The Washington Times - October 20, 2008, 07:52PM

By JAY LeBLANC
October 21, 2008

It all comes down to this.

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After seven-plus months, 162 regular-season games and two rounds of playoffs, the Rays and Phillies are the last teams standing. Who would have thought? Coming into the season, everyone knew the small-market Rays had some good young talent, but they posted the worst record in the majors last season and play in arguably the toughest division in baseball. The Phillies, on the other hand, made the playoffs in 2007 but were swept out of the Division Series faster than you can say “Matt Holliday.” After their N.L. East rivals in New York snagged baseball’s best pitcher in the offseason, few other than their most ardent fans game them a chance to so much as win their division. But that’s why you play the games.

This year’s Fall Classic promises to be just that. With apologies to the Red Sox and Dodgers, there’s no question that baseball’s two best teams will take the field in Game 1 of the 2008 World Series tommorow night in St. Petersburg, Fla. With championship-caliber offense, defense and pitching, the Phillies are a team without a glaring weakness; of course, the same can be said of the upstart Rays. One of these squads will hoist the World Series trophy before Halloween - but which one? As we ponder that question and anxiously await first pitch from Tropicana Field, let’s see how they match up.

 

STARTING PITCHING

Statistically speaking, the World Series participants’ starting rotations are strikingly similar. The Rays four-man staff - Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine - combined for 50 wins and a 3.79 ERA during the regular season; Philly’s rotation of Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton combined for 49 victories and a 3.97 ERA if you count Blaton’s pre-trade stats with the Athletics. Both staffs are young and very talented at the top. Most would give Hamels a slight edge over Kazmir in the lefty-lefty matchup; most would also favor Shields over second-half stud Myers by a narrow margin.

It’s the Nos. 3 and 4 spots that establish Tampa’s dominance in this category. Jamie Moyer won five more games that Matt Garza during the regular season (16 to 11), but while ALCS MVP Garza is pitching his best ball of the season right now, Moyer was tagged for six earned runs in just 1 1/3 innings in his NLCS start against the Dodgers and is 0-2 with a 13.50 ERA so far this postseason. In the No. 4 spot, I’ll take Tampa’s Andy Sonnanstine and his 124-to-37 K-to-walk ratio over Joe Blanton’s 111-to-66 mark. Advantage: Rays.

 

RELIEF PITCHING

Tampa Bay’s deep bullpen gives manager Joe Maddon plenty of late-inning options. Right-handers Grant Balfour (1.54 ERA, 82 K’s in 58 1/3 regular-season innings) and Dan Wheeler (3.12 ERA in 70 appearances) came through all season - though they were both shaky against the Red Sox in the ALCS - and veteran submariner Chad Bradford (2.12 ERA) enjoyed his best year from a statistical standpoint, allowing just three homers all year. Edwin Jackson had 14 wins as the Rays’ No. 5 starter this year and could potentially be useful in a number of different bullpen roles. J.P. Howell (2.22 ERA in 64 appearances) struggled as a starter for the Royals and Rays but has found his niche as a bullpen lefty, and Trever Miller has been effective as a situational southpaw for more than a decade. Few pitchers in all of baseball have better pure stuff than 2007 No. 1 overall pick David Price, who has dominated at every level from single-A to the bigs this season and should have confidence to spare after his clutch performance in ALCS Game 7.

The Phillies match up well with the Rays in the right-handed middle relief/setup department. Ryan Madson (3.05 ERA, 67 K’s in 82 2/3 innings) and Chad Durbin (2.87 ERA, 63 K’s in 87 2/3 innings) had similarly stellar campaigns. Clay Condrey is more of a soft tosser (34 K’s in 69 innings) but makes for a fine No. 3 option (3.26 ERA). Like the Rays, the Phillies have three effective lefty relievers to play mix-and-match with in the late innings. J.C. Romero was consistently effective (2.75 ERA in 81 appearances), Scott Eyre was the go-to guy when the situation called for a strikeout (32, as opposed to just seven walks, in 25 2/3 innings) and rookie J.A. Happ pitched well in limited action (3.69 ERA in 31 2/3 innings). OK, so both bullpens are full of guys who had good seasons. The difference maker, of course, is Brad Lidge. While Tampa Bay lacks a go-to ninth-inning guy, the Phillies boast one who has fans well over a batter per inning and hasn’t blown a single save chance all year. Advantage: Phillies.

 

STARTING LINEUP

The Phillies ranked just 10th in the National League in batting average during the regular season, but pushed the third most runs across in part because they led the Senior Circuit in longballs. The home run derby has continued in the postseason, as the Phils have blasted 10 homers in nine playoff games thus far. The Little League park they play their home games in has something to do with that, but so does the presence of Ryan Howard (48 homers, 146 RBI in ‘08), Chase Utley (33 jacks, 104 ribbies) and Pat Burrell (33 and 86) - not to mention reigning N.L. MVP Jimmy Rollins, who had a down year in 2008 but remains one of baseball’s best power-speed threats. The Phillies also have plenty of substance to back up their stars. Shane Victorino combines speed (36 steals) with modest pop (14 homers) and was a thorn in the Dodgers’ side in the NLCS. Jayson Werth smacked 24 homers in a breakout 2008 season. Pedro Feliz went deep just 14 times this season, but hit 20 or more in each of the four previous seasons with the Giants. Philadelphia’s weakest link is Carlos Ruiz, who hit just .219 in a disappointing 2008 campaign.

All in all, the Phillies lineup is vastly superior on paper to Tampa Bay’s, which finished second to last in the American League in batting average and ninth in runs this season. The thing is, the Rays hitters have taken their game to another level in the postseason. B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria have combined for 13 of the Rays’ astounding 22 homers in 11 postseason games, and Carlos Pena (31 regular-season homers) is a feared slugger in his own right. Tampa Bay also has speed-power threat Carl Crawford back in the lineup after an extended absence, and Dioner Navarro has emerged as one of the better catchers in the American League in 2008. Willy Aybar and Gabe Gross don’t supply much in the average department (.253 and .242, respectively), but are good for the occasional longball (10 and 13). The slap-hitting Akinori Iwamura (.349 OBP) is a solid table-setter, and speedy Jason Bartlett is an ideal “second leadoff man” in the No. 9 hole. Both offenses are dangerous and the Rays are red hot, but I have to go with the lineup that’s gotten it done consistently all season, not just over the past few weeks. Advantage: Phillies.

 

BENCH

The Phillies have one of the better bench bats in the league in third baseman Greg Dobbs, a left-handed hitter who hit .301 with nine jacks and 40 ribbies in 226 regular season at bats. Dobbs’ is just one of three potent left-handed bats the Phillies have in reserve, with longtime Milwaukee Brewer Geoff Jenkins (.246, nine homers) and veteran slugger and NLDS Game 5 hero Matt Stairs being the others. Reserve catcher Chris Coste (.263, nine jacks) wields a more potent bat than starter Ruiz - good to know should manager Charlie Manuel need to pinch-hit for Ruiz in the late innings. Eric Bruntlett isn’t much of a hitter (.217 during the regular season) but has played first, second, third, short and in the outfield for the Phillies this season. So Taguchi didn’t hit much this season (.220) but is a .279 career hitter and a decent late-inning outfield defensive replacement.

Assuming the Rays stick with Gross in the outfield, they’ll have the potent bat of Rocco Baldelli available for pinch-hitting duty. Baldelli was limited to 28 games this season because of a disorder that causes excessive fatigue, but was once one of Tampa Bay’s brightest young stars. Cliff Floyd isn’t the All-Star he once was, but still has enough left (.268, 11 homers in the regular season) to serve as a valuable left-handed bat off the bench. Ben Zobrist isn’t known for his power, but the switch-hitter did slug 12 homers in 198 regular-season at bats while seeing time at second, short, third and in the outfield. Fernando Perez isn’t much of a hitter, but he’s lightning quick, and that could certainly come in handy. Michael Hernandez is nothing more than an emergency catcher and won’t see the field unless Navarro is injured.

The Phillies have the advantage of three left-handed power bats on the bench and the superior backup catcher. Maddon’s club has the better right-handed pinch-hitters, the better utility man and a valuable speedster in Perez. Advantage: Rays.

 

DEFENSE

Defense is the toughest aspect of the game to quantify, and statistics don’t make it any easier to choose between the Rays and Phillies. Tampa Bay had the fourth-fewest errors (90) in the 14-team American League this season; Philadelphia had the fifth-fewest (90) in the 16-team Senior Circuit. Let’s do this position-by-position:

Catcher: Tampa’s Dioner Navarro and Carlos Ruiz had similar seasons behind the dish, except for the fact that Navarro threw out 38 percent of basestealers, as opposed to just 23 percent for Ruiz. Advantage: Navarro.

First Base: The slick-fielding Carlos Pena made two errors at first base this season. Ryan Howard made 19. Advantage: Pena.

Second Base: The Rays’ Akinori Iwamura had a .990 fielding percentage and turned 109 double plays. Philly’s Chase Utley had a .984 fielding percentage and turned 102 double plays. This one’s basically a draw, but since sitting on the fence is lame, Iwamura gets the nod.

Shortstop: Tampa’s Jason Bartlett is an adequate enough shortstop, but Philadelphia’s Jimmy Rollins won a Gold Glove in 2007 and was arguably better in the field in 2008. Advantage: Rollins.

Third Base: All-Star rookie Evan Longoria made 12 errors and had a .963 fielding percentage in 119 games this season, while, Pedro Feliz made eight errors to go along with a .974 fielding percentage in 129 games for the Phillies. Advantage: Feliz.

Left Field: Pat Burrell committed two errors this season, while Carl Crawford had four. No matter - Crawford covers about twice as much ground. Advantage: Crawford.

Center Field: Both B.J. Upton and Shane Victorino cover a lot of ground in center field, but Victorino’s skills are more refined than those of Upton, a former infielder. Advantage: Victorino.

Right Field: Both Jayson Werth and Gabe Gross are adequate - and no more - in right. Werth has more speed and thus covers more ground. Advantage: Werth.

So … the Phillies are stronger in the outfield and on the left side of the infield. The Rays are get the nod behind the plate and on the right side of the infield. Sitting on the fence is lame, but so is flipping a coin to pick a winner. This one’s a draw.

 

MANAGING

There’s no denying that both Joe Maddon and Charlie Manuel have done incredibly well in leading their respective squads this year. Both have an unimaginable wealth of baseball knowledge at their disposal, and both have made the right call more than the wrong one; otherwise, they wouldn’t be managing in the World Series. Maddon is as “new school” as Manuel is “old school,” and both men’s managerial styles seem to be the right fit for their clubs. The question is this: Could the Phillies have made it to the World Series with a different skipper? With no disrespect to Manuel, I’d be willing to argue that, with their veteran, star-studded club, veteran rotation and lights-out closer, they could have. Could the Rays have made it this far without Maddon? No way. I don’t believe there’s another manager in baseball who could have done a better job with the Rays. Tampa Bay would have never accomplished what they’ve accomplished this year if they didn’t believe in everything Maddon was preaching. Advantage: Rays.

 

INTANGIBLES

First of all, the Rays have home field-advantage, which is pretty significant considering that they went a major league-best 57-24 at home this season. The Phillies will have had six days off by the time the World Series kicks off Wednesday night, while the Rays will have had just two days off; I think the Phillies’ extended break might have killed their momentum more than the rest will benefit them. On top of that, nothing was expected of the Rays this season, meaning they’re playing with house money, feeling good and having fun. The Phillies are no doubt feeling good and enjoying themselves as well, but they were expected to contend for the N.L. crown this year and have some of most demanding fans in baseball to please. Advantage: Rays.

 

So what have we learned? That these teams are very, very evenly matched, and we can expect a competitve, hard-fought series. It’s basically impossible to designate either squad as the favorite; it’s all a matter of preference. Veteran savvy or youthful exuberance? Playoff experience or blissful ignorance? The well-rested team, or the one with the momentum? Old-school managing style or new-school?

I’m going with the Rays - not because of their slight advantages in the starting rotation, on the bench or in the dugout, but because of the intangibles I listed above. I also think we’re about to witness one of the better World Series we’ll ever see, and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t take the full seven games to sort this one out. Check back in tomorrow for the rest of the National Pastime staff’s predictions. And don’t be shocked if I’ve changed my mind by then.

 

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and mayor of the National Pastime web community. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.