Thursday night, the Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Philadelphia Phillies to take the three-game interleague series two games to one. Rematches of the previous year’s World Series combatants have been a fascinating byproduct of interleague play. Even more fascinating is the role Pat Burrell plays in this one.
When interleague play began in 1997, many feared that it would take away from the excitement of the World Series. Previously, only the All-Star Game and the World Series allowed us, in a sense, to gauge which league was stronger. Otherwise, we could only speculate. But now, with hundreds of interleague matchups each regular season, the argument goes, we will have already seen which league is superior. Many argued that having the teams play each other during the regular season ruined the separation between the leagues and the intrigue of the build-up to the once-in-a-season opportunity the World Series presented.
However, one area in which interleague play has generated surprise excitement is World Series rematches. Since interleague play’s inception, nine of the thirteen pairs of teams that have battled each other in the previous year’s World Series have faced each other again the following regular season. Contrast this to actual World Series rematches. Since divisional play began in 1969, World Series opponents have rarely met again the following October. In fact, in the last fifty years, the only World Series rematch was in 1978 when the Yankees repeated their four games to two victory over the Dodgers. Thus, from 1959 until 1997 (the beginning of interleague play), rematches were essentially non-existent.
This season’s interleague schedule gave us another World Series rematch in last week’s Phillies-Rays series. Going into the series, the history of these rematches didn’t look favorable to the Phillies. World Series losers have had the advantage in interleague play rematches, winning a combined 16 of 27 games going into the Phillies-Rays series in St. Petersburg. The Phillies started off bucking the trend, winning Tuesday night by a score of 10-1, but the Rays took the next two, winning Wednesday night by a score of 7-1 as well as the Thursday rubber match 10-4.
It has only been eight months, but a lot has happened to both the Phillies and the Rays since they last met. Thursday night’s starter for the Rays was Andy Sonnanstine, who also started World Series Game Four, in which Jimmy Rollins led off with a double. Sonnanstine earned that Game Four start with a respectable 4.38 ERA and 3.0 SNLVAR in 2008. Rollins earned the opportunity to lead off with a WARP3 of 4.1 and an EqA of .286. However, in 2009, their fates have both reversed significantly. Sonnanstine has mustered an MLB-worst (among innings-qualifying pitchers) 6.60 ERA and 0.1 SNLVAR this year. And thanks to his MLB-worst (among plate-appearance-qualifying hitters) .254 OBP, as well as his -1.3 WARP and .208 EqA, Rollins was benched Thursday night, so Sonnanstine would not even get the opportunity to pitch to him again.
The teams themselves have changed a lot since October. The Phillies starter on Thursday night, Antonio Bastardo, was not even on the World Series roster. In fact, he didn’t play at all for the Phillies in 2008, as he spent his year in the minors. Even more notable, he wasn’t even on Baseball America’s list of top-10 prospects for the Phillies. Bastardo’s presence on the mound Thursday night was representative of how both teams have changed since October. The Phillies returned 19 of last year’s 25-man World Series roster, and the Rays returned 18 of last year’s squad.
There was one lineup change for both teams which turns out to be historically significant. Batting third as the Rays’ DH Thursday night was the Phillies’ 2008 starting left-fielder, Pat Burrell. Burrell is the first player in major league history to switch from the World Series winner to the loser and then play his old team the next year. (One player has switched from the loser to the winner and then played his old team the next year. Can you name him?)
Burrell’s stay in Philadelphia was an interesting one. The Phillies drafted him with the first overall pick in 1998, and he garnered much fan attention as it was hoped that he would restore glory to a team that had been scorned by J.D. Drew, the first pick overall of the previous year’s draft who refused to sign. Burrell was soon playing for Philadelphia, eventually breaking out in 2002 with a .318 EqA. Despite the fact that Burrell was a disappointment in 2003 with only a .250 EqA, many fans wanted him to succeed and cheered him on throughout his struggles. He eventually improved and became a consistent offensive contributor, with an EqA of .300 or above each year from 2005-2008.
Unfortunately, through his Phillies tenure, Burrell was a streaky hitter and some fans lost their patience. Burrell became something of a lightning rod-a folk hero to sabermetricians, getting at least 98 walks each year from 2005 to 2008 with OBPs between .367 and .400, but a frustrating hitter who to some fans looked at more third strikes than anybody, played shaky defense, and was horrible running the bases. But Burrell never spoke badly about the city, eventually fulfilling his prophecy, hitting a double off the top of the wall late in World Series Game Five (Part B!). It was his pinch runner who eventually scored the winning run that clinched the Phillies’ first title since 1980. Even the angriest of Nega-delphians slowly turned around to Burrell, and he was given the opportunity to lead the Championship Parade atop the Budweiser Clydesdale carriage.
But as Tom Hanks noted in “A League of Their Own,” there’s no crying in baseball, and little room for sentimentality either. In the off-season, the Phillies’ management determined that it was best to let Burrell go. Despite his role in the World Series victory and leading the ensuing parade, the Phillies let Burrell leave via free agency and replaced him with Raul Ibanez who has amassed a .339 EqA (compared to Burrell’s .259). The Rays jumped at the opportunity to improve their right-handed power hitting, adding Burrell to a left-leaning lineup that had been vulnerable to the Phillies who won three World Series games started by lefties.
Burrell did have the opportunity to play against the Phillies during the 2009 On-Deck Series before the season began. The first of the two games was dubbed Pat Burrell Appreciation Night at Citizens Bank Park. Burrell even hit a homerun against Cole Hamels to lead off the second of the two exhibition games. The Phillies fans in Citizens Bank Park cheered. Pause for a moment to consider the oddity of that. Cole Hamels, certainly a folk hero of his own, surrendered a homerun. It was only an exhibition, but the Philadelphia fans, often maligned as the worst fans in the country, cheered an opponent’s home run! After a decade of playing for the Phillies, Burrell had become a Philadelphian. Despite the years of frustration, Phillies fans all knew the name of his English Bulldog: Elvis, who joined Burrell atop the Clydesdale carriage that led the parade. They were both their own. Not only did Phillies fans cheer Burrell when he arrived in Philadelphia earlier this season to receive his World Series ring, but the Phillies honored his dog Elvis Thursday night before the rubber game, giving him a Championship Medallion to wear around his neck.
Although Burrell has struggled with injuries and a power outage this year, hitting just one homerun coming into the rematch series with his former teammates, he certainly had an incentive to perform against the team that replaced him. In Tuesday night’s game, Burrell went 0 for 3 with a walk, but on Wednesday night’s game, Burrell went 1 for 4 with a two-run homerun in the first inning, scoring and knocking in another in the eighth.
But it was his performance in Thursday night’s game that showed us just what Pat Burrell brings to the table and in exactly the manner that was frequently lost on fans. On Thursday night, Burrell went 2 for 4 with a double and a walk. His sixth inning walk was the plate appearance that typified Pat Burrell. Phillies pitcher Chad Durbin was ahead in the count 0-2, but Burrell fought back and drew a walk. The Rays, who were leading the game 6-4 at that point, now had men on first and second with one out, and therefore Carlos Pena‘s subsequent fly out did not end the inning. The Rays went on to ice the game with a 3-spot in that inning. Most Phillies fans did not notice little things like this while he was in Philadelphia, but these walks were what made Burrell a sabermetric hero to the more enlightened members of the Phillies community. The difference Thursday night was that he did it to help defeat his old team.
In reference to our tendency to root for the same team as the cast changes, Jerry Seinfeld once noted that we were effectively “rooting for laundry.” Still, something about Burrell’s sixth inning walk sure made Phillies fans feel like they had won for just a second. They still keep rooting for him…especially since he’s in the other league.