Rays, Phillies aim for new history
Philadelphia looks to end a title drought, while Tampa Bay tries to complete a dramatic turnaround.
The Tampa Bay Rays are such upstarts that baseball lore, for them, is basically what happened yesterday.
The Philadelphia Phillies, a squad that's lost more games over its 125-year history than any other club, know deep down that if they win the World Series, it will be despite their legacy, not because of it.
The World Series matchup of the Rays versus the Phillies is, on the face, a rivalry of long shots versus the biggest losers in the league. Only one player, Philadelphia's So Taguchi, has ever had a hit in a World Series before.
Yet this year's meeting of what could be called the anti-Yankees versus the anti-Red Sox is still likely to showcase baseball at its best: a dynamic Rays team with the power of youth on its side and a steely Phillies squad whose determination is burnished by exceptionally ardent fans.
Will the absence of history count for more than the weight of history in this matchup?
"The challenge that both teams face is how they handle the pressure," says Joel Fish, director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia. "Tampa just came through almost suffocating pressure in having to stare down Red Sox Nation, and the Phillies have a different kind of pressure of not only carrying this team, but carrying teams of years past and a city that hasn't won a major championship in 25 years."
The Rays started the season as a team that had never gone over .500 and finished in last place in 10 of their 11 seasons in the league. Now, theirs is a story of transformation that began with the exorcism of the word "Devil" from their name. They also traded their lime-green jerseys for classier threads. More important: improvements such as the bullpen giving up nearly 200 fewer runs than last year.
"True, you can't win against a Red Sox uniform or a Yankee pinstripe wearing sherbet colors, but the biggest change was inside their heads," says Tom Hanson, the author of "Heads-Up Baseball."
Leading the American League East – the home of the Sox and the Yanks – for most of the season, they used matchups at Fenway and Yankee Stadium as playoff preparation. The Rays may have blown a 7-0 lead to the Sox in Game 5 of the AL Championship Series, but they never seemed to lose sight of the ball.
When they closed down the Sox 3-1 in Game 7 on Sunday, as usual a kid was in the thick of things. David Price, a rookie who'd pitched only one inning in the postseason, stepped in at a crucial late-inning moment. "He comes in and he's pitching the biggest inning in that franchise's history, and he looks like he's been out there forever," says Stan McNeal, a baseball scribe at the Sporting News.
The Phillies, an equally athletic and powerful squad, may be the underdogs simply because their National League has lost dominance to the American League in recent years. What's more, Tampa Bay has owned Philadelphia in other sports matchups in recent years, with both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Lightning rolling by Philly teams on their way to championships.
But the Phillies have deep pitching – from ace Cole Hamels to Brad Lidge as the closer, who's been perfect in 46 saves this year. The Phillies hitters led the NL with 214 home runs in the regular season, and the team has won 20 of its last 25 games.
"I never thought we'd see a World Series in [Florida's] Tropicana dome: I don't think people realize what an incredible story it really is," Mr. McNeal says. But, he says, "I'd give the Phillies a bit of an edge. The Rays in the clubhouse were like kids in a candy store [after beating the Red Sox], but the Phillies have acted more like they're not going to be satisfied unless they win it all."
Then there's the role that history could play. "I've heard [the Rays' manager] Joe Maddon say that, 'We have an opportunity to create history' where you don't have history. So there's an exciting challenge and opportunity for them," Mr. Fish says. "For the Phillies, I think it's very motivating about being a link in the chain. Players understand the fan base is multi-generational, that grandparents and parents and kids follow the team. And I think many of the players come to understand and see that as a real motivator."