Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays
Alright Las Vegas, you're going to have to pay up big to anyone who picked this match up on opening day. While I have been a constant voice of Rays support, not even I thought that they would go this far with a mediocre offense, a starting rotation all under the age of 26 and a bullpen comprised of scrap-heap pickups. The Phillies have been up and down all season and have gone as their hitters have, yet they are now hot and have led their team to a convincing World Series berth.
I look at the Phillies and I see a lot of offensive talent, that when hot, can dominate teams. Against mediocre pitching in Los Angeles and Milwaukee, that is exactly what happened. The Phillies offense has been firing on all cylinders and really has impressed the baseball world with their maximum capacity. They also have a dynamic starter in Cole Hamels and a better closer in Brad Lidge, yet to blow a save in nearly 50 opportunities (including the playoffs). One thing that I fear for the Phillies is that they clinched their series well earlier in the week and the Rays are still on a high after beating the team of the decade to this point.
The Rays have immense depth in starting pitching, relief and in speed on the base paths. This team is going to win if it can field the ball and run as it has all season. The three games that the Rays won behind their offense are a fluke to me however. With no regular player hitting over .280 in the season, having Upton, Crawford, Pena and Longoria around or above .300 in the playoffs shows me that these players got hot at the right time, but based on the body of work for their season, it will likely not last another seven games. Their pitching is an extreme strength. They had six starting pitchers on their ALCS starting rotation, all of which are under the age of 26 as mentioned previously. Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, James Shields and Andy Sonnanstine all have different approaches to the game and will give the seasoned Philadelphia hitters four different looks. Another thing about the Rays starters is that with the exception of Kazmir, they are durable enough to go deep into games. Their bullpen also will be a strength as shown in throughout the ALCS. Their strength was especially amplified when in the 8th inning of Game 7, Joe Maddon used four different relievers consecutively to retire the Red Sox. Maddon has guys from both sides that can throw gas in Price and Balfour, soft-tossing out getter's in Bradford and Howell, and a seasoned veteran in Wheeler. With those five pitchers the Rays have a lot of ways to mix and match to get 6 outs at the end of a game which may be presented to them with the durability of their starters.
All that said, I have to give the edge to the Rays in this series. They just beat a team in Boston, with far better pitching than the Phillies and a similar offensive approach. I expect Maddon to keep running and putting pressure on Philadelphia throughout the series. The Rays will ultimately win this series behind their speed, great defense and strong relief adaptability. It should be very obvious by this point that they are not scared of the magnitude of the situation and it is expected of them to continue their success. The Phillies will have to shake off any rust that 6 days of rest may have given them at Tropicana Field, where the Rays have looked great all season. The Phillies could very easily find themselves in an 0-2 hole, even with their true ace (Hamels vs. Kazmir) on the mound in Game 1. I expect this series to provide baseball with the fairytale ending to the best story written in Baseball in the last half century.
Prediction: Rays in 6