A World Series championship will mark a thrilling end to a decade of frustration for the Tampa Bay Rays, or a quarter century’s worth for the city of Philadelphia.
One of these long disrespected teams will come away as the World Series winner, and the quest for that ring gets underway Wednesday night with Phillies ace Cole Hamels facing fellow 24-year-old left-hander Scott Kazmir at Tropicana Field.
While Hamels’ dominant performance keyed Philadelphia wrapping up the NL championship series, it was Kazmir who helped give Tampa Bay the home-field advantage for this matchup.
He was the winning pitcher in the All-Star game, working a scoreless 15th inning before Phillies closer Brad Lidge gave up the winning run to the AL in the bottom half. It’s the only loss suffered all year by Lidge, who has converted all 46 of his save opportunities - five in the postseason.
The victory meant the AL would get the extra home game in this series and that means a city which before this year had never seen a playoff game, or even a winning record during the Rays’ first 10 years of existence, will be the focus of all baseball fans as the Fall Classic begins.
“Nobody expects us to win. Everybody expected us to lose 90 games this year,” said 23-year-old David Price, who got his first professional save in Game 7 of the ALCS against Boston. “We lost seven in a row going into the All-Star break. People thought that was it. The Rays are going to slowly die out. But that’s not the case.”
Tampa Bay never finished with more than 70 wins and was a major league-worst 66-96 in 2007 before all of its young talent, directed by manager Joe Maddon, came together this season to win the AL East with a 97-65 record.
“People were happy when we got our 71st win. People were excited when we got our 81st win, saying you guys have cleared the .500 mark. We still kept going,” said Rays pitcher Matt Garza, the ALCS MVP after beating the Red Sox twice. “We’ve proved doubters wrong this entire time.”
There likely remains doubt in the minds of some Phillies’ fans, considering their team has lost more games than any other in major U.S. sports and the only World Series win in its 125-year history came in 1980. Plus, all of Philadelphia’s teams have provided letdowns to this generation of fans when reaching the grandest stage in their respective sports.
Since the 76ers won a title in 1983, Philadelphia’s four professional sports teams have played for a championship seven times - including the Phillies in 1983 and 1993 - and failed to win one.
“Philadelphians, they’ve been starving for a winner,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. “Let me put it like this, we’re due. We’re here. Why not get it?”
Both teams feature powerful lineups with plenty of speed mixed in, as well as young starting pitching - the only starter in this series not in his 20s is 45-year-old Jamie Moyer of Philadelphia.
The youngest position players in this series have become the Rays’ biggest stars.
Evan Longoria, the likely AL Rookie of the Year winner, had four homers and eight RBIs over the final six games of the ALCS. B.J. Upton, a 24-year-old center fielder, hit nine homers during the regular season but has seven in 11 playoff games while driving in 15 runs.
“I used to tell people I played for the Devil Rays and they’d ask, ‘Who are the Devil Rays?’ Now I think they know who we are,” Upton said, referring to the team’s nickname before dropping ‘Devil’ during the offseason.
Neither Upton nor Longoria have faced Hamels (3-0, 1.23 ERA) - only four Tampa Bay hitters have - and his lone start versus the Rays was a loss during his 2006 rookie season.
Maybe no pitcher in this postseason has been better. The NLCS MVP has allowed three runs and six walks in 22 innings, striking out 22 while holding opposing batters to a .173 average.
“Being in that parade down Broad Street (in Philadelphia) is what we all want,” Hamels said. “Getting a World Series ring and trophy is what really matters. Getting there is great, but winning it all is the best.”
Hamels has given up more than two earned runs once in 13 starts since Aug. 1, pitching at least seven innings in nine of those games. Including his series-clinching NLCS win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Hamels is 4-1 with a 2.09 ERA in his last seven road starts.
Kazmir (1-0, 4.02) hasn’t dominated like Hamels has, but an impressive Game 5 performance in the ALCS may have prompted Maddon to have him open the World Series instead of James Shields.
Kazmir held Boston to two hits and struck out seven in six scoreless innings at Fenway Park. Opposing batters had hit .341 in his first two playoff starts as Kazmir surrendered seven runs in 9 2-3 innings.
The Rays have won 14 of his 16 outings at Tropicana Field this year, and another benefit to starting Kazmir is that left-handed batters are 3-for-19 (.158) against him in the playoffs after he held them to a .198 average and one homer during the season. Two of the most powerful bats in Philadelphia’s lineup are lefty-hitting stars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.
The Phillies hope six days off between games hasn’t thrown Howard back off track. He was 2-for-19 through five playoff games before going 6-for-12 with two RBIs in the last three, though he’s homerless in the postseason after leading the majors with 48 home runs and 146 RBIs.
Utley’s bat came alive in the NLCS as he hit .353 (6-for-17) with two doubles, a homer, five walks and three RBIs. He went 2-for-15 in the NL division series against Milwaukee.
“If we didn’t do anything for three or four days, no baseball activities, then it might be a problem,” Utley said of the team’s long break. “Charlie’s keeping us busy, which is a good thing.”
These teams haven’t met since 2006 - Kazmir won his only career start against the Phillies that season - and Tampa Bay leads the all-time series 10-5.
The bullpen edge appears to be with the Lidge-led Phillies, whose relievers have a 1.88 ERA in the postseason after leading the NL (3.19) during the regular season.
Tampa Bay’s relief corps had a solid 3.55 ERA this year, but is missing injured closer Troy Percival and its confidence had to be shaken after blowing a 7-0 lead to the Red Sox in Game 5. However, the bullpen blanked Boston for 5 1-3 innings over the final two games and may have found a new weapon in Price, a highly touted prospect who did not appear in the majors until mid-September.
“Sometimes it’s such an achievement just to get there that you let your guard down,” Lidge said. “There’s no way for me to tell right now how they’re going to react. We’ll just have to see in the game.”