may quiet the baseball purists who are against the outrageous number of Wild Card teams getting into and winning the World Series. Also, adding two more games would, again, increase profits, although not by much as it is just two more games in a series.

The facts are that while the game of baseball itself and the way the game is played have so greatly evolved, the players, owners, league, and fans have all resisted other changes that have been imposed upon the game.

There are many who love the game because of its spontaneity, and then, there are many who love the game for its immortal legends. There are some who hate baseball for what it has become, and there are some who hate baseball for what it once was. There are purists and then there are modernists, statisticians and enthusiasts. There are owners and there are managers. There are players, critics, and fans. There is umpiring and there is official scoring. There are organizations, franchises, associations, and teams from cities big and small. The game has seen rage from a fierce competitor who once beat a man in the stands who had no hands, it has seen a nation fall in love with the right arm of a cool-headed pitcher who preached spirituality, a man who was so adored that his hometown now devotes an entire holiday in his honor. It has seen two best-friends from different walks of life put on a home-run display unlike any other, only for that summer to soon be forgotten because of the two men’s appearances in front of grand juries in order to explain their alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. The game saw a nation provide no appreciation for a man they all hated, a man who broke the most hallowed record in all of sports. The hate was all because they believed he used drugs to alter his performance.

Baseball is a game that saw a 1922 Supreme Court ruling be upheld, a ruling that stated the game was, somehow, not interstate commerce, thus, baseball became the first business to be exempt from a group of laws that no business had, or has, ever beat. It also saw a group of eight men, “Black Sox” if you will, have to appear in court because they were believed to having accepted money to throw the 1919 World Series. The game has seen a player hit a home run to win a World Series just twice, both times a feat that lifted the respective cities to the top of the sporting world. It has seen a team win a World Championship an unprecedented 26 times, watched another team win its first World Championship in over 86 years, and it has witnessed one team suffer a miserable 100 years, and counting, without winning a single World Championship for themselves or for their beloved city. The game saw a team fall behind three games to none in a League Championship Series, only to come storming back and win the series in seven games, a feat never before accomplished. Baseball twice has seen a team finish with the worst record in the league one season, and then finish with the best record in the league the following season. Baseball has seen just three men hit over 700 home runs, one of which became the face of baseball forever as he captured the essence of an ever-changing sport. He was a man who helped a country forget about its greatest economic demise with only the crack of his bat.

The game of baseball has seen the good and the bad. However, it is a game that can never be matched. It is a game that has defined a country through thick and thin, and it is a game people turned to when they needed more than help. It is the only game in which its legends will be forever immortalized for what they did on the field, and often times, for what they did off of it. Perhaps the postseason format that baseball decides upon will never again change, and maybe it doesn’t even make a difference. Whatever happens, we will always know that the game’s history is written with every pitch, and, we hope that the game will be there for us when we face darker times; we hope it is there for us just as it has been for the last 150 years. We hope when we do have trouble in life there will be something we can turn to, and we hope that answer will be the game of baseball.

Baseball may just be a game, but it’s a game that has held a special place in the hearts of billions of people ever since its creation. Baseball is unlike anything else we know of. For that reason, the game and the sport's significance will never be compared to anything else, ever.

-Chris Barfield

Red Sox stage seven-run comeback, stay alive in ALCS

“It seemed over at 4-0, it was over at 5-0, and it was laughably over at 7-0.” – Tim Kurkjian, ESPN.

Thursday night, during Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, the Tampa Bay Rays blew a 7 run lead over the final two innings as the Boston Red Sox came storming back to survive one more day.

Fenway Park fell silent and fans began exiting the stadium once they believed their Red Sox were going to fall without a whimper.

Then, baseball’s comeback kings did it again.

The Red Sox, trailing by seven runs with seven outs left in their season, pulled off the biggest postseason comeback baseball has seen since 1929. Boston had staved off elimination with their 8-7 victory. J.D. Drew was the hero after his 9th inning double into left-field scored Kevin Youkilis, but you can safely say that the better half of the Red Sox lineup were all heroes in the game.

The comeback was the largest in an elimination game and the second largest in Major League Baseball postseason history.

The Red Sox have rallied back from a 3-1 series deficit twice this decade to win the pennant and then the World Series. They’ll now have a chance to do it an unprecedented third time in five years as the series is headed back to Tampa Bay and Tropicana Field for Game 6, and if necessary, Game 7.

The American League champion will face the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series beginning next Wednesday, October 22nd.

“There’s a lot of fight in that dugout,” J.D. Drew, the hero, stated. “A lot of guys knew that as soon as we got some runs on the board, we could get something going.”

The Boston rally began when Dustin Pedroia hit an RBI single proceeded by a David Ortiz three-run round-tripper off of Grant Balfour. Drew connected on a three-run blast in the eighth, and Coco Crisp tied it with a two-out RBI single off Dan Wheeler.

Boston has won eight consecutive games when facing elimination in the ALCS, an unfathomable statistic.

“It was pretty much the most amazing thing I’ve ever been a part of, to be down 7-0 in an elimination game and be able to come back,” Crisp said.

In the ninth, Kevin Youkilis reached on an infield single with two outs when he hit a sharp chopper to Evan Longoria and wound up on second base after the third-basemen made a great pick but an ill-advised throw that short-hopped Carlos Pena at first and bounced into the stands for an error.

Jason Bay was intentionally walked and Drew lined a ground-rule double off J.P. Howell over the outstretched glove of left-fielder Gabe Gross as Youkilis scored.

“Hopefully, there’ll be a time when we can sit back and think ‘This is what got us over the hump,’” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “But we’re still climbing.”

No team has repeated as World Series champion since the New York Yankees won three straight Fall Classics from 1998-2000. The Red Sox, certainly, still have a chance to do so.

Hall of Famer Yogi Berra’s infamous words hold true once again, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

The cowbells will be ringing, the tarps will be coming off the upper-deck seats to accommodate the Rays’ newly-found fans, and the catwalks will definitely be in play at Tropicana Field for another game.

We have ourselves a series, folks!!!

-Chris Barfield (with a special thank you to The Associated Press)

Phillies advance to World Series, Hamels named NLCS MVP

The Philadelphia Phillies, behind their ace Cole Hamels, finished off the Dodgers Wednesday night, winning the National League Championship Series.

The “Fightin’ Phills” plain and simply dominated the Los Angeles ball-club, winning games 1, 2, 4, and 5 to advance to their first World Series since 1993.

(I originally picked the Phillies to take this series in 6. It ended in 5, but as I stated, the series was a slugfest, at least as far as Philadelphia was concerned.)

Hamels was selected as the series MVP for his efforts. Not surprisingly, he wants more.

The remarkably young, 24-year-old left-hander improved to 3-0 in the postseason, allowing a run and five hits over seven innings with five strikeouts as the Phillies ended the Dodgers’ hopes with a 5-1 victory.

“To get an award like this is something surreal. This definitely has to go to the whole team right here. But it’s only a stepping stone,” Hamels said. “Being in that parade down Broad Street is what we all want. Getting a World Series ring and trophy is what really matters. Getting there is great, but winning it all is the best.”

No doubt.

In the series opener, Hamels gave up two runs and six hits over seven innings, but the Philadelphia offense came on strong, with home runs by Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, to beat Derek Lowe and the Dodgers 3-2. The Phillies offensive display over a couple of big innings that night was just a short preview of how they were going to dominate the rest of the series. However, first-baseman Ryan Howard did not produce too much more at the plate after that round-tripper in Game 1. Howard’s batting average throughout the NLCS slipped under the “Mendoza Line” (.200).

Despite a powerful Phillies’ offense, Hamels did not get much run support during the regular season. Philadelphia bats scored three runs or less in eight of his losses and were shut-out in three of them.

“Cole is a guy that sat around and would give up two runs in a game and get no-decisions and losses. I’m sure he got frustrated, but he never really got upset,” shortstop Jimmy Rollins stated, who led off game five with a home run off Chad Billingsley. “Every time I spoke with him he just said, ‘Well, next time.’ And then it came to a point where he’d say, ‘Forget next time, I want to do it now.’”

“Now it’s come all the way around for him,” Rollins added. “Runs that we weren’t getting for him in the season have been sufficient for him in the postseason.”

Hamels struck out 13 in 14 innings, and finished with a 1.93 ERA in the series. He located his fastball exceptionally well and kept hitters off balance with the deception of his change-up.

The lefty is the fourth Phillies player to win the NLCS MVP award, joining second-basemen Manny Trillo (1980), left-fielder Gary Matthews (1983), and right-handed pitcher Curt Schilling (1993).

Hamels will return to the mound Wednesday, as he is scheduled to start Game 1 of the World Series against the winner of the Red Sox/Rays series. The Rays hold a 3-2 lead over Boston with Game 6 taking place at Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay Friday night.

The ALCS was thought to be over, especially after Tampa Bay built a 7-0 lead in Game 5 on Thursday night. However, Boston had other thoughts. The Red Sox scored 8 runs in the final two innings of the game to pull off the second largest comeback in postseason history and the biggest comeback in an elimination game in the postseason.

(I originally predicted the Rays to win in 7.)

Philadelphia hopes this World Series will go better than the last.

Recall the image of Toronto Blue Jays’ slugger Joe Carter hammering what he thought was a slider from Philly closer Mitch Williams over the left field wall of the Rogers Centre in the bottom of the ninth during Game 7 to win the ‘93 Fall Classic. It was just the second walk-off home run in Major League history to win a World Series (Bill Mazerowski’s blast against the Yankees in 1960 to give Pittsburgh the World Series title).

The home run led to the demise of Mitch Williams, who still insists that the pitch was a bad fastball.

Philadelphia fans didn’t care what pitch was thrown. Neither did Joe Carter. Williams has stayed outside a 100-mile radius of Philadelphia ever since that fateful evening.

If the Phillies can pull out four wins against their A.L. opponent, which would give Philadelphia its second World Series title, Mitch Williams would undoubtedly be forgiven. Just look at how Boston fans forgave Bill Buckner, as they invited him to be honored during a regular season game this season. They even let him throw out the first pitch. It was the first time Buckner stepped foot into Fenway Park in over 25 years. It was the first time he’d even visited the city of Boston in over 25 years!

I do expect the Phillies to have a tough go of things once again. (I predicted the Rays to defeat the Phillies in a four-game-sweep to win this season’s Fall Classic when I made my infamous postseason predictions earlier this month.)

-Chris Barfield (with a special thank-you to The Associated Press)