The Washington Times - August 12, 2008, 12:54AM

By SEAN RAPOSA
August 12, 2008

My colleagues and I here at National Pastime created this website in the hopes of bringing some different angles and topics to the table that you don’t get anywhere else. So far it has been a huge success and while it’s due in large part to the marvelous work being done by my brethren, I have you guys to thank as well. There is a true love of sports that we all share and I’m sure you have gathered by now that it stretches far beyond just major league ball. I am an avid MLB fan who destroys his MLB TV package like Jim Breuer destroys a bag of Funions, but this week I had to sacrifice sleep to keep up with all the sports action. With preseason NFL, the PGA Championship and the Summer Olympics providing 24-hour programming, my dilemma was to find a topic that could steal a slice of your attention during this special time in sports.

Everybody loves a winner. Padraig Harrington took down back-to-back majors and NASCAR’s Kyle Busch sped to his eighth checkered flag, thrusting them into the spotlight, and of course nothing compares to the prestige of an Olympic Gold. As I stood (literally) in front of my TV, trembling and screaming as the USA tried to pull off an improbable comeback in the 4x100 men’s swimming relay Sunday night, my mind wandered to October. It’s the time in baseball when fractions of a second and the difference of millimeters can change not only a career but a life, and it’s not that far away. Fasten your seatbelts, boys and girls - it’s going to be a wild ride. I’m getting right down to it with my predictions for the year, and I assure you it won’t play out like you expect. Ever since the Yankees dynasty came to a close at the hands of the upstart Diamondbacks in 2001, the World Series champions have seemingly gotten more and more unlikely. So who could it be this time around? Let’s find out.     

No. 5:Tampa Bay Rays

While I don’t foresee the Rays winning it all this October, they will hang on to participate in their first postseason, and what an accomplishment that will be. In their first 10 years of existence the Rays have managed to crawl out of the basement of the A.L. East only once, finishing fourth in 2004. Yet here we are, 12 days into the dog days of August, and they’re still holding off the vaunted Red Sox and Yankees and find themselves atop the division at 71-46 - 4 1/2 games ahead of Boston. Ultimately it will be their youth and inexperience that will do them in late. It’s a grueling season and most of their guys have never had to endure this much of a workload. As a matter of fact, since I started constructing this column, both Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria went down with injuries, a devastating blow to the Cinderella Rays. Their schedule also gets very tough coming up, with only four of their remaining 14 series against teams under .500 and two more tangles on the docket with each divisional foe.

I have sung his praises before in this space, but I don’t think you can give manager Joe Maddon enough credit for the job he has done in Tampa and I think he wins Manager of the Year hands-down. His no-bull attitude has filtered through to his players and given these Rays an identity that will make them a contender for years to come. They are confident, talented and fearless. They protect their own house better than any team in baseball at 45-17 and they have busted out the brooms eight times, sweeping the Blue Jays, Angels, Orioles, Cubs, Marlins and Tigers, and the Red Sox twice. Their starting rotation is young and nasty, led by the likes of Scott Kazmir and James Shields, and it’s about to get nastier once super-prospect David Price gets the call. Another year of seasoning should make this team even better in 2009.

No. 4:Boston Red Sox

It pains me to admit it, but the champs won’t be defending their title this year. Jason Bay is a nice player; Manny Ramirez he is not. The team chemistry will be better and I expect them to fight to the death, but the hole created when the franchise shipped off their best hitter of the last 10 years to Los Angeles will be too big to plug. Come crunch time I fully expect David Ortiz to get the “Bonds treatment,” drawing the intentional walk in every big spot. While J.D. Drew did launch the $14 million grand slam in the playoffs last year, he too is not Ramirez and can’t be expected to carry that weight.

The messy divorce with the long-time slugger is not the only issue, as this team is far from perfect and now the injury bug has crept up to make things worse. Mike Lowell and Kevin Youkilis are both ailing just when their offense is needed most. Reliable veteran Tim Wakefield is headed to the DL with shoulder trouble, rookie Clay Buchholz has been struggling mightily and the bullpen has been a big disappointment all year. The real deficiency is that staff ace Josh Beckett hasn’t been able to recapture his magic from 2007 that propelled the Sox to their second title, and to think he can just turn it back on come October might be asking too much. On the bright side, they have gone 6-3 since the big trade and have a home-heavy schedule the rest of the way. At Fenway the Sox are 40-16 and their younger, less-experienced competition has to take their act on the road to close things out. In the end I see Boston making an inspired charge that falls just short in the ALCS.

No. 3:Chicago Cubs

Could it happen? Sure. Am I going to be the one to predict it? Absolutely not. One hundred years of history carries a heavy burden and Cubs fans, players and coaches all know it. If you think the pressure hanging over the USA basketball team is substantial, wait until you feel the vibe and collective paranoia that is sure to fill Wrigley in a few months. Top to bottom, there is no team in the National League with as much talent, but it takes luck to win and in that department the Cubs are bottom-feeders. They have been absolutely dominant at home, tied with the Rays for tops in the bigs with a 45-17 home record, but they struggle on the road and with the A.L. taking the All-Star game yet again this year, the Cubbies won’t have the home-field advantage should they get all the way through their league.

The trouble, for me, lies in their perceived strength: their pitching. The numbers are great and their depth is solid, but I just don’t trust their starters. Even if Rich Harden’s arm can remain attached through the end of the year, ace Carlos Zambrano is so unpredictable. Follow him up with former closer Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly and you aren’t looking at a whole bunch of post-season success among the four of them - as a matter of fact, the unit has but one playoff victory combined! The offensive lineup is great and Derek Lee is as solid a leader as you will find in baseball, but I’m sorry Cubs fans, you inherited the Red Sox mantra: “Maybe next year.”

No. 2:Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

I know what you’re thinking: I have been pimping the Angels for weeks and now that they look like the favorites, I’m not picking them? Well, most times the bandwagon opinion ends up being wrong. Life isn’t fair and my gut tells me that the team will be faced with the hard decisions about whether to keep Mark Teixeira and Francisco Rodriguez, both free agents at season’s end, to try for the title again in 2009 after coming up just short. My biggest issue with the Angels is their lack of an intimidating ace. All due respect to John Lackey, but if we’re lining up front-line guys, he’s not in my top five. He is incredibly consistent and he’s done it on the big stage before, but he just doesn’t strike fear into me.

What I do believe is that Torii Hunter will be the guy to finally get them past the Sox should they meet yet again. Boston has been responsible for ending the Angels’ season prematurely in three straight postseason battles. Hunter has a .300 average and .538 slugging percentage in 21 career playoff games, and that should provide the help Vlad Guerrero has been lacking. However, if they run into those pesky Rays - one of the few teams to give the Angels trouble this season - another crusing, early exit could be coming. Earlier in May, the Rays completed a sweep of LA that included two shutouts. Either way, all the pieces are in place for the title to return to Disneyland; it just seems too obvious and unspectacular.

No. 1:Philadelphia Phillies

Yes, my sleep has been limited, but I can assure you that I haven’t gone crazy. I can’t think of any scenario that would be more surprising yet still believable as the Phillies taking home the trophy this year. The city has been tortured for years and they have not been treated to a major sports title since the 76ers took home the NBA crown in 1983 and I think this is the year they have their turn on the exorcism table. The fact they are on pace for less than 90 wins and have had locker room chippiness in the dugout lately with manager Charlie Manuel and reinvigorated starter Brett Myers having words would seem to make this prediction ridiculous, but that’s the idea. Expect the unexpected when it comes to baseball.

I failed to award Philly in last week’s trade market column, but they deserve credit for their moves. Trading to get Joe Blanton from Oakland was barely publicized but has proven to be wise. He has pitched well since joining the Phils, with a 1-0 record and 3.27 ERA, and he filled a big need for the team. While he wasn’t the arm I had in mind, I did say in my X-Factors column that the team in the N.L. East who added a starter would win the division and I’m sticking to it. It’s just further proof that if you ever need a quality major league player, call up Billy Beane, as he’s surely looking to sell somebody.

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More crucial in my mind was the non-trade of centerfielder Shane Victorino, who was rumored to be on the market and involved in several talks. The “flyin’ Hawaiian” brings incredible energy on both sides of the ball and serves as a key cog in baseball’s hippest lineup. As the seasons for both Chase Utley and Pat Burrell have slowed, big, bad Ryan Howard has been mashing. He is tied for the league-lead with 32 homers and ranks third in RBI with 98, and he will be the hero for the Phils this October. Few hitters are more feared and as is the case with his fellow big-boned lefty in Boston, Big Bapi, the big fly can come at any time. Throw in the strong leadership of shortstop Jimmy Rollins, which spearheaded their incredible comeback on the Mets last year, and their second-best road record of 32-26 and you have a team with the toughness and heart to overcome all the obstacles sure to be littering their path to greatness.

Sean Raposa’s My Five column runs every Tuesday here on National Pastime. He can be reached at [email protected]

Photos by The Associated Press

Be sure to check out our previous My Five columns: Starting rotations, The power alleys, MLB’s best bullpens, The table setters, Young guns, Burgeoning bats, Favorite first-half storylines, X-Factors, Financial blunders, Superbad Awards, Rounders.