Inquirer Daily News

World Series Preview from The Sports Network

Wednesday, October 22nd (All times eastern)

Philadelphia Phillies (7-2) at Tampa Bay Rays (7-4), 8:35 p.m.

Probable Starting Pitchers: Philadelphia - Cole Hamels (3-0, 1.23) Tampa Bay - Scott Kazmir (1-0, 4.02)

(Sports Network) - The Tampa Bay Rays will try to continue one of the most impressive turnarounds in sports history this evening when they open the 104th edition of the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies at Tropicana Field.

This was supposed to be the year that the Rays were going to take a step forward. But, that leap was expected to be in the form of the franchise finishing somewhere near .500 for the first time in team history.

What transpired, though, was something even the most ardent Rays supporters could not have predicted.

Just one year removed from finishing with a league-worst 96 losses, Tampa Bay shocked the baseball world by going 97-65 on its way to its first AL East title, as well as its first playoff berth.

But, getting to the playoffs was not enough for the upstart Rays, who made quick work of the Chicago White Sox in the American League Division Series, taking the AL Central champs out in four games.

Then, surprisingly, Tampa looked as if it was going to have an easy go of it against the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS. Leading three games to one, the Rays were up 7-0 with two outs in the seventh inning, only to see the defending champs rally back and win that game, while also winning Game 6 at Tropicana Field to send the series to a decisive seventh game.

When the Rays fell behind early in Game 7 you would have been hard pressed to find someone that thought they were headed to the Fall Classic. But, as they have been doing all season, they answered the call, once again proving their skeptics wrong.

Matt Garza, who took home ALCS honors, was sensational and the first inning run would be all the Red Sox would muster, as the Rays held on for a 3-1 win.

With the victory, the Rays joined the 1991 Atlanta Braves as the only teams to reach the World Series a year after finishing with the worst record in the majors. The win also maintained the state of Florida's dominance in the MLB postseason, where the Sunshine State has yet to drop a series in eight chances.

Garza's Game 7 effort was just the latest in a string of impressive performances from Tampa's starters this postseason. Rays manager Joe Maddon will throw lefty Scott Kazmir tonight, and will be followed by righty James Shields, then Garza and Andy Sonnanstine in Games 3 and 4.

Kazmir is 1-0 this postseason, but is coming off his best effort of these playoffs on Thursday in Boston. Kazmir scattered two hits over six scoreless innings in that Game 5 contest and left with the lead only to see his bullpen cough it up.

The 24-year-old lefty defeated the Phils the only other time he faced them, surrendering two runs and six hits in five innings against them back in 2006.

Tampa was also 14-2 in his 16 home starts this season.

The Rays have received huge efforts at the plate this postseason from B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria. The two have combined to hit 13 homers, the most by a pair of teammates under the age of 25 and one shy of the overall postseason record accomplished by Barry Bonds and Rich Aurilia for San Francisco in 2002.

Upton, who only left the yard nine times during the regular season, has hit seven homers in these playoffs, one short of the major league record held by Bonds (2002) and Carlos Beltran, who did it for Houston in 2004.

Carlos Pena has also hit .333 this postseason with three home runs and eight RBI, while Carl Crawford, the longest tenured Ray in team history, batted .302 and swiped six bases.

If there is one question mark for the Rays heading into the World Series it is their bullpen. With closer Troy Percival sidelined, Maddon had a difficult time getting the final three outs against the Red Sox.

The group, which was so solid during the regular season, has struggled in October. Dan Wheeler, who was to assume Percival's vacated closer's spot, has surrendered four runs in six innings of work, while Grant Balfour is pitching to a 7.94 ERA.

However, Maddon may have found another option in 23-year-old left-hander David Price, who recorded the final four outs in the Rays' Game 7 clincher against the Red Sox.

Price, the top overall pick in the 2007 draft, has electric stuff, but was only used three times in the playoffs by Maddon. He was 1-0 with a save and did not surrender a run in 2 1/3 innings of work.

With the Phillies' lefty-heavy lineup, specifically Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, you would have to think Price could play a bigger role in this series.

Philadelphia, meanwhile is back in the Fall Classic for the first time since 1993 and will be trying to claim just its second World Series title since its inception way back in 1893.

The Phillies captured their second consecutive NL East crown this season with a 92-70 mark. This year's postseason stay has lingered a little longer than last year's when they were swept in the NLDS by the eventual NL champion Colorado Rockies.

Philadelphia defeated the Milwaukee Brewers in four games of the NLDS, before eliminating the Los Angeles Dodgers in five games of the NLCS.

Trailing two games to one, the Dodgers seemed to have the Phillies on the ropes in Game 4 of the NLCS. However, two home runs and four runs in the eighth shifted the momentum back to the Phillies, who went on to win that game, then got a tremendous effort from tonight's starter, Cole Hamels in Game 5 to advance to their sixth World Series.

Hamels has been incredible for the Phils, winning all three of his starts this postseason while pitching to a 1.23 ERA. After him, though, it could get a little shaky. Brett Myers won both of his starts, but has been up-and-down, while 45-year-old lefty Jamie Moyer has been downright awful (0-2, 13.50).

Philadelphia's offensive numbers may not be as gaudy as the Rays this postseason, but they have received contributions from a number of players and have picked up some real timely hits. Nobody more so than Shane Victorino, who has knocked in a club record 11 runs with a pair of home runs.

For the second straight year, Utley struggled in the NLDS, but showed some signs of life against the Dodgers. The second baseman hit a big two-run homer to even Game 1 and was 6-for-17 in the NLCS with three RBI.

The Phils, though, need Howard's bat to come alive. The NL MVP candidate hit .500 (6-for-12) over the final three games against the Dodgers, but has yet to hit a home run this postseason and has driven in a measly three runs.

Unlike the Rays, when the game gets to the ninth, there is no doubt who is pitching for the Phils. Brad Lidge has been the best closer in baseball this season and, although, he may make things interesting, he has done the job every time he has toed the rubber this season.

Lidge was a perfect 41-for-41 in save opportunities during the regular season, and erased his postseason demons by going a perfect 5-for-5 against the Brewers and Dodgers.

Of course, though, it is Lidge who was the losing pitcher in this year's All- Star Game, which gave the Rays home field advantage for this series. Kazmir was actually the winner of that contest.

The Game 1 winner has gone onto win the last five and 10 of the last 11 World Series titles.

Game 2 of this series will be played on Thursday.

10/22 10:29:14 ET