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.
“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 worst 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 Wednesday 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 alsorans before breaking through this year.
The Phils are in their sixth consecutive winning season, which is a pretty good trick in today’s baseball. They contended for a wild card spot in 2003, finished two games out of the NL East lead in ’05, came up three games short of the playoffs in ’06, won the NL East in ’07 and now finally are 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 Phils 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, and the specter of Albert Pujols no longer haunts his every appearance.
With Lidge’s arrival, last year’s club saves leader, Brett Myers, moved back 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 anchor the lineup from the left side, while both Rollins and Shane Victorino can switch hit. The Phillies can be somewhat neutralized by left-handed pitching, which hurts both Howard and Utley.
The problem for Tampa consists in a lack of left-handed starters — only Game 1 starter Scott Kazmir. The Rays have loaded up with lefties in the bullpen, however, 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, they beat the Boston Red Sox, a truly solid mix of greats and grinders positioned for many years of contention. Then the Rays won two playoff series, taking the pennant in a severe seven-game test against the Red Sox.
But the Rays scored only 774 runs, ninth in the AL, and squeezed out every run they could find in their lineup, finishing second in walks (626) and first in steals (142). On the pitching side, 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.
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. The Rays were 74-44 when Navarro started behind the plate this year and 23-21 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, franchises that have risen through the ranks and indicate their viability for the long haul — Philadelphia because it’s 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.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: [email protected]