Breaking down today's World Series opener. Statistics for starting pitchers are for postseason only.
Series: World Series, Game 1
Time: 8:35 p.m. ET
The Phillies enter the World Series cold, having wrapped up their NLCS victory over the Dodgers exactly a week ago, but they still have the edge in Game 1 because of 24-year-old lefty Cole Hamels, who has been simply dominant in each of his three starts this postseason. While the presence of Hamels makes Philadelphia the clear favorite in Game 1, it also applies a bit of extra pressure to them right off the bat. The Rays' victory over the Red Sox in the ALCS hinged on their ability to defeat Boston's 24-year-old lefty ace Jon Lester in both of his starts in that series. Entering the ALCS, Lester looked every bit as invincible as Hamels does entering tonight's game, but by that point Lester had surpassed his workload from 2007 (minors, majors and postseason combined) by 61 1/3 innings, and he appeared fatigued in his Game 3 loss. Hamels enters tonight's game having surpassed his 2007 innings total (postseason included) by 59 1/3 innings.
Lester regained his effectiveness for Game 7, but in that game, the Rays beat Lester with pitching, as Matt Garza and a quartet of relievers allowed just one run on three hits and the Rays won 3-1. Given the fact that the Phillies hitters haven't seen game action since last Wednesday, it's quite possible their bats could have difficulty restarting tonight. The Phillies were second in the National League in runs scored and have gone 7-2 in the postseason, but their offense has been inconsistent this October.
In the NLDS against the Brewers, the Phillies' two most productive hitters during the regular season, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, combined to go 4-for-25 with just two extra-base hits (both of them doubles) and nine strikeouts. Utley caught fire in the NLCS against the Dodgers (.353/.522/.647), but leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins, who hit .375/.412/.688 in NLDS, slumped to 3-for-21 with eight strikeouts. Similarly, NLDS heroes Shane Victorino (.357/.471/.786) and Jayson Werth (.313/.313/.813) cooled off in the NLCS, combining to go 8-for-38 (.211). Howard began to heat up after the NLCS shifted to L.A., picking up six hits in his final 12 at-bats, but those were his only six hits of the series, and just one of them went for extra-bases (a double). Now, after six days of rest, one has to wonder if Howard and Utley have cooled and if Rollins, Victorino and Werth can get going again.
Lefty batters Howard and Utley have an additional challenge tonight as the Rays are starting left-hander Scott Kazmir. The Phillies and Rays haven't faced each other in interleague play since 2006, and no batter on either team has more than three plate appearances against either of tonight's starting pitchers, but Utley lost 44 points of OPS against left-handers this year while Howard lost a whopping 220 as he hit just .224/.294/.451 against southpaws during the regular season. Early in the NLCS, the Dodgers showed that they were willing to walk Utley to face the slumping Howard. Given those splits, the Rays may decide to do the same if Utley comes up in a big spot with first base open.
Things look better for Philadelphia on the other side of the plate. The switch-hitting Rollins performed equally from both sides of the plate this year, while fellow switch-hitter Victorino slugged 130 points higher against lefties. Righties Werth, a former platoon player, and Pat Burrell, who has been the Phillies' most consistently productive hitter this postseason, feasted on lefties during the regular season with .303/.368/.652 and .270/.387/.577 rates, respectively. Even hapless defense-first third baseman Pedro Feliz becomes a respectable hitter against lefties (.288/.349/.496). Meanwhile, backup catcher Chris Coste would make a solid right-handed DH given his .316/.361/.503 career line against southpaws if Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was willing to use him in that role. Thus, despite Howard's struggles, the Phillies were actually a better offensive team against left-handed pitching this year.
The opposite was true of the Rays, who struggled against lefties during the regular season. The Rays have just three lefties in their every-day lineup, but switch-hitter Dioner Navarro is much better from the left side, and righty Evan Longoria had a reverse split during the regular season. Things have evened out in the postseason due to the recovery of B.J. Upton's injured shoulder, the late-season return of Rocco Baldelli as a right-handed platoon outfielder (he hit .292/.382/.500 against lefties in August and September), and the strong performance of righty-hitting reclamation project Willy Aybar, who is hitting .367/.355/.633 overall this postseason. With those improvements, the Rays not only beat Lester twice in the ALCS, but also beat White Sox lefty Mark Buehrle in the ALDS, scoring five runs against him in Game 2. Still, they lost to lefty John Danks in Game 3 of that series and have been stymied by lefty relievers throughout the postseason, scoring just one run in 18 2/3 innings against Matt Thornton, Clayton Richard, Javier Lopez and Hideki Okajima. In the ALCS, the Rays collected just one hit in 7 1/3 innings against Okajima.
Given those matchups and Hamels' dominance to this point, the Phillies clearly have the advantage in Game 1. That's exactly why it would be so devastating to their chances if they lose tonight. If the Rays are able to pull out a win tonight it could tilt this series decidedly toward Tampa. They Rays are already the hot team entering this series as they're coming off an emotional win just two nights ago in their home ballpark, which is where the first two games of this series will be played. The last thing the Phillies want to do is build the Rays' confidence while forfeiting their primary advantage in this series, but failing to cash in on Hamels' start tonight would do just that.