San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

October 21st, 2008
Points: Upstarts? Or one-hit wonders?

Points: A Sports Column
Editor at Large

The phrase “Worst to First” told the tale of the 1991 baseball season, when the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins each rose from last place in their divisions to face each other in the World Series.

A predictably unpolished Fall Classic resulted from two Worst to First contestants. The Twins won it in seven games, but that series could have ended in four if one of those clubs were good enough to just win it. Instead, we wound up with a highly competitive World Series for no other reason than that the Braves constantly messed up and the Twins couldn’t bury them. One run decided five of the games.

The Braves made six fielding errors, not including those that weren’t scored as such, and displayed some of the worst base running to ever last past September. The Twins, scoring 24 runs and batting .232 with a .692 OPS, hit barely enough to crawl out of there with the trophy.

The 1991 World Series remains a landmark event in the degradation of baseball, largely because the loudest voices, being more concerned with drawing audiences than telling the truth, trumpeted that unfortunate exhibition as The Greatest World Series Ever. The broadcast rights holders naturally promoted the constant tension, and columnists who don’t get baseball joined the chorus. As is so often the case around baseball, critical voices couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

Worst to First is back this fall with the rise of the Tampa Bay Rays, who didn’t merely finish last in the American League East last year, but counted up a 66-96 record, the lowest win total and highest loss total in all of major league baseball. With substantial improvements in their defense and bullpen, not to mention their name and uniforms, the Rays elevated themselves this year and now stand on the doorstep of baseball’s loftiest station as they begin the World Series on Oct. 22 against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Looking back at the 1991 World Series, one wonders how the Rays will fare against a Philadelphia club that isn’t worst to first, but an old war horse that’s taken its steps through the National League much more gradually. The Phillies have knocked on the door for quite a long time, positioning themselves as solid also-rans before breaking through this year.

The Phillies are on their sixth consecutive winning season, which is a pretty good trick in today’s baseball. They contended for a wildcard spot in 2003, finished two games out of the NL East lead in 2005, came up three games short of the playoffs in 2006, won the NL East in 2007 and now, finally, they’re in the World Series.

Like Tampa Bay, the Phillies built their core through the first round of the draft, by which they procured Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell. They hit the lottery when Ryan Howard developed as a force out of the fifth round. The Phillies then seasoned the group through the last six years and made modest upgrades to advance themselves little by little.

The Phillies improved this year by inches, rather than miles. Their best enhancement, bullpen closer Brad Lidge, came for spare parts and apparently just really needed to leave Houston. Lidge didn’t blow a save all year. The specter of Albert Pujols no longer haunts his every appearance. With Lidge’s arrival, last year’s club saves leader, Brett Myers, moved into the starting rotation, where his right-handed slants are all the more effective around Hamels’ left-handed stuff and the ancient Jamie Moyer’s left-handed guile.

Philadelphia is loaded offensively, especially against right-handed pitching. Utley and Howard both anchor the lineup from the left side, while Rollins and Shane Victorino both can switch hit. The Phillies can be somewhat neutralized by left-handed pitching, which makes Howard a much worse hitter while dropping Utley off a little.

The problem for Tampa consists in a lack of left-handed starters, among which the Rays count only Game 1 starter Scott Kazmir. However, the Rays have loaded up with left handers in the bullpen, especially since the arrival of 2007 No. 1 draft pick David Price. At critical junctures, Tampa manager Joe Madden will certainly have Price, J.P Howell and Trever Miller ready for the Utley-Howard turns, and if any set of match-ups determines the outcome, it’s going to happen right there.

While the Phillies have climbed slowly through the weaker league, the Rays moved to the front of the stronger league almost as if by magic. As Worst to Firsts go, the Rays are a far more impressive achievement than the Twins or Braves of 1991.

The Twins took over the mantle of an Oakland Athletics outfit torn up by free agency. The Braves took over an NL West in which the Reds lost focus and no other club was good enough to take advantage. But the Rays not only surpassed the New York Yankees with all their money, but also the Boston Red Sox, a truly solid mix of greats and grinders positioned for many years of contention. Then the Rays not only won one playoff series, but two, taking the pennant in a severe seven-game test against the Red Sox.

But when one looks at Tampa Bay’s batting order, he doesn’t exactly see the 1991 Twins, the AL’s best offensive club during that season. The Rays scored only 774 runs, ninth in the AL, and they squeezed out every run they could find in their lineup, finishing second in walks (626) and first in steals (142).

Looking at the Rays’ pitching staff, one doesn’t exactly see the 1991 Braves staff that took over the NL for 15 years. However, the Rays reveal no glaring weaknesses in the starting rotation or the bullpen, and their defense is much better than solid, especially in the outfield and behind the plate.

The catcher, Dioner Navarro, remains one of the unsung heroes, throwing out 38 percent of opposing base stealers (28 of 73), making only five errors and allowing but six passed balls. On top of all that, he batted .295, including .312 against lefties, which makes him one of Tampa’s best weapons against the likes of Hamels and Moyer. Let’s just say the Rays were 71-43 when Navarro started behind the plate this year, and 26-22 when he didn’t.

Baseball could use a true upstart again. The last few World Series have gone to established contenders like the Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, or to one-hit wonders like the Chicago White Sox and Florida Marlins. The World Series between Tampa and Philadelphia offers two upstarts, two franchises that have risen through the ranks and indicate their viability for the long haul, Philadelphia because it has cooked up slowly, and Tampa because it’s so young. Only one of these clubs will win it this time. But either, or both, will be back later.

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