Phillies, Rays Win, Advance To World Series

After 163 games and two rounds of playoffs, the participants in this year’s World Series have finally been determined. The Tampa Bay Rays, the winners of the American League (AL) pennant, will host the National League (NL) champion Philadelphia Phillies when the 2008 Fall Classic begins on October 21st.

Let’s recap how each team earned their berth in the World Series, and take a look at the matchup:

Philadelphia Phillies: Philadelphia clinched the sixth pennant in their franchise history. With a 92-70 record during the regular season, they won the NL East thanks to a strong finish down the stretch (13-3 to close the regular season) and another New York Mets’ September collapse.

In the best-of-five NL Divisional Series, the Phillies dispatched the Milwaukee Brewers in four games, behind dominant outings by their starting pitchers. In the NL Championship Series, they defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers four games to one.

In that series, the Phillies dominated the Dodgers in every aspect. Their starters, led by series MVP Cole Hamels (who pitched brilliantly Games 1 and 4, allowing only three runs in 14 total innings), continued to stifle opposing batters. Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s offense came to life and pounded the Dodgers’ pitching — for example, Chad Billingsley failed to make it past the third inning in either of his starts.

The Dodgers played sloppily in the field as well, making a total of six errors — three by Rafael Furcal in one inning — on defense. The one bright spot in the Los Angeles lineup was Manny Ramirez, who continued to put up video-game numbers; the one-man juggernaut went 8-for-15 with seven runs driven in, accounting for almost half of L.A.’s total offense.

Tempers flared in the series between the two teams, beginning when the Dodgers’ Ramirez and Russell Martin were knocked down by pitches. A minor controversy resulted when Chad Billingsley refused to retaliate (which didn’t make up for his two poor outings with his teammates) and Hideki Kuroda nearly decapitated Shane Victorino the next day.

Now, the Phillies will try to win their second World Series — their lone title came in 1980 — and end their city’s 25-year pro sports title drought. The road to the championship, however, goes through … Tampa Bay?

Tampa Bay Rays: The (once again, non-Devil) Rays’ magical season continues. They earned its first AL East title in franchise history with a 97-65 record in the regular season, finishing on top of both the Red Sox and Yankees, who failed to even make the playoffs. In the Divisional Series, the Rays defeated the White Sox three games to one; in the AL Championship Series, they knocked off their division rivals and defending world champions, the Boston Red Sox in seven games.

The ALCS was easily the most exciting and dramatic series so far this postseason. In the first game, the Rays looked every bit like a young and inexperienced team, and mustered only four hits off of Daisuke Matsuzaka. In the next three games, however, the Tampa Bay offense came to life, scoring a total of 31 runs while hitting 10 home runs (including three in a slugfest Game 2, which saw a playoff-record seven total homers by both teams combined), and embarrassing two Boston aces — Josh Beckett and Jon Lester — in the process.

In Game 5, however, the Red Sox displayed their determination and experience. On the brink of elimination, and facing a three-games-to-one deficit in the ALCS once again, Boston trailed 7-0 with only seven outs left, but rallied to score eight runs in the final three innings to complete one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history and keep their pennant hopes alive.

Their momentum carried over into the next game, where they beat Tampa Bay 4-2 to force a deciding Game 7. The Rays, however, stepped up to the challenge and Matt Garza, the series’ MVP, pitched brilliantly to earn them their first-ever pennant. (And they even received a visit from Barack Obama.)

Not bad for a team who were 300:1 odds to win the World Series in Spring Training, but the Rays will surely be looking for more.

The World Series — Philadelphia Phillies vs. Tampa Bay Rays: This year’s World Series features two historical losers.

Tampa Bay has been the doormat of baseball since their inception in 1998, finishing in last place nine out of the ten seasons before this year and owned the worst record in the majors in 2007. Philadelphia, meanwhile, is the losingest franchise in pro sports history and the only team — from any sport — with over 10,000 losses and counting.

Neither team has many players in its lineup with prior World Series experience, although Rays manager Joe Maddon won a ring as a coach with the 2002 Angels.

Both teams feature dynamic offenses coupled with strong pitching staffs. For the Phillies, their trio of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard have finally appeared to find their grooves in the series against the Dodgers, while their starting rotation, led by the NLCS MVP Cole Hamels, continued their string of stifling performances.

For the Rays, their starters have also stepped up and delivered, and they have a Championship Series MVP starter of their own, Matt Garza. On offense, the Rays have found their power strokes against Boston, led by Evan Longoria — who homered in four straight ALCS games — and B.J. Upton, who has seven postseason home runs after hitting only nine in the entire regular season.

The two teams’ bullpens, however, contrast starkly. The Phillies, anchored by closer Brad Lidge — who was a perfect 46-for-46 in save opportunities this year — have not lost this year when leading after eight innings.

The Rays don’t have a single elite reliever, but manager Joe Maddon knows how to use his bullpen effectively by exploiting matchups, and rookie David Price showed that he can get big outs in key situations, as evidenced by his win in Game 2 and save in Game 7 against the Red Sox.

Another difference between the two teams is the amount of rest they received after their League Championship Series. Tampa Bay wrapped up its seven-game series with Boston on Sunday night, so only have had one day to recuperate. Philadelphia, on the other hand, defeated the Dodgers in five games, and has had a full week to rest. This allows them to set up their starting rotation for the World Series, but it also means the Phillies’ hitters are rusty after not having seen live pitching for an entire week.

One other potentially decisive factor in the series is home-field advantage, which belongs to Tampa Bay (since the American League won the All-Star Game this year). Ironically enough, the winner of the All-Star game was Scott Kazmir of the Rays, who outpitched the Phillies’ Brad Lidge, the loser.

Tropicana Field, with its artificial turf, catwalks, and cowbell-banging fans, has been a haven all season long for the Rays (who have the best home record in baseball). With this advantage, combined with their momentum and ability, there is no reason why the Rays can’t complete their Cinderella season and go all the way.

Prediction: Rays in 6.