Rays, Phils meet in World Series

Published 12:22 pm Monday, October 20, 2008

Brad Lidge’s only blemish this season came in the All-Star game. Turns out that loss means a lot more now.

Because of that one slip-up, Lidge and the Philadelphia Phillies will open the World Series on the road — against the Tampa Bay Rays, the team with the best home record in the majors this year.

Game 1 is Wednesday night at kooky Tropicana Field. And really, who could’ve imagined this matchup back in March, when Rays rookie Evan Longoria homered off Cole Hamels in spring training?

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One of the oldest franchises in baseball against one of the newest, linked by a single thread — a history of failure.

The Phillies, the losingest team in pro sports history, with only one championship to their name. The Rays, sad sacks since joining the majors with Arizona in 1998, with the worst record in baseball last year.

The Rays capped their turnaround by dethroning the Boston Red Sox 3-1 Sunday night in Game 7 of the AL championship series.

And while Fox TV executives might’ve hoped for something seemingly more attractive — say, Cubs-Red Sox — the likes of former NL MVPs Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, along with B.J. Upton, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley and ALCS MVP Matt Garza certainly give fans a fresh look.

Oh, another theme coming this October: rest vs. rust. The Phillies will have been off a week by the time they play the opener.

‘‘Obviously, winning is the silver lining. We would have been happy to do it in four,’’ Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said hours before Game 7.

While Maddon was a coach with the 2002 Angels when they won the World Series, this matchup is full of newcomers. Of all the players involved, the only one with a hit in any previous World Series is Phillies backup outfielder So Taguchi.

Friendly rivals, too. While the teams haven’t met in the regular season since 2006 and Rays reliever Trever Miller is the lone Series player who’s spent time on both sides, the clubs see a lot of each other every spring.

The Phillies have trained in the Tampa Bay town of Clearwater for more than a half-century and maintain a year-round fan base in the area that includes Phils Hall of Famer Robin Roberts.

Maddon grew up in Hazleton, Pa., about 100 miles from Philadelphia, and admits he didn’t root for the Phillies as a kid. Over the past few years, he’s become more of a fan.

‘‘Just seeing them in spring training, my impression of them was that they were more like an American League lineup. I thought their offense, they could pound the ball up and down the lineup. I was really impressed with that,’’ Maddon said recently.

‘‘I’ve always been a big fan of their MVP guys, but I liked Victorino also. He made a big impression on me in spring training,’’ he said. ‘‘The thing I didn’t know about them is how good their pitching was.’’

Tampa Bay dropped the ‘‘Devil’’ from its nickname this year and played like a different team, led by a rotation of James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Andy Sonnanstine and Garza.

The Rays went 97-65 to win the AL East, breezed past the Chicago White Sox in their first playoff series and held off Boston. Quite a feat for a team that had never won more than 70 games, and had finished last in every season except one, before this remarkable run.

Upton has hit seven home runs this postseason — after hitting only nine all year — and Longoria has homered six times in the playoffs.

That home run Longoria hit in March off Hamels, the NLCS MVP, seems like a long time ago. The Tampa Bay third baseman delivered a much more key hit in July — his eighth-inning double tied the All-Star game, and Kazmir outpitched Lidge in the 15th for a 4-3 win, giving the AL home-field advantage in the Series.

Lidge is 46-for-46 in save chances without a loss this year. That defeat in the All-Star game looms larger now, because the Rays play so well at home. Somehow, they figured out how to play the crazy caroms off the catwalks — some of those balls remain in play. Still, the Trop Shop remains a good candidate for baseball’s first postseason replay.

After starting out the season as 200-1 long shots to win the World Series, the Rays have a chance to become the first club to go from worst in the majors to champs in a single year.

Funny thing, the Phils are one team the Rays have handled through the years — Tampa Bay is 10-5 against them overall.

To keep winning, Tampa Bay will have to tame manager Charlie Manuel’s well-balanced bunch. Behind Howard, the Phillies led the NL with 214 home runs. Hamels, Brett Myers, 45-year-old Jamie Moyer and midseason addition Joe Blanton anchor the rotation.

Philadelphia went 92-70 to win the NL East, then bopped past Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Dodgers to reach its first World Series since 1993. Next up, a chance to add to the title the Phils won in 1980 with Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton at Veterans Stadium.

It’s a city aching for a title — the last one that a major Philly team won came in 1983 by the 76ers.

Citizens Bank Park will host the World Series for the first time a week from Saturday with Game 3, as the Phillies try to reverse a recent run of AL dominance.

The Red Sox swept the World Series in 2004, the White Sox swept the next season and the Red Sox did it last year. St. Louis interrupted the string by defeating Detroit in five games in 2006.