Five Cuts: The Rays are proving that they're the better team
Tampa Bay exploited a Boston staff that was ripe for the taking
The current Rays and Phillies have almost no World Series experience
The odds were so great against the Rays because of their history, not their talent
1. The Rays have embarrassed the Red Sox by pounding their starting pitchers in Games 2, 3 and 4. Boston starters gave the team a total of only 12 2/3 innings in those three games, while getting hammered for 18 runs and 28 baserunners. Ouch. But let's review whom the Sox sent to the mound in those games:
Game 2: Josh Beckett. Tore his oblique muscle in his final start of the regular season. Has been flipping the ball up to the plate with no velocity or finish on his pitches ever since. Highly hittable.
Game 3: Jon Lester. The 24-year-old left-hander now has thrown a whopping 76 1/3 more innings this season than last. It's stunning that a forward-thinking organization like Boston would extend a young pitcher like that -- Lester certainly will be on my 2009 Year-After Effect watch list to have a major regression next year -- but what were they to do? Lester was pitching great and looked strong and the rest of the rotation wasn't exactly sucking up innings to allow them to shut down Lester at any point. There were no signs that Lester was throwing with diminished stuff, but he seemed to hit the wall suddenly and hard in Game 3.
Game 4: Tim Wakefield. The guy had not thrown a pitch in 16 days. He is 42 years old. Ever since he threw a pitch to Aaron Boone in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, Wakefield is 1-4 with a 10.27 ERA in eight postseason games.
Bottom line: Tampa Bay exploited a Boston staff that was ripe for the taking. By now it also should be obvious that the Rays are the better team.
2. The Rays had scored nine runs in three-straight games only once before in their history, and now they do it in their first ALCS? They were ninth in the league in runs scored and next to last in batting average, and suddenly they're the '27 Yankees, with 31 runs in three games? What's up with that? Well, the Rays at last are whole, with Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford getting their timing down after missing huge chunks of the stretch run with injuries, and B.J. Upton making a mechanical adjustment (getting his front foot down quicker) to unleash the power in his bat. What also is happening is that the Rays are focused on every at-bat in order to play their best baseball of the season.
"We've been able to keep the focus on what's been going on in the moment and nothing else," first baseman Carlos Pena said. "We're treating every game, every at-bat the same. For a young team, it's amazing to see that approach when you're first reaction normally is to try to do more."
3. You know the folks at Fox are agonizing over the idea of a Rays-Phillies World Series. It probably will replace the Tigers-Cardinals matchup from 2006 as the least-watched World Series in history. But adding to the low-profile problem of both teams is the playoff schedule with the extra off-days. We might be looking at as many as five straight days with no baseball by the time we get to World Series Game 1. By then, with any momentum killed, people will be out of the habit of tuning in to baseball and any of its storylines. In any case, what baseball really needs is an exciting seven-game series to develop a national narrative to draw in viewers.
4. If we do get a Rays-Phillies World Series, a matchup of spring-training neighbors, imagine the sheer joy from the players on both sides just to be there. The combined World Series experience of the Rays and Phillies, assuming similar rosters used in LCS play, amounts to all of three hits (all of them by So Taguchi of Philadelphia) and 8 2/3 innings pitched. The Rays have no World Series hits represented on their ALCS roster (Cliff Floyd has two hitless World Series at-bats) and no World Series wins (Dan Wheeler has two World Series innings to his credit).
The Phillies have Taguchi's three hits but no more (Pedro Feliz and Eric Bruntlett were 0-for-5 in their combined experiences in the World Series) and no wins and 6 2/3 combined innings (out of relievers Brad Lidge and Scott Eyre). In all, the teams have only seven players between them on the LCS rosters that ever played in the World Series before.
Bud Selig wanted competitive balance and a Rays-Phillies series would be further proof of it. Such a series would mean the maximum of eight different teams in the World Series over a four-year period. It also would mean that more than half the teams in baseball (16) have played in the World Series in just the past 11 years.
5. A guy I know has a friend who lives in Las Vegas who placed a wager two weeks into the season for the Rays to get to the World Series. The odds at the time? Eighty-to-one, putting the chap one win away from a few grand. Before the season the Rays were a 150-to-1 shot to win the World Series. What is so amazing is, like the 1969 Mets and 1991 Braves, the 2008 Rays are not a fluke team. The odds were so great against them because of their history, not necessarily their talent. Tampa Bay won 97 games over the regular season and is one win away from taking out the two teams that accounted for the AL's past three world championships, Chicago and Boston. The Rays are pennant-worthy now and, with their youth, pitching, defense and home-field advantage, stand to be a strong contender for years to come.
The Rays are the eighth team to improve their record by more than 30 wins. Here is how the previous seven surprise teams did the year after they took a giant step forward: