It might not be the matchup TV executives and corporate America wanted.
The 2008 World Series, which begins tonight, simply will feature two very good, very balanced teams. And that should be interesting enough for most baseball fans.
The Philadelphia Phillies, winners of the National League crown, boast star power with the infield trio of first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, as well as ace left-hander Cole Hamels.
The Tampa Bay Rays are the best story in sports right now, four wins away from an unprecedented worst-to-World Series-champion turnaround. No team in baseball history has gone from having the worst record one year to a World Series title the next (the 1991 Atlanta Braves had a shot but lost in seven games to the Minnesota Twins).
It's a contrast in payrolls, with the Phillies starting the season 13th in the majors at $98 million compared with the Rays' $44 million, second lowest overall. The rosters, however, are comparable, and that should create a tight, evenly matched Series.
Here's a position-by-position breakdown.
Tampa Bay's Dioner Navarro
vs. Philadelphia's Carlos Ruiz
Both have emerged as important and calming influences on their respective clubs. They call good games, block pitches and possess strong arms. Navarro is younger and has more offensive upside, but they're rather similar.
Tampa Bay's Carlos Pena
vs. Philadelphia's Ryan Howard
On the surface, Howard runs away with this. But because of defensive superiority, Pena deserves the nod. The 2006 NL Most Valuable Player, Howard led the league in homers (48) and RBIs (146). But he has batted .258 with no homers and three RBIs in the postseason. Pena had 31 regular-season homers and 102 RBIs with a much higher on-base percentage and has hit well this October (.333, three homers, eight RBIs). One major league scout said: "It's close, but you win with defense, and they are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Pena is one of the best; Howard is one of the worst."
Tampa Bay's Akinori Iwamura
vs. Philadelphia's Chase Utley
Iwamura has been a splendid surprise, and his switch to second base allowed the Rays to promote third base phenom Evan Longoria. Utley is in a class by himself. He has worked diligently to become a solid defender capable of making great plays. And offensively, he has no peer.
Tampa Bay's Jason Bartlett
vs. Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins
The Rays considered Bartlett the club MVP for his steady, all-around play. Rollins, though, is the defending league MVP and has the ability to take over a game and a series.
Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria
vs. Philadelphia's Pedro Feliz
Feliz made just eight errors in 129 regular-season games for the Phillies and has a little pop. But he does nothing special offensively and owns a woeful .290 career OBP. Longoria, the likely AL Rookie of the Year, has been a difference-maker offensively and has the potential to be a Gold Glove defender.
Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford
vs. Philadelphia's Pat Burrell
This is the Series' biggest contrast. Burrell is a walk machine with major power and limited defensive abilities. Crawford is an above-average defender and gap hitter who doesn't walk much but steals bases at will. He is coming off an injury, and Burrell is playing for a contract. Burrell's streakiness can be frustrating.
Tampa Bay's B.J. Upton
vs. Philadelphia's Shane Victorino
They could have been the MVPs of their respective Championship Series. Victorino is the classic, speedy overachiever and fan favorite. Upton is the supremely talented athlete who needs only more experience and maturity to become a superstar. This postseason could be his national coming-out party.
Tampa Bay's Rocco Baldelli/Gabe Gross
vs. Philadelphia's Jayson Werth
Werth, the Orioles' first-round draft pick in 1997, finally stayed healthy and had the year once projected for him: 24 homers, 20 steals, .363 OBP. Baldelli, once a can't-miss prospect, has battled back from a career-threatening illness while Gross, another former first-rounder, has been steady since coming over from the Milwaukee Brewers. All three are solid, nothing more.
A typical NL team, the Phillies have a well-constructed bench that includes pinch-hit specialist Greg Dobbs. The late-season acquisition of Matt Stairs helped in the NLCS and will be a plus when the designated hitter is used in Tampa Bay. The Rays have Cliff Floyd at DH and as the primary pinch hitter in Philly. Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist also provide some reserve pop.
The Rays starters' ERA this season (3.95) was more than a quarter-run lower than the Phillies' (4.23) despite playing in the more powerful American League. The Rays' unheralded Scott Kazmir, James Shields and ALCS MVP Matt Garza are supremely talented. The best starter in the Series is Cole Hamels, the NLCS MVP. He has been nearly unhittable in the postseason. But the rest of the Phillies' rotation isn't as consistent.
The postseason often comes down to this component, and there's no question Philadelphia has the advantage here. Closer Brad Lidge has been perfect in save situations, and the bullpen's 3.18 ERA led the NL. Tampa Bay has used an effective mix-and-match method, and adding top prospect David Price makes it stronger.
Tampa Bay's Joe Maddon
vs. Philadelphia's Charlie Manuel
Neither has managed a team this far, but both have been here as a key coach (Maddon as the Anaheim Angels' bench coach and Manuel as the Cleveland Indians' hitting coach). They are players' managers, and each has the perfect temperament for his club. Manuel is more battle-tested because he often takes heat in Philadelphia.
If the Rays can overcome one more intimidating scene and knock around the Phillies' starting pitching, they should complete their miraculous season. But the Phillies have the edge in the close games if it becomes a battle of bullpens.
Prediction: Rays in seven