Cole Hamels was sensational on Wednesday night, leading the Philadelphia Phillies to a 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of the World Series. Hamels, who is now 4-0 with a 1.55 ERA in the postseason, allowed only two runs in seven strong innings.
The talented 24-year-old left-hander kept the surging Rays’ lineup in check, using his devastating changeup and excellent command to silence an offense that slugged over .500 and blasted 16 home runs during the American League Championship Series. He exploited several of the Rays’ young hitters to outpitch Scott Kazmir, who again had a poor first inning and continuously fell behind in the count but ended up keeping Tampa Bay in the game through six solid frames.
Chase Ultey took Kazmir deep in the top of the first, though, launching a drive into the right field bleachers to stake Philadelphia an early 2-0 lead. Carlos Ruiz, a few innings later, brought in the Phillies' third run with an RBI ground out.
With the way that Hamels was pitching before turning it over to the Phillies’ lights-out relief combo, Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge, that was more than enough run support.
Madson and Lidge combined to throw two perfect innings to shut the door, helping to improve the Phillies’ record to 87-0 when leading after eight innings.
Despite going 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position—in addition to an 0-for-4 performance from NL home run and RBI leader Ryan Howard and an 0-for-5 night from star shortstop Jimmy Rollins—the Phillies are now sitting pretty with a 1-0 series lead.
In 10 of the past 11 World Series (and the last five), the team that won the opener has captured the trophy.
Which certainly bodes well for the city of Brotherly Love.
Before you crown the Phillies champions just yet, however, consider a few things.
While it was huge for the Phillies get out to such a great start—especially at Tropicana Field, where the Rays posted the majors’ best home record—there is a lot of baseball left to be played.
The Phillies, with their clear-cut ace on the mound squaring off against the Rays’ number three pitcher, needed to win that game. In fact, one could make the argument that it was the only pitching matchup that favors the Phillies until Hamels takes the ball again, and losing would have been a devastating blow to their chances.
The Rays were not nervous. Not intimidated. They simply got beat by a tremendous pitcher in Hamels, the best starter on either team. He was nearly perfect, minus a sole home run from speedster Carl Crawford and a 3-for-4 night from Tampa Bay second baseman Akinori Iwamura.
Sure, they must come out and win tonight, as they do not want to head to Philadelphia for three games down 2-0.
But this group is not exactly in unchartered territory. They lost the opener of the ALCS as well—against a much stronger team than Philadelphia, the Boston Red Sox—and lived to tell the story.
The Rays have James Shields taking the ball tonight against Brett Myers.
Matt Garza will then battle with 45-year-old Jamie Moyer in Game 3 on Saturday night, weather permitting.
Myers can dominate any lineup, depending on which version of Myers shows up at the ballpark. With Shields on the hill, however, the Rays clearly have the edge when looking at the matchup objectively. He has been more consistent, constantly works ahead and, when his changeup is at its best, he can shut an offense down completely.
The Rays may have lost some of their home field advantage, like they did after nearly getting no-hit by Daisuke Matsuzaka in the ALCS opener at the Trop, but the series is far from over. The Rays have not backed down all year on their way to finishing with the best record in the most competitive division in the game while playing in the superior league.
The Rays will have their hands full if they are trailing late, as Madson and Lidge are a remarkable combination for innings eight and nine.
If the aforementioned starters can continue to put up zeroes like they have been doing and the bullpen is as effective as it was in the opener and has been all season, though, Tampa Bay is going to be a difficult team for Philadelphia to put away.
Unless they lose tonight—or Hamels can magically find away to pitch every night—my prediction stands.
Rays in six.
A few quick thoughts/questions that popped into my head while doing the live blog with Chuck Hixson of PhillyBaseballNews.com on Scout/FoxSports last night:
—Ryan Howard cannot hit good pitching.
—Grant Balfour and Ryan Madson throw absolute smoke. Honestly, Madson would be closing on a lot of other teams. He has mid-90s heat and solid secondary stuff, and has really provided Manuel with a tremendous weapon.
—The backend of the Phillies' bullpen is outstanding. They are now 87-0 when leading after eight innings. Are they due for a blown save?
—A change of scenery has been great for Brad Lidge, whose knee has finally healed fully.
—Chase Utley might just be the best player on the diamond in the Fall Classic. Utley, whose two-run home run in the first inning off of Kazmir proved to be the difference, also stole his first base of the postseason, making a lot of Tace Bell fans happy.
—Is Chris Coste the least intimidating DH in World Series history? Coste has hit lefties well, so I see why he got the nod at the DH spot with Kazmir on the mound. And it is hard to root against the Chris Coste story. Seriously, though, I want to hear some names.
—Will "Big Game" James live up to his name tonight?
—How different would the outcome of the game been if Utley was successful in his first-inning bunt attempt?
—Will the Phillies' struggles with runners in scoring position come back to haunt them later in the series?
—During the blog, I wondered aloud why Ben Zobrist was given the nod to start for the Rays in right field. Longtime Tampa Bay beat reporter Mark Topkin answered my question in the St. Petersburg Times this morning.
Part of the reason manager Joe Maddon gave switch-hitting Ben Zobrist his second career start in rightfield Wednesday in Game 1 against Phillies LHP Cole Hamels was that he believed it was more advantageous to start right-handed-hitting Rocco Baldelli tonight against Phillies RHP Brett Myers.
That seems backward, but Myers has "reverse splits," in that his numbers are worse against right-handers (.293) than lefties (.235). And Baldelli, dealing with the effects of a rare muscle fatigue disorder, has not played the field on back-to-back days. "It's not something Joe has done," Baldelli said, "and I don't think it's something he would start now."
—Jason Varitek shocked the world by leaving the yard in the ALCS, cheating on a 2-0 fastball from Shields in a Game 6 win. Crawford's blast last night, though, was nearly as unlikely, especially considering who he went deep off of. Against southpaws during the regular season, he posted an anemic slash stats line of .248/.293/.348 and .641 OPS, with only three home runs.
—B.J. Upton wears number two in honor of his favorite shortstop growing up, Derek Jeter. Well, Upton now has something in common with his former hero, as he became the first player to ground into a pair of double plays in a series game since the Yankee Captain did the trick back in 2003 against the Florida Marlins.
Speaking of Upton, he appeared to hurt himself or was not hustling down to first base in one of those instances. Although he has hit seven postseason homers, will the boo-birds at the Trop start to resurface? He went hitless on the night, lowering his postseason line to .280/.339/.760. With seven homers and 15 RBIs, he has a legitimate chance to sketch his name into the postseason record books if he can pick it up the rest of the way.
—Hats off to Pat Gillick for dealing Michael Bourne for Lidge this offseason. Buying low and selling high is a pretty effective method when making trades, isn't it?
To send your answers on the Coste question, or to tell me why I am wrong about the Rays, email me at TylerHissey@gmail.com.