Breaking down today's potential World Series-clinching game. All statistics for starting pitchers are for this postseason only.
Series: World Series, Game 5; Phillies lead 3-1
Time: 8:00 p.m. EST
Philadelphia is about to win its first championship, in any professional team sport, since 1983 (or 1984 if you count the USFL's Philadelphia Stars). You can throw out all those concerns about the Phillies' inability to get big hit in this series. They sent them flying out of Citizens Bank Park last night, crushing the Rays 10-2 in a game Tampa Bay had to have. Now the Phils have their ace, Cole Hamels, who is undefeated in four starts this postseason, taking the ball with a chance to wrap up just the second world championship in the Phillies' 125-year history, 28 years after the first.
Down 3-1 in games and facing Hamels, simply surviving tonight's game and forcing the Series back to Florida would be a significant upset for the Rays at this point, never mind actually winning the whole thing. So how might they do it? It will have to start with pitching, because the Rays can't expect to score very often tonight.
Together, Hamels and the Phillies' bullpen, which has allowed just one run in 8 2/3 innings in this series, have combined to post a 1.63 ERA in 66 1/3 innings this postseason. Hamels hasn't had a bad start since September 7, when he allowed five runs (four earned) in five innings against the Mets at Shea Stadium. The Phillies have averaged just 3.5 runs in Hamels' four starts this postseason, but he's made all three tallies hold up for the win. In Game 1 of this series, the Phils managed just three runs off Scott Kazmir, but that was enough for a 3-2 Philadelphia victory.
To make matters worse, the Rays' offense has ground to a halt. Evan Longoria and Carlos Peña, the Rays' top power threats during the regular season, are a combined 0-for-29 with 15 strikeouts, and the team as a whole has a .246 on-base percentage, fifth-worst among AL teams in Series history. The Rays OBP has only gotten worse since the series has moved to Philadelphia. The Phillies may have broken out of their clutch-hitting funk last night by doubling their run total from the first three games, but the Rays haven't solved their primary offensive flaw. Just eight of the 36 men Tampa Bay sent to the plate last night reached base. That works out to a single-game OBP of .222. The Rays certainly have enough dangerous hitters to take advantage of an off-night from Hamels, but with virtually the entire team slumping (of Tampa's five hits last night, two came from pinch-hitters, and one came off the bat of starting pitcher Andy Sonnanstine), one wonders if even an off-night from Hamels would be enough to revive the Rays bats.
Given all of that, Kazmir and company may just have to shut the suddenly hot-hitting Phillies out tonight in order to extend this series. Kazmir was unable to do that in Game 1, serving up a two-run home run to Chase Utley in the top of the first inning and giving Hamels a lead from his very first pitch, just as he had in Game 5 of the NLCS. In his six innings of work in Game 1, Kazmir allowed 10 baserunners and failed to record a 1-2-3 inning. He was, however, able to keep the Red Sox off the board in Game 5 of the ALCS, allowing just two hits and walking three, though he was pulled after throwing 111 pitches over six innings. In fact, Kazmir has held his competition scoreless in four of his last nine starts, two of those coming against two of the top three offenses in the American League, but because of his high walk rates and resultant inefficiency, he hasn't recorded a seventh-inning out since July 21.
Fortunately for the Rays, the big three in their bullpen -- J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, and Chad Bradford -- are all fully rested, and David Price is available for long relief tonight as he's had three days of rest since his 42-pitch outing in Game 2. Of course, with his team facing elimination (and a scheduled off-day tomorrow), Joe Maddon likely won't hesitate to use any arm he thinks will get the job done tonight. That might include Game 3 starter Matt Garza, who could come in to get a key out or two and still have two days to rest before his start in the Game 7, which he won't get to make if the Rays don't win tonight. The bad news for Tampa fans is that none of those pitchers have been especially effective in this series. Garza gave up four runs in six innings in Game 3. Price gave up two in his 2 1/3 innings in Game 2. Balfour, as suits his name, has walked three men and uncorked one wild pitch in his 1 2/3 innings in this series, and he and Howell combined to lose Game 3 in the bottom of the ninth and were key players in the meltdown in Game 5 of the ALCS.
Oddly, the Rays might be able to draw some inspiration from the Red Sox ALCS comeback. Like the Rays tonight, the Sox were down 3-1 heading into Game 5 of that series. They then staged a shocking late-game rally to overcome a 7-0 deficit in Game 5 and won Game 6 to force Game 7. Then again, not only did the Sox do that against the Rays (not the best inspiration for a team with no room for error tonight), but the Sox lost that Game 7. More significantly, the Red Sox had some positive indicators going into that Game 5 that the Rays simply don't have heading into tonight's contest. Boston had shown some offensive life by scoring three runs late in Game 4 and had put up an eight spot in a losing extra-inning effort in Game 2. Those two outbursts alone fall just one run shy of the Rays total output through four games in this series.
The Rays are also struggling defensively. While they didn't make a single fielding error in their first seven postseason games, they have now been charged with nine errors in their last six contests. Those who have been waiting all season for the Rays' to collapse are finally getting their wish, but the Rays are a talented young team, and they'll be back. Tonight, however, is Philadelphia's night.