Sunday, October 26, 2008 Updated: October 27, 10:05 AM ET
Hamels, Howard and home field yeah, the Rays are done
By Gene Wojciechowski ESPN.com
PHILADELPHIA -- As much as it pains me to say it, the Tampa Bay Rays are cooked, finished, done, toast, history. The only way they win this World Series is if Bud Selig declares the Philadelphia Phillies, I don't know, academically ineligible?
Otherwise, it's only a matter of time. And that time could come as early as Monday evening, when Phillies starter Cole Hamels, who is the surest baseball thing since the seventh-inning stretch, steps to the Citizens Bank Park mound with a 3-1 series lead after Sunday's 10-2 Game 4 win.
Can someone tell me what happened to the Rays team I picked to win this thing? These can't be those guys. Those guys won 97 regular-season games, stared down the defending world champion Boston Red Sox in the ALCS and left Tropicana Field this past Thursday night tied 1-1 with the Phillies.
Now they've lost two in a row and have played, at times, more like the 2007 worst-in-all-of-baseball Rays than the 2008 varsity team. It's over.
Reason No. 1 is Hamels, who can't lose. Well, he can, but chances are he won't.
Nobody has pitched better this postseason than Hamels, who is 4-0, including a Game 1 win at the Trop. He lasted seven innings, gave up two runs, struck out five and might have the best tag-team of fastball and changeup in the big leagues. Now he gets to pitch the possible Series clincher.
"I hope I'm in that situation, I truly do, because that means we're one step closer to bringing a World Series to the city of Philadelphia and to our team that's worked so hard to achieve this," Hamels said before Game 4.
Some people experience shrinkage during big moments. Not Hamels. If he were any more relaxed, he'd be napping.
"What do you want me to say?" Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "I say the same thing over and over about him. Every time you hand him the ball you expect to win the game."
"Cole looks for these moments," Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "I call him 'Hollywood' because when the lights are on, that's when he's at his best. And [Monday] night the lights will definitely be on and he will be ready."
So there's that. Meanwhile, the Rays are playing like they expect to be cleaning out their lockers Tuesday. But think of all the money the cost-conscious Rays will save in champagne bills.
Scott Kazmir got the Game 1 loss, but he pitched well enough to win. Problem is, the Rays aren't hitting well enough to do the same. Their Nos. 3 and 4 hitters -- Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria -- could guest star on "Without A Trace."
Is it a good thing when Game 4 Phillies starter Joe Blanton, who entered the game as a career 2-for-31 hitter, now has more World Series home runs than Pena and Longoria combined? Has more World Series hits than Pena and Longoria combined?
Cole Hamels, the Phillies' Game 5 pitcher, is 4-0 in this postseason. No, things don't look very good for the Rays.
"Close my eyes and swing hard," said Blanton, who figured he hadn't hit a home run since his senior year of high school. "Better be lucky than good, I guess."
Pena and Longoria are hitting .000. They're 0-for-29 with 15 strikeouts and their strike zone is as wide as a stadium concourse. They've been human rally killers.
"I'll say this: Our scouting reports have been very accurate," Manuel said.
It'd be nice if Pena and Longoria remembered how to hit a pitched ball. It'd be nice if the Rays relievers remembered how to relieve. It'd be nice if Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura hadn't fielded like he was wearing a cement glove (two errors on the night).
The Rays can't catch a ball or a break. They also can't make their own breaks. Rays manager Joe Maddon got so desperate he alerted the umpires to a dark patch on the bill of Blanton's ball cap.
Blanton said it was smudged dirt. "Nothing sticky," he said.
Of course, the umpires are having almost as bad a Series as the Rays. Missed hit-by-pitches. Missed out calls at first base. Possible missed balks.
In the bottom of the first inning, third base umpire Tim Welke forgot to remove his eye patches in time to see Longoria tag out Rollins in a rundown. Rollins later scored to give the Phillies a lead they'd never give up. The blown call didn't decide the game, not even close, but it might have affected the Rays' already delicate psyche.
Meanwhile, the Phillies have the Three H's in their favor: Hamels, home-field advantage and Ryan Howard. Hamels has been money. The Phillies are unbeaten at home this postseason. And Howard, who struggled early in this Series, has hit three home runs in the past two games. Sunday night he crushed a pair of homers and had five RBIs.
"I look at Ryan Howard, he's a carrier," Manuel said.
Blanton and Howard carried the Phillies in Game 4. Now it's Hamels' turn again.
If the Phillies close the deal here Monday evening, Howard said the city "will be one of the craziest places on Earth."
And pin-drop quiet in Tampa-St. Petersburg.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.