It's down to the final pair of teams, with the other 28 - including the Diamondbacks - being reduced to the role of spectators. The Philadelphia Phillies of the National League now take on the Tampa Bay Rays of the American League in a seven-game series to decide who is the best team in baseball. The Rays have home-field advantage, getting the first two games at home in Florida tomorrow and Thursday, before the teams move back up the East Coast to Philadelphia for games three and four, as well as five if necessary. Next Wednesday and Thursday, if things are not already decided, it'll be back to Tampa for the final two contests.
The Rays would seem to be favorites, having piled up 97 wins in the tough AL East, but there's no doubt that the Division Series against the Red Sox must have been an emotionally-draining roller-coaster for them. They lost Game 5 in stunning fashion, and teetered on the edge of arguably the most astonishing collapse in post-season history, before coming back from a fourth-inning deficit in the winner-take-all decider. Will that be a boon or a disadvantage? It's hard to tell, just as it's hard to tell whether the Phillies' long layoff will affect them. They've had an entire week off since the end of their Division Series, and can ask the 2007 Rockies whether they benefited from their lengthy rest before the finale.
Philadelphia relied on solid pitching to propel them to the NL East title, though this was masked to some extent by their hitter-friendly park. But their ERA+ in the regular season was 115, trailing only the Cubs and Dodgers; in comparison, their OPS+ was a more-middling 103. Cole Hamels is the horse the Phillies will want to ride as far as possible. After a 3.09 ERA in the regular season, he is 3-0 in three post-season starts, and has allowed only three runs in 22 innings, a playoff ERA of 1.23. Brett Myers and Jamie Moyer will follow him in the rotation. Their offense has sputtered somewhat in the post-season: of their regulars, only Burrell and Victorino are hitting better than .260, while slugger Ryan Howard has no homers and only three RBI in the nine games to date. Getting him back on track will be crucial to their chances.
The Rays have very similar statistics for the regular season - an ERA+ of 114, and an OPS+ of 103, though I tend to think the tougher American League means these figures underestimate them somewhat. They are a team without an obvious staff ace - James Shields and Edwin Jackson tied for the team lead, with 14 wins apiece. It will, however, be Scott Kazmir who takes the ball in Game One at Tropicana Field, with Shields and Matt Garza starting the next two games. BJ Upton is teetering on the verge of history, with an amazing .826 playoff SLG so far, including seven homers - one off the record for a single post-season. But Evan Longoria is only one blast behind Upton, and the team has piled on the offense in October, scoring a total 64 runs in their eleven contests against the White and Red Sox.
Needless to say, our siblings over at Drays Bay and The Good Phight are thoroughly stoked about the whole endeavor. It's been 28 years since the latter's team won the World Series, while - and it's probably the ten millionth time you've heard it this post-season - the Rays have never even had a winning season before this year. These two pennant-winners mean that over the the past eight seasons, since we faced the Yankees in 2001, thirteen different teams have reached the World Series - the only repeat visitors are the Red Sox, Yankees and Cardinals, who've both been there twice. It's a solid reflection of the recent parity in baseball: the comparative figures for the NBA is only nine.
I am somewhat on the fence with regard to who to cheer for: the National League obviously require my support, and I want Philladelphia to put up a good show after the embarrassing failure of Colorado in last year's World Series. But the Rays also deserve some love, being our expansion brethren and with the 29th-highest payroll, prove that you don't need a bloated budget to be successful. And besides, was Rocco Baldelli using Devo for his walk-up music? Either way, I'm extremely satisfied with this final match-up, which I think was exactly what I would have wanted to see, once the post-season field was established.
While I imagine many other neutral baseball fans will be happy, I can't say it's one that'll draw in the casual spectator. That aspect is pretty much a doomsday scenario for broadcasters, who would far rather have had a meaty match-up involving a large population center of enthusiastic sports fans like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York [not even in the playoffs this year] or Boston. As a result, in Phoenix, KTAR have dumped their broadcasts of the first three games, opting for their weekly Cardinals show, a Suns pre-season game and an ASU football contest instead. Frankly, that's pathetic, and is an embarrassment to both MLB and KTAR - the latter should be ashamed of themselves for taking such a parochial attitude.
I imagine 'charmer will be posting the final gameday thread of the season, for discussion of the contests as they arise, so I'll skip any more detailed analysis of tomorrow's match-up. I will, however, lob my prediction in the air: the Phillies will take both of Hamels starts, but find it difficult to contain the Rays otherwise. Tampa Bay will complete their historic run in six games, becoming the first team to go from being the worst in their league one season, to taking the World Series the next year.