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Archive for Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Aces linked since high school

Hamels, Kazmir take mound for Phillies, Rays

October 22, 2008

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— Even as teenagers, Scott Kazmir and Cole Hamels were linked by their left arms.

A pair of high school pitchers brimming with promise, both slotted for the first round of the 2002 amateur draft. When they got picked two spots apart, the comparisons were inevitable.

Six years later, they're set to square off on baseball's biggest stage at 7:35 tonight when Kazmir and the worst-to-first Tampa Bay Rays play host to Philadelphia in Game 1 of a World Series matchup that hardly anyone expected.

Pretty heady stuff for these two budding aces, both still shy of their 25th birthday.

"I think we relate at the same level, because we've had to go through the same experiences," Hamels said Tuesday before the Phillies worked out at tricky Tropicana Field.

Their teams have something in common, too: a history of losing.

Tampa Bay's tale is hard to believe - 10 futile seasons as a perennial doormat before this sudden surge to American League supremacy. On the other side, the Phillies, with one championship (1980) in 125 seasons and more losses than any franchise in professional sports.

Not exactly Yankees-Dodgers or Celtics-Lakers.

But for Kazmir, Carl Crawford and the rest of the Rays who endured growing pains season after season in a nearly empty dome, their new success is all that matters.

"It means everything to me, it really does, especially for this city," Kazmir said. "It's pretty much worth the wait, you could say, for what we had to go through the past four years."

The Rays, who dropped the "Devil" from their nickname before the season, have been stockpiling young talent and top draft picks for years. Still, few thought they could complete such a remarkable turnaround so fast - besides Kazmir.

Back in spring training, the lefty predicted Tampa Bay could end up playing in October. Little was made of that comment at the time, but now Kazmir looks like a Gulf Coast prophet.

Against the Phillies, he'll have to contend with a potent lineup that includes NL MVPs Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, plus slugging second baseman Chase Utley. No easy task for a hard-thrower who often struggles to get deep in games.

After going 12-8 with a 3.49 ERA and earning his second All-Star appearance this season, Kazmir labored through his first two playoff starts - raising questions about his health. But he put those to rest with six shutout innings of two-hit ball in Game 5 of the AL championship series at Boston.

"It's not an injury situation. He just was uncomfortable," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "The other day against the Red Sox, I think you saw more sliders coming back into the mix, which I like. And he's got a very good changeup. I don't have a real intelligent explanation, other than I just thought that he got out of his delivery a bit, maybe started over-thinking it a little bit."

Tampa Bay blew a seven-run lead after Kazmir left, but regrouped to beat Boston in Game 7 at home Sunday night. The Rays have bedeviled visitors all year. They went a major league-best 57-24 at home during the season, then 4-2 in the playoffs.

The baby-faced Kazmir is a big reason Tampa Bay has home-field advantage for the World Series, too. He was the winning pitcher in the July 15 All-Star game in New York.

As for Hamels, he's been tough to hit anywhere. After shutting down the Los Angeles Dodgers, the NLCS MVP is 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA in three postseason starts this year, striking out 22 and walking six in 22 dominant innings.

After Hamels, the Phillies' rotation is Brett Myers, 45-year-old Jamie Moyer and midseason addition Joe Blanton.

James Shields will start Game 2 for the Rays. When the series shifts to Philadelphia for Game 3, it will be ALCS MVP Matt Garza followed by Andy Sonnanstine.

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