Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Series Pick

Twenty eight years ago, the Phillies, fresh off an NLCS that I still think might have been the most exciting playoff series ever played, opened up the World Series at home against the Royals. The Game One started wasn't ace Steve Carlton, but their #5 starter, Bob Walk. In front of the home faithful, Walk fell behind 4-0, but held on as the offense bailed him out. He worked seven innings and got the win, setting up Game Two for ace lefty Steve Carlton. After another Phillies comeback, the home team lead 2-0, with Carlton getting the win.

There was an ease about Carlton that was palpable. His best pitch, a slider, was rarely a strike; it produced whiffs and feeble ground outs. He worked quickly and without emotion, and had led them for most of a decade. When he was on, it was as if the batter simply wasn't there. He won four Cy Youngs in a decade, and might have been the second-best starting lefty in MLB history, behind only Warren Spahn.

They expected to win behind him, and most of the time, they did.

Cole Hamels reminds me so much of Carlton, I keep expecting him to stop talking to the media, develop freaky Zionist conspiracy theories, and go live as a hermit in Colorado. (There's just something about left-handers, really.)

The first game of the World Series is, in this era of baseball, absolutely essential. With the 2-3-2 travel plan and the better league having home field (the All Star Game coin flip notwithstanding, the simple reality is that the Coke/Pepsi BOS-NYY Salary War has ensured a higher standard for AL teams for most of a decade now, as the won-loss record in interleague has proven), it's absolutely imperiative for the NL team to take home field in the first two games. There's just too much pressure on the trailing team to overcome a series deficit on the road for the final two games.

The Rays are from the better league, have home field, and are playing as free and loose as you possibly can at this point in the season. The Phillies are carrying 25 years of failure in the uniforms, along with the collective Win Or We'll Cry Forever baggage of their entire metropolitan era. The Rays are also more balanced, hand-wise, on offense than the Phils, and have more lights-out plus arms than just about any team in baseball. Finally, there's this: long layoffs at this point of the year are rarely good for a team. See the Tigers against the Cardinals, or the Rockies against the Red Sox. You don't want a ton of time off in October.

However, the Rays have one very large problem.

They don't have Cole Hamels.

The Phillies' left-handed has been dominant in the post-season after being a borderline Cy Young candidate in the regular season. By the numbers, he had a 3.09 ERA with a 1.08 WHIP in a bandbox in the first 162 games. In the playoffs, he's 3-0, 1.23 ERA, 0.86 WHIP. When they've needed him in the postseason, he's simply been better than anyone else working in MLB this month. When he's needed strike three, he's delivered -- with a slider that's got such good late movement, he's even fooling the umpires with it. Go ask Jeff Kent how much fun it was to go against him with money on the table.

He also gets the ball tonight.

Facing him is Scott Kazmir, who, I am certain, will own the Phillies... for about 5 to 6 innings. After that, his pitch count will be problematic, and maybe the Rays will make a critical defensive mistake -- they gave the Red Sox seven extra outs with errors in the ALCS, which made that series much more dramatic than it had to be. They'll also go to a deep but undefined bullpen with a manager (Joe Maddon) who was near Grady Little on the Shaky Level in the ALCS.

When the dust settles, the Phillies will have a one game lead. The Rays will be a little tighter. And the AL Mystique will be broken.

In Game Two, I'm expecting a sloppier game, with Brett Myers facing James Shields. The road team will swing the bats better against the right-hander, and if they give Myers any kind of lead early, he'll pitch like a guy with a ton of ability, rather than the special needs child that he frequently resembles. Both teams will attempt to run more, but Carlos Ruiz is better at cutting down that aspect of the game than Dioner Navarro, and the Phillies are simply the most efficient base stealing team in MLB. I think there's a very good chance that they go back to Philly up 2-0, which is good -- because they are going to need the wiggle room.

In Game Three, the Rays have their most pronounced pitching edge of the series. ALCS hero Matt Garza will face aged lefty Jamie Moyer, who was beyond useless against the Dodgers. At home and against a Rays team that will be in Win Or Die Mode, I think he falters -- unless Garza is a shot fighter after his marathon effort against the Sox. In any event, this is the game that I think the Rays win.

Game Four will have Philly Fan clamoring for the return of Hamels, as the schedule gives us Andy Sonnastine against Joe Blanton. Charlie Manuel will not cave, despite the specter of not having Hamels available for a Game Seven, because Manuel just doesn't care what people think of his moves (witness Myers being his closer last year). It will also pay off for him, as Blanton will keep the ball in the yard and the Phillies will capitalize on the hittable Sonnanstine (24 homers in 206 IP this year, and right-handed to boot). In the true turn game of the Series, the Phillies' bats will carry the day.

Game Five is as close to a double-elimination game as you can get, before Game Seven. The Phils will be doing everything possible to end it without going back to Cowbell Hell. THe Rays will grip the bats too tight. Scott Kazmir will give up some walks to the howling mob.

And the Phillies will have Hamels, 28 years and 6 days after Carlton won the town its only baseball world championship, to win the second.

Phillies in five.


Tracer Bullet said...

I should have taken the Phillies in five. If they're going to win, they're not going to take a game six or seven in Florida.

However, if they don't win in five and they take a 3-2 lead back to Tampa, I'm certain Manuel will use Hamels in the sixth game.

CMJDad said...

Lefty is a legend, but don't forget Tug

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