Matchup: Rays (97-65) at Phillies (92-70), 8:29 p.m. ET, FOX
Probable Starters: Andy Sonnanstine (193
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 92-70 (774 RS, 671 RA); Philadelphia, 93-69 (799 RS, 680 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Philadelphia, #6
Series Favorite: Phillies, 69.4% (Up 2-1)
Prospectus: Despite having collected just two hits in 33 at-bats with runners in scoring position through the first three games of the series-both of them dribblers to third base-the Phillies hold a 2-1 advantage heading into Game Four, largely because the second of those infield singles came with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth last night. All of the games in the series thus far have been true Fall Classics, low-scoring and decided by a combined total of four runs. Things could be a good deal more offensive tonight however, with each team’s fourth starter on the hill at Citizen’s Bank Park, which despite playing as less of a hitter’s haven this season is still a favorable run-scoring environment. The Phillies might come out hacking early on, for Sonnanstine works the strike zone more than any other pitcher on either side of the field-he ranked eighth among ERA title qualifiers this season with 67 percent of his pitches tossed for strikes, one spot ahead of Cole Hamels. A self-described behind-the-scenes strike thrower, Sonnanstine blends five pitches in healthy proportion to keep hitters off-kilter. His straight fastball averages a pedestrian 87 mph, but as mentioned yesterday, Sonnanstine mixes in more cutters than all but Jesse Litsch and Roy Halladay. One would expect a pitcher who does not throw hard and is constantly around the zone to give up a good amount of hits, and Sonnanstine did lead the Rays staff with 212 allowed in the regular season, but he walked less than two per nine innings and managed to keep his home-run rate below the one-per-nine benchmark as well.
The pressure is obviously on Sonnanstine and the Rays tonight, especially considering that the specter of Cole Hamels looms, and the Philly ace, who has been untouchable this October, would have the chance to clinch the series on home turf if Tampa Bay cannot climb back to even-up tonight. The Rays will likely be thrilled if Sonnanstine continues pitching as he has so far this postseason: he walked only one batter in each of his first two Game Four starts versus Chicago and Boston, and while he also allowed three homers, all were solo shots, which helps explain the 2-0 October record he brings into the biggest game of his career. While this will be Sonnanstine’s first outing against the Phillies, Tampa Bay faced Blanton several times when he was with Oakland, most recently on May 19, when the right-hander earned a no-decision despite allowing four runs in six innings. Last season, Blanton was 1-1 in two starts against the Rays, allowing seven runs on 18 hits in 12
If the Rays had managed to win last night, the storyline would have been the speed of B.J. Upton, who singlehandedly conjured up the game-tying run in the eighth with his phenomenal wheels-an infield single, a steal of second, and then a steal of third which led him around to score after Carlos Ruiz‘s wild peg caromed away from Pedro Feliz. Upton stole three bases on the night, setting an American League single-game record for the World Series, and with a fourth bag taken by Carl Crawford, the Rays also bumped their overall theft total this October to 22, breaking the post-season record of 20 held by the 1975 Reds and the 1992 Braves. It will be interesting to see if Tampa Bay can continue its successful ground game tonight against Blanton, who held runners on base well this year: just six baserunners have attempted a steal against him in his 208
An even more interesting conflict on the basepaths will occur when the Phillies are batting. While Philadelphia is the most efficient base-stealing team in history, having been successful at an 86 percent clip over the past two seasons, Sonnanstine might just possess the best theft deterrent system in the major leagues: in his 206
This series has been marked thus far by the struggles of both teams’ big guns on offense, and while Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard helped mitigate those difficulties for the Philly nine last night, the funk continued for Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena. Tampa Bay’s two leading home-run hitters have combined to go 0-for-22 with two walks and 10 strikeouts in the first three games, and the Rays, who hit 22 homers in 11 games versus the White Sox and Red Sox, have just one versus Philadelphia, so as a team they are still one away from tying the AL post-season record set by the 2002 Angels. Pena is without a hit in his previous five games dating back to the ALCS, the most lengthy drought he has suffered through since joining the Rays last season.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.