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Starting over - sort of

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2008

PHILADELPHIA

Welcome to baseball's version of the shootout. It has never been done before, but don't worry: It's only going to decide the World Series.

A season that has spanned 175 games for the Philadelphia Phillies and 177 games for the Tampa Bay Rays will come down to 3 1/2 innings. If the Phillies score more during that time, they will win the World Series. If the Rays score more, everyone goes back to St. Petersburg, Fla., for Game 6 (and maybe Game 7).

Depending on your viewpoint, this is either the greatest thing to happen to the sport or a travesty of epic proportions.

Mind you, many of those who believe this is a travesty are Phillies fans who think their team is getting hosed by commissioner Bud Selig. Chances are you won't be hearing any more complaints from that faction if Philadelphia indeed wins Game 5 when it is completed Wednesday night ... weather permitting, of course.

There's really no sense agonizing over this anymore. While it may look from the outside like the Phillies are getting robbed, don't forget they still hold a huge advantage in this series. They have to win one more game. The Rays have to win three.

"All year long, we've been in a situation where we can control our destiny - and it's no different," Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel said Tuesday. "I have no complaints at all because it's in our hands. It's all up to us to do it."

Indeed it is. The Phillies get to bat first when the game resumes and still hold home-field advantage. Manuel gets to decide which of his pinch hitters to send up to lead off the bottom of the sixth inning (pitcher Cole Hamels' spot is due up, and Manuel said the lefty will not return). And he gets to decide how to utilize his bullpen in search of nine more outs.

And if somehow they lose, the Phillies still get two more shots to win this series. But that's for another day. The focus now should be on the possibilities for the conclusion of Game 5, which will be played Wednesday night. Maybe.

First decision: Who hits for Hamels? Manuel has several left-handed bats on his bench, including Matt Stairs, Greg Dobbs and Geoff Jenkins, each of whom seems like a viable option.

Then Rays manager Joe Maddon has to decide whether to leave reliever Grant Balfour on the mound or summon a left-hander from his bullpen (who presumably would start warming up before the game is even resumed).

And who might that left-hander be? A specialist like Trever Miller or J.P. Howell who would only face a couple of batters? Or might he go with David Price and let the rookie phenom go two, three, even four innings in an attempt to shut down the Phillies?

"We're talking about it, thinking about all those different things," Maddon said. "Everybody is kind of pretty much going to be back at ground zero."

The possibilities are endless, and there's no precedent for anything like this because it's never happened before.

In one respect, the managers run the risk of overthinking. Just treat this like any other 2-2 game in the sixth inning. Then again, this isn't like any other 2-2 game in the sixth inning - and everyone involved knows it.

Both teams have to treat this as if the first one to score wins. Certainly whoever takes a lead gains a significant advantage. And obviously the Phillies have a built-in advantage, as Manuel pointed out, because they only need to record nine outs while the Rays need to record 12.

And the strategy won't be limited solely to the conclusion of Game 5. Say Tampa Bay wins and extends the series. Say MLB decides to add a travel day before Game 6, which league officials wouldn't rule out Tuesday, even if it remains unlikely. What happens then?

Would Manuel decide to bring back Hamels at some point later in the series? He threw only 75 pitches Monday and, even without an extra travel day, could come back on three days' rest and at least give Philadelphia a couple of innings.

This is where the Series is now: uncharted territory.

"There's no telling what will happen next," Maddon said.

And because of that, maybe this World Series that no one wanted to care about a week ago might prove to be one of the most memorable on record.