Matchup: Rays (97-65) at Phillies (92-70), 8:29 p.m. ET, FOX
Probable Starters: Scott Kazmir (152
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, 89.6% (Up 3-1)
Prospectus: Back in 1980, the Phillies closed out their inaugural world title at Veterans Stadium with ace Steve Carlton pitching seven innings of one-run ball to earn the Game Six victory. That performance provides a fitting parallel to tonight’s home start by Hamels, who is Philadelphia’s left-handed heir to the legacy of “Lefty.” The 24-year-old Hamels has already thrown 66
While the Phillies’ 28-year wait since their last title might seem modest compared to what teams like the Cubs, Indians, and Giants have suffered through, no team in baseball history has the depth and magnitude of futility to match the franchise that began play as the Philadelphia Quakers in 1883. Among the eight original National League clubs that remain, the Phillies trail the pack in world titles, pennants (six), and playoff appearances (11), and they remain the only professional sports franchise to have lost 10,000 games-a mark that was reached last August. Combine those depressing annals with the fact that none of the four major professional sports franchises in the city has won a championship since 1983, when the Sixers beat the Lakers in the NBA finals, and Philadelphia fans have certainly earned the right to celebrate should their squad claim victory on home turf tonight. As Ryan Howard declared after last night’s win, the scene at Citizens’ Bank Park for Game Five is sure to be “absolute bedlam” in anticipation.
While the Phillies get ready to pop the corks, the Rays are steeling themselves to attempt a colossal task. The last team to win the World Series after falling behind 3-1 was the 1985 Royals, and only 11 teams have overcome such a deficit in a seven-game series, six of them in the Fall Classic. Tampa Bay will look to spark its comeback effort with a strong start by Kazmir, who will once again be matching up against the pitcher who was taken two spots behind him in the first round of the 2002 draft. The two lefties are nearly the same age-Hamels is less than a month older than his Rays counterpart-and in an alternate universe they might have faced off regularly as the respective aces for bitter NL East rivals; Kazmir was drafted by the Mets before being shipped to Tampa Bay in the infamous 2004 trade that brought New York the immortal Victor Zambrano.
Both pitchers have strong fastballs, but differ in terms of approach and secondary stuff, as Hamels relies on one of the best changeups in the game to put batters away, while Kazmir uses a devastating slider as his out pitch-or at least he did up until this year. One of the most curious aspects of Kazmir’s uneven regular season was his decreasing use of the slide-piece. Two years ago Kazmir threw his slider almost 29 percent of the time, according to Pitch-f/x data, but last year that number fell to 19 percent, and this year it dropped again, all the way down under 10 percent. He instead threw more fastballs during the regular season, utilizing the heater on three out of four offerings. The only starters who threw a greater percentage of fastballs this year were sinkerballers, and Kazmir is certainly not that type of pitcher, as he works up in the zone with his heater and consequently has given up a ton of fly balls: among pitchers with 140 or more innings, only Rich Harden had a lower ground-ball/fly-ball ratio than Kazmir’s career-low 0.64.
It is not clear exactly what has caused Kazmir to limit the use of his signature breaking ball. It could be a desire to avoid putting as much stress on his arm-in 2006, when he threw the pitch over three times more often than this year, he hit the DL twice late in the season with shoulder soreness and was limited to 24 starts. Or it could be that he simply lost some of his ability to command the pitch, as he threw it for a strike only 56 percent of the time during the regular season according to Inside Edge, and when it did find the zone opponents hit it better than they had in the past. It appears, however, that Kazmir has gotten at least some of his feel for the pitch back in the last couple of starts. Before his Game Five outing against the Red Sox, manager Joe Maddon encouraged Kazmir to throw his slider more often, and the lefty responded by tossing it 38 times in his 111 pitches over six shutout innings according to the pitch data from MLB.com Gameday. Against the Phillies in Game One, he followed that up with 28 sliders in his 110 total pitches, including nine out of 15 offerings to Ryan Howard. The quality of slider Kazmir has and how often he goes to the pitch will be especially key tonight, given that the Phillies have found their power stroke with seven home runs over the last two games in their small home park.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.