- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2008

Before it even began, the 104th World Series was being billed as an uninteresting match-up between two franchises who don’t do much for TV ratings across the nation.

Baseball fans who elected not to tune into Game 1 on Wednesday night might want to get in on the act, and soon. The Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays may lack the star power and excessive drama of, say, the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, but they certainly know how to play a compelling brand of ball.

The Phillies’ 3-2 victory at Tropicana Field had just about everything a fan could ask for in a Fall Classic opener: good pitching from young aces Cole Hamels and Scott Kazmir, home runs from key contributors Chase Utley and Carl Crawford and a tense finish in which the Philadelphia bullpen hung on to secure the early series advantage for the National League champs.

Good baseball from two good teams. What more could anyone ask for?

“It’s huge,” closer Brad Lidge said. “You try and downplay it. But coming to a place like this, you want to get a game like this, especially with your ace on the mound.”

Hamels stood out above the rest of the pack with seven innings of two-run ball, earning his fourth win in as many starts this postseason and reminding that he, more than anyone else, holds the key to the Phillies first title in 28 years and second in franchise history. The 24-year-old left-hander had the Rays hitters off-balance all night, deftly mixing in a mid-90s fastball with a devastating changeup, and did it all with relative ease.

“I knew he was good,” Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria said. “But I didn’t know he was that good.”

Hamels was aided, of course, by one of the best 1-2 relief punches in the majors: Ryan Madson and Lidge. Entrusted with a one-run lead in the eighth, Madson retired the side and then handed things over to Lidge, who extended his perfect season by tossing a perfect ninth for his 51st save in as many tries.

“Don’t change a thing and do what I’ve been doing all year,” Lidge said of his approach. “I feel really comfortable for whatever reason in those kinds of situations.”

Which is not to say the Rays put forth a subpar effort in their first appearance on this grand stage. They did just about everything required to win a ballgame other than produce one more hit that would have tilted the scales in this evenly matched contest, and because of that they left the ballpark just as confident as when they arrived.

“It’s almost like being down 0-1 in the count if you’re a batter,” reliever J.P. Howell said. “Honestly, youre not too worried. But at the same time, you saw what they have and youve got to prepare and adjust.”

The first World Series game in Tampa Bay history began with all the usual pomp and circumstance, minus the military flyover, of course (can’t do that in a dome). But once the actual baseball took center stage, the locals got a rude awakening and a reminder that this series will be anything but a cakewalk.

Kazmir, whose up-and-down performance was one of the key story lines of the ALCS, got off to a ragged start. He walked the second man he faced, Jayson Werth, and then left a 2-2 fastball right in Utley’s wheelhouse. The Philadelphia slugger — who fouled off a surprise bunt attempt earlier in the at-bat — turned on that low fastball and deposited it over the right-field fence, a two-run homer that put the visitors on top early and quickly silenced the sellout crowd of 40,783.

“Our goal was to try to score some runs early,” Utley said. “Trying to take the crowd out of it, because they are intense, they are loud. And I thought we did a good job.”

The Rays had few answers for Hamels early on, unable to handle his assortment of fastballs and off-speed pitches. And when the lefty did get into trouble, loading the bases with one out in the third, he escaped the jam by getting B.J. Upton to ground into a 5-4-3 double play.

“That was huge,” Hamels said. “Being able to get that groundball out and getting the double play, I think, was definitely the kind of momentum swing into our favor for the game.”

Still, Tampa Bay did start to figure Hamels out a bit over time. Crawford tagged a first-pitch hanger to right for a solo homer in the fourth. And thanks to a two-out walk by Jason Bartlett, followed by a stolen base, Akinori Iwamura was able to drive in another run with a double to left-center.

That cut the Phillies lead to 3-2, and it remained that way thanks to Kazmir’s ability to get himself back on track and keep the damage to a minimum. Though he allowed another run in the fourth on two singles and two groundouts, the young lefty emerged unscathed in the fifth and sixth and gave his team a chance to come back.

“I just made one bad mistake,” he said, referring to the Utley homer.

The Phillies could have helped their cause with a clutch hit or two but couldn’t come through with one despite some golden opportunities. They had a man on third and one out in the seventh, only to watch as Howell got Ryan Howard to swing through a 3-2 breaking ball and then Grant Balfour got Shane Victorino on a 2-2 fastball.

Those missed chances didn’t ultimately cost Philadelphia a Game 1 victory, though they sure made the final few innings tenser than perhaps they needed to be.

By the end of the night, the Phillies were able to breathe a sigh of relief and head to their hotel feeling plenty confident about delivering the first blow in what looks like it will be a compelling World Series. Whether the nation is watching or not.

“We won tonight, and we’ve got the same mindset,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “We come back tomorrow and work on winning tomorrow’s game. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”

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