Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Did the Phillies win too soon?


I know this sounds preposterous, but the Philadelphia Phillies might have been better off losing Game 5 Wednesday night.

Provided, of course, that they return to the city of Brotherly Love and win Game 6 or 7 of the NLCS.

I know this sounds equally ludicrous, but the Tampa Bay Rays might be better off if they lose Game 5 Thursday night in Fenway Park.

Provided, of course, that they close the deal on their first World Series invitation in Game 6 or 7 back at Tropicana Field.

Before you call me a nut job or sports gambling addict, let me explain myself. This was, after all, the final Debate Night in America. Please, my friends, don't cross the aisle just yet.

I'm not suggesting, at all, that the Phillies shouldn't have given maximum effort in Wednesday's clinching game. And I'm not suggesting that the Rays shouldn't do the same against the defending champions Thursday night. Ask any Philly right now about how they feel, and they'll give you the typical, "Words can't explain..."

But numbers can explain that winning the NLCS or ALCS too soon can result in an odious Fall Classic experience. Just ask the Detroit Tigers of 2006. Just ask the Colorado Rockies of '07.

Two years ago on Oct. 14, the city of Detroit was in a frenzy. I wasn't there. In fact, I was 9,093 miles away in Sydney, Australia. But people back home relayed the craziness to me. The Tigers had just swept the Oakland A's in the ALCS. They were playing their best baseball of their remarkable turnaround season.

Meanwhile, St. Louis was slugging its way through a burn-for-burn series with the Mets. It wasn't decided until New York's Carlos Beltran got caught staring at a nasty curveball for a called strike three in Game 7. The date was Oct. 19.

On Oct. 21, the Fall Classic finally got underway. And you couldn't find a baseball fan — or expert — outside of St. Louis who thought the Cardinals would win the Series. Of course, we all know what transpired after that.

Cardinals 4, Tigers 1, with the lone win coming in controversial fashion as Kenny Rogers had some foreign substance on his left pitching hand. Five errors by Tigers' pitching. An absolute no-show by their suddenly impotent lineup.

All it took was a week away from the competitive diamond for the Tigers to lose their magic. Some say their pitchers should have practiced throwing the ball to first and third during the time off. I think they should have scrimmaged some fall-league teams.

Then came 2007. And another magical story. This time it was the Colorado Rockies, winning 14 of their final 15 regular-season games — including a one-game, 13-inning playoff drama against San Diego — and then breezing through an NLDS sweep of the Phillies and a four-game undressing of Arizona.

Before the people of Denver realized there was a professional team in their city besides the Broncos, the Rockies were in the World Series. A shocking euphoria followed. But, alas, the winner of 21 of 22 games ran into its toughest opponent yet.

A long break from baseball.

It was even worse than the Tigers' respite a year earlier. The Rockies clinched the N.L. pennant on Oct. 15. The World Series wasn't scheduled to begin until Oct. 24! Matt Holliday could have visited all seven continents, solved global warming and started a campaign for president in that time.

Meanwhile, the Boston Red Sox were in the midst of gaining as much momentum as possible leading right up to the beginning of the Fall Classic. As they battled back from a 3-1 ALCS deficit to the Indians, Coco Crisp had to cancel his three-day mini vacation in Cabo. There'd be no time for fooling around.

Heck, the Red Sox barely took off their uniforms after winning Game 7 the night of Oct. 21. The Series commenced on the 24th.

After three dominating victories over the Indians, the red-hot Sox — whom nobody questioned was the better team — put a stake in Colorado's 10-game winning streak in the opener and proceeded to roll to an easy four-game sweep.

Since then, Denver sports fans have once again forgotten about the baseball team that inhabits their football-crazed city.

I hate to play the what-if game, but once every couple months or two is OK. Not to take anything away from the '06 Cardinals — whom have been called, by the way, the worst World Series champion in baseball history — or the '07 Red Sox, but I'd be curious to see how those series would have turned out if the Tigers and Rockies, respectively, hadn't faced such long breaks between series.

Which brings me back to this season. Right now the Phillies are riding high, playing great baseball, brimming with confidence. But will they be this sharp in a week? Will Cole Hamels hit his targets like he did in two dominating NLCS performances? These, I believe, are legitimate questions.

Part of me wants, for the sake of fairness, the Rays to close out the Red Sox Thursday night. At least that way both Fall Classic participants would face almost equally long breaks. They'd both have to deal with the issue of how to spend five or six days away from the diamond. How to stay sharp? How to stay focused?

But if Tampa Bay is lucky enough to face a short Boston Renaissance before closing out the Red Sox in Game 6 or 7 Saturday or Sunday, I'll give a clear edge to the Rays over the Phillies. Not only are they a great team, overflowing with confident young pitchers and a lineup every bit as explosive as the Phillies', they'd still have the taste of bubbly in their mouths when they take the field Wednesday night.

Don't underestimate that factor.

Of course, I haven't even mentioned the other possibility, but I think we all have a pretty good idea of what would transpire in the World Series if the Red Sox somehow pull off another ALCS comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.

Yep, three titles for Boston in five years.

I don't see that happening, however. Tampa Bay is playing way too well right now. The Rays aren't simply beating the Red Sox, they're embarrassing them — and in front of the Fenway Faithful.

But don't think that another dominating Game 5 performance would necessarily carry over to a still-distant Fall Classic. And definitely don't assume that the Phillies' brilliance in the NLCS will carry over.

Just ask the last two World Series runners-up.


Sportsattitude said...

The hand-wringing has already begun in Philly that the pennant was acquired too soon relative to the Rays playing as recently as Sunday night and having momentum and home field in their back pockets as we approach Game 1. The Phillies have held some simulated games with the pitching staff and the batters are all working out, etc. but clearly when you don't play baseball for a week there has to be some rhythm lost. These guys are used to doing it day-in-day out and not only have they been sidelined from actual action for days now but they've had excess time thinking about how many eyeballs are going to be on them now and what the new expectation level is. I can't help but think the Rays helped themselves towards winning a World Series by simply playing baseball this past weekend - period. Advantage Tampa Bay - most definitely.

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