Wednesday, October 22, 2008

World Series Preview

(Reprinted, with permission from myself, from Me and Pedro. This whole Roger Angell-like article popped into my head after game seven and I wrote it Monday. I wasn't going to post here but changed my mind. Here it is. If 100 people read this I'll send Angell a Hawaii quarter. Really.)

Depending on who you ask, it is either completely surprising or completely unsurprising that the Tampa Bay Rays stand on the brink of a World Series victory, having (finally!) dispatched the defending champion Boston Red Sox. Mystique and Aura have left Fenway for the dome-enclosed charm of The Trop — quite possibly the worst venue in American professional sports today. Let that not, if we can help it, detract from the greatness and beauty of this year’s Rays club. Having never really been a factor in any previous Major League season, the team was on the verge of becoming the biggest headache for statheads in the history of the game before this season: a team chock-full of young stars that somehow couldn’t win. It was like adding 10+10+10+10+10+10+10+10+10 and getting 65 over and over. You knew it had to change eventually, but I would guess even the most stubborn number crunchers took one look at the Tampa Twentysomethings and still said, when the compass pointed north of 90 wins, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” The Rays hadn’t just suffered through 12 consecutive losing seasons since entering the league in 1998, they had suffered through 12 horrible losing seasons. They finished out of last place exactly once, in the Red Sox’ miracle season of 2004. The then-“Devil Rays” won 70 games, and finished fourth. The Blue Jays looked up from below.

Now the Might Rays storm into the World Series, completing an odd, almost tragic superfecta: each of the four most recently-instituted expansion teams in Major League Baseball have reached the Fall Classic. The Florida Marlins won the whole shebang twice; the Diamondbacks claimed victory in 2001. The Colorado Rockies won 23 out of their final 24 games before being swept out of the title hunt by Boston. Cubs fans, Brewers fans and Pirates fans aren’t likely to see the joy in this little coincidence. It’s been 63 years since they played a World Series game at Wrigley. For that you can thank James Loney and Manny Ramirez.

It was Loney’s Game 1 grand slam that, for all intents and purposes, put the Cubs/Dodgers series out of reach: with their superior starting pitching and the superlative Manny Ramirez leading the way, the Dodgers sucked all the momentum from the North Siders and cruised into the National League Championship Series against the Phillies. Ramirez was the headline attraction of these playoffs. After he was traded by the Red Sox in late July due to a long-simmering feud with the team over a 2009 player option, Ramirez channeled his inner Barry Bonds, hitting an astonishing .396 for the remainder in the regular season (and over .500 in the playoffs), and inducing more than a few eye-rolls in the Fens. His replacement in Boston, Jason Bay, adequately filled Ramirez’s spot in the Sox’ lineup — not a Hurcelean task, but maybe a Mannychean one. Bay is not the hitter that Ramirez is, but Bay’s tall stroke has old-school power when he squares the ball up. The baseball world was ready for Red Sox/Dodgers the way it was for Red Sox/Cubs in 2003 or the NFL was for Patriots/Packers last year; instead, the two best teams in the game are those that play in a stadium unfit for anything but college kids and one whose fanbase is best known for throwing snowballs at Santa Claus during a football game.

The Rays didn’t pound their way into the Series, even if they spent the better part of games two through five sending forget-me-nots over the outfield walls in St. Petersburg and Boston. The Rays’ 15 homers in the frame set the record for a League Championship series, but it was a slicing, defensive line-drive by Evan Longoria that tied game seven at one apiece after Dustin Pedroia’s first-run homer for Boston. Longoria, a rookie who stands six-foot-three and a terrifying presence in the batter’s box, was already one of the great stories of the postseason for his tape-measure home runs, but this time he used his massive frame to deflect a ball just down the first-base line with a runner on second base. He was hopelessly late on the ball, but, like the best hitters, if you’re not hitting the ball out of the yard it doesn’t matter much where you hit it, and the important thing is to get the bat on the ball. He sliced one to right, and the game was tied. The Rays’ starter, the brilliant but mercurial Matt Garza, was able to relax a bit, and continued to dominate the Red Sox hitters. When the Rays took the lead on a single by Rocco Baldelli it was bedlam inside the dome, and curtains for the Red Sox. Willie Aybar would add a seventh-inning homer, and the Red Sox would load the bases in the eighth inning, but once Tampa regained the lead they looked like a team poised to make it to baseball’s ultimate stage. The canards about postseason experience die hard, but last night, in Tampa, the Rays did their best to kill off any old storylines. The Red Sox had come back from 3 games down to the Yankees and two games down to the Indians in their previous playoff runs; this year, the clock struck midnight on them, but Tampa’s Cinderella story continues.

The Rays will meet the Philadelphia Phillies, who breezed through the National League playoffs after winning the NL East’s war of attrition in familiar, ugly style. For the second straight season, the New York Mets blew a substantial division lead only to find themselves even with Philadelphia on the season’s final Friday; trailing by one game on Saturday; and even again on Sunday thanks to a brilliant pitching performance. Last year it was John Maine; this year it was the Minnesota and Venezuela important Johan Santana, who scrawled on the Mets’ lineup card “Let’s play like men today” and promptly threw a complete game, 11-strikeout shutout. Unfortunately, he was merely a spectator on the season’s final day, when the Mets were eliminated from playoff competition and the Brewers snuck past them to earn a wild card berth. As Queens sank into its annual winter depression, the Phillies were determined not to be swept out of the playoffs in the minimum number of games possible, as they were by last year’s supernova Rockies, but they were playing a Brewers club that had waited 26 years between playoff appearances and had the best pitcher on the planet scheduled to start game two in CC Sabathia. Sabathia, acquired from Cleveland earlier in the season and almost certain to land in the Bronx in 2009, spent his three months on Milwaukee racking up an 11-2 record with a 1.65 ERA and almost single-handedly restored dignity to the Milwaukee baseball franchise.

Sabathia couldn’t start in game one, though, and that job for Philadelphia fell to 24-year-old Cole Hamels, like Sabathia a tall, left-handed pitcher with occasionally dominating tendencies. Where Sabathia is hefty and unkempt in his two-sizes-too-big uniform, Hamels looks like the cardboard cutout of a pitcher. His cap is pulled tight over his had, brim unbent in the slightest, and when he delivers the ball it’s almost as if he’s reaching over to place it in Carlos Ruiz’s glove. Sabathia, on the other hand, rocks and fires, putting his obvious body mass to work and finishing each pitch with a theatrical flourish of his left arm above is head, coiling back as if he cannot wait to be finished with his motion. Hamels’ delivery is all business: smoother, more consistent, ending downward in a fielding position at a point in front of him. It was also more effective in this series. He pitched a masterpiece in game one and watched as Sabathia gave up a second-inning grand slam to the Hawaiian Shane Victorino in game two. This is the second straight year Sabathia has been roughed up in the playoffs after a brilliant regular season, possibly the result of the large number of innings he threw just getting there (His NLDS start was his fourth consecutive appearance on three days’ rest). Note to Hank: caveat emptor.

Against the Dodgers, the Phillies were faced with roughly the same quandary the Anaheim Angels were faced with in the 2002 World Series: How do you stop, with apologies to Albert Pujols (then and now), the game’s reigning best hitter at the peak of his abilities? The answer is to stop everybody else. Manny, long accused of making a mockery of the game, continued to do so with his bat, going an incomprehensible 8 for 15 with two home runs and seven walks over the course of the series, only to see his team fall, four games to one. His 28 postseason home runs are most all time, and his 74 postseason RBI are second to Bernie Williams, but it is those records — and the thought of his next $100 million contract — that will have to carry Ramirez through the long winter. Like his old friends in Boston, he couldn’t make it to the very end. In fact, it was Derek Lowe, Boston’s winning pitcher in each of 2004’s series-clinching victories, that took losses in games one and four for L.A., a team with a distinctly East Coast feel featuring Joe Torre behind the bench and Nomar Garciaparra sitting atop it. Even the Dodgers’ owner hails from Boston, but there will be no clam chowder nor wheatgrass in this year’s World Series. This one’s for all the cheesesteaks.

If there is one postseason story that should not be buried by Longoria’s superlative skills or BJ Upton’s mammoth playoff home run outburst (seven at latest count, one off the playoff record), it is that of Baldelli. Baldelli joined Tampa Bay in 2003 and put up good numbers through several losing seasons before struggling through something bigger: he was losing energy. After several trips to the disabled list and consultations with doctors, it was discovered that he has a severe metabolic condition that restricts his ability to engage in athletic activities for long periods of time. He’s still a good player, but a part-time one. For someone who grew up in Rhode Island (as a Red Sox fan) and was compared to Joe DiMaggio in his early days for his all-around abilities, it looked as if Baldelli’s career would be spent, for its valor, in the service of avoiding futility. Baldelli started only two games of the series, including the last one, but his go-ahead single in the sixth inning was the game’s decisive blow. At merely 27 years old, he is the heart of this both improbably and all-too-predictably good Rays team. Philadelphia’s center is probably their incredibly 26-year-old second baseman, Chase Utley, but their most recognizable player is their slugging first baseman Ryan Howard. Howard led the league in home runs for two out of the last three years, but his efficiency in producing them has dropped dramatically in that time. He strikes out in the most prodigious numbers in major league history, leading many observers to curse his approach, but there’s something magnetic about the man that is old-school baseball at its finest and delightfully simple to understand — he hits the ball a long way. Homerless through the NLCS, it would be vintage Howard to turn on the faucet when it’s needed the most (He won the 2006 NL MVP on the basis of a sizzling September, and may repeat the feat this year). The question is whether any of it will be enough to cool off the Rays. There may not be enough juice in Howard’s bat and Hamels’ arm to extinguish the thrilling young team by the bay.

No comments: