The Rays have weathered every single storm thrown at them – doubt, injuries, losing a pivotal game in which they had a 7-0 lead – and are actually going to the World Series. Meanwhile, we shouldn’t sleep on the Phils, who were the second best team in the NL this year and are a force to be (somewhat) reckoned with. Here are some things to watch:
The aces. It almost goes without saying, but for the Phillies to have any chance to win this series, Cole Hamels needs to continue pitching like…Cole Hamels. His left-handedness should help him – the Rays had a 61-point lower OPS against lefties during the year (although they did beat Jon Lester twice in the ALCS). Meanwhile, James Shields is the right-handed version of Cole Hamels (both pitch off of their fantastic changeups); however, his propensity to give up homers doesn’t bode well against the homer-happy Phillies.
The long ball. Both of these teams live and die with home runs. However, the Phillies staff is better at suppressing them, having allowed 16 fewer road homers this season.
The ballpark. Along the same lines, Citizens Bank park inflated homers, while Tropicana Field suppressed them. This will help James Shields, who will potentially start twice at home (and he been much better at home than on the road, due almost entirely to better home run rates at home), and hurt Jamie Moyer, who will start in Philadelphia (despite having been much, much better on the road).
The bullpen. The Phillies have one of the best bullpens in baseball (they were 2nd in bullpen ERA during the season), and the Rays’s bullpen – which was 5th in ERA during the season – is better now than it was during the season, due to the addition of David Price and Chad Bradford (and the subtraction of Troy Percival). And isn’t it interesting that Joe Maddon stuck with David Price in the 9th inning of game seven of the ALCS, despite having Grant Balfour available?
The DH. Conventional wisdom holds that AL teams are at a disadvantage when playing in NL parks, because they lose their DH. This is less true for the Rays that it might be for some other teams, because the Rays DH isn’t one of their best hitters (usually it’s Aybar or Cliff Floyd). Thus, some inherent advantage for the Phillies is negated. Conversely, the Phillies will have the luxury of either DHing Ryan Howard or getting Matt Stairs’s bat into the lineup when playing in the Trop.
The back of the rotation. The Rays are not an offensive powerhouse, even though they looked like it at times against the Red Sox. However, the Phillies can’t be confident in starting Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton in two of this series’s seven games. The Phillies will be distinct underdogs in both games started by Moyer and Blanton – they will likely have to face Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine in those games – so they have to win at least one of the first two games of the series.
The defense. Everyone knows about the Rays defense – their errors in the last few games of the season notwithstanding – but the Phillies defense has been superb as well. Shane Victorino has shown fantastic range, Chase Utley had an absurdly good season (and an amazing play in the NLCS), Pedro Feliz is well above average at third, and Jayson Werth has been quite good in right field. Unfortunately, Ryan Howard isn’t great and Pat Burrell was downright awful. Still, the Phillies have a solid, underrated defense that will help their balls-in-play staff.
The prediction. With the ever-present caveat that in a short series, just about anything can happen, the Phillies are probably the weakest of the three playoff opponents the Rays have faced. The Rays match up well with the Phillies, and all of their starters are better than every Philly starter besides Cole Hamels. Unless Hamels pulls a Josh Beckett (circa 2003 or 2007), I will say Rays in five.