Phils, Rays aces trod similar paths
Posted: Wednesday, October 22, 2008 5:47 pm
By: By MIKE FITZPATRICK, AP Baseball Writer
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Scott Kazmir was selected 15th overall in the 2002 amateur draft and Cole Hamels went No. 17.
A pair of high school lefties, both brimming with promise. The comparisons were inevitable.
Six years later, Kazmir and Hamels are certainly fulfilling those lofty expectations. They’re set to square off on baseball’s biggest stage tonight when the worst-to-first Tampa Bay Rays host Philadelphia in Game 1 of a World Series matchup that hardly anyone expected.
“Seems like we were pretty much in every single league going through the ranks,” Kazmir said of his Phillies counterpart. “I got to see quite a bit of him and kind of follow his career a little bit.”
Pretty impressive stuff for these two budding aces, both still shy of their 25th birthday.
“We relate at the same level, because we’ve had to go through the same experiences,” Hamels said before Philadelphia worked out at tricky Tropicana Field.
Their teams have something in common, too: a history of losing.
Tampa Bay’s tale is hard to believe — 10 futile seasons as a perennial doormat before this sudden surge to American League supremacy. On the other side, the Phillies, with one championship (1980) in 125 seasons and more losses than any franchise in professional sports.
This isn’t exactly Yankees-Dodgers or Celtics-Lakers.
“There aren’t too many people in this room — or on the other side — who have been in this situation,” said 45-year-old Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer, also in his first World Series. “It’s just a great place to be.”
Just ask Kazmir, Carl Crawford and the rest of the Rays, finally successful after all those growing pains in a nearly empty dome.
“It means everything to me, it really does, especially for this city,” Kazmir said. “It’s pretty much worth the wait, you could say, for what we had to go through the past four years.”
The Rays, who dropped the “Devil” from their nickname before the season, have been stockpiling young talent and top draft picks for years. Still, few thought they could complete such a remarkable turnaround so fast.
Against the Phillies, Kazmir will have to contend with a potent lineup that includes NL MVPs Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, plus slugging second baseman Chase Utley. No easy task for a hard thrower who often struggles to get deep in games.
After going 12-8 with a 3.49 ERA and earning his second All-Star appearance this season, Kazmir labored through his first two playoff starts — raising questions about his health. But he put those to rest with six shutout innings of two-hit ball in Game 5 of the AL championship series at Boston.
“It’s not an injury situation. He just was uncomfortable,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “The other day against the Red Sox, I think you saw more sliders coming back into the mix, which I like. And he’s got a very good changeup. I don’t have a real intelligent explanation, other than I just thought that he got out of his delivery a bit, maybe started over-thinking it a little bit.”
Tampa Bay blew a seven-run lead after Kazmir left, but regrouped to beat Boston in Game 7 at home Sunday night. Unfazed by the kooky catwalks, slick artificial turf and slanted white roof at the Trop Shop, the Rays have bedeviled visitors all year. They went a major league-best 57-24 at home during the season, then 4-2 in the playoffs.
Drafted by the New York Mets and then traded to Tampa Bay in a lopsided deal four years ago, the baby-faced Kazmir is a big reason his team has home-field advantage for the World Series, too. He was the winning pitcher in the July 15 All-Star game at Yankee Stadium.
As for Hamels, he’s been tough to hit anywhere. After shutting down the Los Angeles Dodgers, the NLCS MVP is 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA in three postseason starts this year, striking out 22 and walking six in 22 dominant innings.
Perhaps his biggest concern now is a six-day layoff before his World Series debut. He and the Phillies hope to look more rested than rusty.
“Because I can’t throw in a live game, I just throw in the bullpen. And it’s just the focus that you have to have,” said Hamels, sporting boyishly long dark hair. “When I go out to my bullpen, I do try to visualize that there’s a hitter out there, and I try to make every pitch count, as though it’s a game situation.”
Hamels went 14-10 with a 3.09 ERA in 33 regular-season starts. Including the playoffs, he’s thrown 249 1-3 innings this year, 66 more than his previous high set last season.
“Every time he walks out on the mound I expect him to win a game,” Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel said. “He’s definitely capable of shutting a team out. He’s capable of throwing no-hitters.”