- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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It's not the Red Sox-Dodgers. There's no story that has the sex appeal of Manny Ramirez returning to Boston. The matchup will be a ratings disaster, most say. But there's no denying that the Tampa Bay Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies are the best teams from their leagues, and they belong in the World Series. It will be fun to see new, young faces in new places. Get your cowbells and white hankies ready. It's going to be wild.
Here are five questions heading into the series:
Where did all the Rays' power come from?
They had never hit 10 home runs in any three-game stretch in the history of their franchise, then they did it in the ALCS. They finished tied for fourth in the American League in homers this season, but became the first team in postseason history to hit at least three homers in three consecutive games, then made it four in a row in Game 5.
How did they do it? Youth and health. B.J. Upton hit only nine home runs this season in part because he had a bad shoulder, and basically didn't pull a ball with authority for two months, but he hit seven homers in the playoffs to tie Troy Glaus (2002) for the most by an AL player in one postseason. "He weighs 180 pounds,'' teammate Jonny Gomes said. "We have at least four guys on this team, including me, who weigh 240. And he can hit it as far as any of us."
Evan Longoria missed a month with a wrist injury. Now he's healthy. He is the youngest player to hit six home runs in one postseason. Carlos Pena missed a month with an injury. Now he's healthy. With those three swinging it, the Rays set the record for the most home runs (16) ever hit in one postseason series. And they'll play the middle three games in Philadelphia's little bandbox, Citizens Bank Park.
How good is the Phillies' bullpen?
It is sensational. The Phillies are 79-0 in games in which they led entering the ninth inning. Closer Brad Lidge has not blown a save all season, and there's nothing to indicate that he will blow one in the World Series. His down-breaking slider is unhittable. And the bridge to Lidge is sturdy with Ryan Madson, Chad Durbin and J.C. Romero, among others.
The common denominator of virtually every world champion the past 20 years is a deep bullpen. It started with Tony La Russa's 1989 A's with Dennis Eckersley, was followed by the Reds' "Nasty Boys," Toronto's one-two punch of Duane Ward and Tom Henke, all the Yankees teams with Mariano Rivera, followed by the Red Sox's bullpen with Jonathan Papelbon, who has not allowed a run in his postseason career. The Rays' bullpen showed some weaknesses in the ALCS, but the save in Game 7 by David Price might mean the Phillies will see more from him.
How fast are the Rays?
"Fastest outfield I've ever seen,'' said Rays coach Don Zimmer, who has been in the game for 60 years.
We'd love to see a race with those three.
"I'll take the power guy [Crawford]," Rays third-base coach Tom Foley said. "We had a race a couple of years ago. C.C., Joey Gathright, Upton. Crawford was the last guy off the line, but you should have seen him when he hit that third gear.''
That speed makes them a stolen base threat at almost any time. They swiped 10 bases in 11 attempts in the ALCS. Perez helped win Game 2 of the ALCS by tagging up and scoring on a 180-foot fly ball to right. "I was heading down the line, thinking I might send him even though the ball was so shallow,'' Foley said with a laugh. "When I put my arm up to wave him, he was running past me.''
Their speed helps them on defense. The Rays' defense might be the best in the game, especially in the infield. Jason Bartlett charges the ball as well as any shortstop in the league and second baseman Akinori Iwamura, in his first year at the position, turns the double play as well as anyone in the league.
How about the 1-through-9 production by the Phillies?
It's hard to believe that the Phillies have won seven playoff games without a home run, and with only three RBIs, by first baseman Ryan Howard. He is the streakiest hitter in the world, and he may go wild in the World Series, but to advance this far without major contributions from him speaks to the nature of that lineup and that team. Be it Shane Victorino, Matt Stairs (his first hit since September won the crucial Game 4) or Brett Myers (the first player ever to have three hits in a postseason game after hitting under .100 in the regular season), the Phillies had a different hitting hero every night.
How good is the back end of the Rays' rotation?
It's as good as any in the game, which is crucial in a seven-game series. No. 3 starter Matt Garza was dominant (seven innings, two hits, nine strikeouts) in Game 7; he tops out at 98 mph, and has a great slider. No. 4 starter Andy Sonnanstine blanked the Red Sox for the first six innings in Game 4; he throws 87-89, but has a great feel for pitching.
Scott Kazmir could be the fourth-best starter, but he looked very good in throwing six shutout innings in Game 5. Edwin Jackson, a 14-game winner, is No. 5. That's a deep rotation. It's deeper than that of the Phillies, given that Jamie Moyer has been hit hard in this postseason, first by the Brewers, and then by the Dodgers. But the Phillies have the best starting pitcher in the World Series in ace Cole Hamels.
Prediction: Rays in 7.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback on May 27. Click here to order a copy.