THE PHILLIES and Rays shared the World Series spotlight last autumn. Over the winter they shared the knowledge that, of the last six teams that had competed in the Fall Classic, only one as much as made it back to the playoffs the following year.
That's where the similarities end. The defending world champions are nicely positioned at the end of the first month. The Cinderella Rays, a nice story in 2008 when they outplayed the big-spending Goliaths in Boston and New York, have lost six straight series and are in last place in the American League East.
Not much has gone right for Tampa Bay so far. The pitching has been inconsistent, which may be partly due to a conscious decision to hold out most of the returning arms until later in the Grapefruit League season as a concession to the extra innings they logged last October.
"The way we handled spring training, and I believe what we did was right, some of these guys have not gotten to the point where they feel 100 percent strong," said manager Joe Maddon, adding that he believes the pitchers are getting close to where they need to be.
But the offense has been a problem, too. The Rays have scored three or fewer runs 13 times in their first 22 games. Leadoff man B.J. Upton was batting .158 going into last night's game against the red-hot Red Sox. Designated hitter Pat Burrell had one homer. Catcher Dioner Navarro was hitting .181.
Burrell and Gabe Kapler were signed to give Tampa Bay a better chance against lefthanded pitching. They're 1-8 when a lefty starts. A team that specialized in comeback wins a year ago, as winning teams often do, has rallied just once.
Maybe they'll be able to turn it around.
Or maybe they'll join the Rockies, Cardinals, Tigers, White Sox and Astros as teams that went to the World Series one year and spent the entire playoffs on the outside looking in the following year.
The hot corner
* The Arizona Republic speculates that Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin could be made a scapegoat if the team doesn't turn itself around.
* Plenty of teams are looking for starting pitching. Dodgers. Mets. Rangers. Nationals. Astros. Rockies. Orioles. Indians. Angels. Brewers. And some big-name pitchers are out there looking for work, including Pedro Martinez, Mark Mulder and Paul Byrd. But, for the moment, none of those teams seems inclined to sign an available veteran.
* When the Pirates won last Sunday, they went four games above .500 for the first time since April 30, 2002. They've since lost three straight.
* The Dodgers began an 11-game homestand last night. They're 6-0 in Chavez Ravine this season and have won 24 of their last 30 there dating back to last season.
Around the infield
* Good luck to Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter, who is trying to quit the smokeless tobacco habit. "It's a terrible thing, that slop in your mouth," he said, acknowledging that previous efforts were unsuccessful.
* White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen is a hockey fan. "You won't see any fat boys in hockey," he said, commenting on the endurance needed to play. "And in hockey, you want to fight, let's go fight. You get a 2-minute penalty. In baseball, you get a 10-day suspension."
* The Atlantic League's York Revolution had 3-foot-2 Dave Flood in spring training as a designated hitter and pinch-hitter. Alas, he went 0-for-3 with a walk and was released before the season started.
* The Diamondbacks already have played almost a quarter of their scheduled home games, 18 out of 81.
For Brewers righthander Yovani Gallardo. He took a perfect game into the fifth against the Pirates on Wednesday. He struck out a career-high 11. He pitched eight shutout innings. And, by the way, he homered in the seventh to give himself a 1-0 win.
Milwaukee manager Ken Macha generally begins his postgame interview session with a brief recap of the game. It was especially to the point this time: "Hitting: Gallardo. Pitching: Gallardo. Any questions?"
To Orioles lefthander Jamie Walker. He was called for a balk by umpire Angel Hernandez on Tuesday night. He didn't agree with the call. After the game, he expressed his disagreement.
So far, so good. But in the middle of his rant he said, "I don't know if [Hernandez] had money [bet] on the game or what." That's a foul. And, sure enough, Major League Baseball slapped him with a fine yesterday.
Walker's lucky the punishment wasn't worse.
BY THE NUMBERS:
5: Stolen bases by Rockies centerfielder Dexter Fowler - by the end of the fourth inning! - against the Padres on Monday.
6: May Day home runs by Gary Sheffield, Chipper Jones and Vladimir Guerrero, most among active players. The record is nine, by Jimmie Foxx.
8: Former players who have had their numbers retired by more than one team. Greg Maddux will become the ninth this season when the Cubs and Braves both retire his No. 31.
15: Straight losses to Milwaukee for the Pirates. "They've got our number," said righthander Ian Snell, demonstrating a firm grip of the obvious.
The Phillies host the Mets tonight, the first meeting of the season between the NL East rivals. The same teams will meet again next Wednesday and Thursday at Citi Field. A lot of focus will be on those games, and the players will be asked a lot of questions about one another.
Here's the thing, though: Right in the middle of all that, the Phillies fly to St. Louis to play an abbreviated two-game series against the Cardinals. It's a classic trap, the baseball version of the dreaded NFL sandwich game, in which a team can be ambushed by playing an overlooked team between two higher-profile opponents.
The Phillies can't afford to overlook the Cardinals. They only have the best record in the National League.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK:
Reds manager Dusty Baker, on second baseman Brandon Phillips' failure to hustle on Sunday, turning a potential double into a single: "It was addressed quickly. I've already addressed it. He has overall been running harder than he did in the past. You agree? You haven't noticed? Well, maybe it's because he hasn't been on base enough to run to be noticed."
That's called sarcasm, boys and girls. Phillips is batting .188.
SENTIMENTAL FAREWELL OF THE WEEK:
Former Twin Matt Garza, now with the Rays, made his last trip to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis this week. His reaction? "Good riddance," he said. The Twins are moving to the new, open-air Target Field next season. "That's even worse. Not one of the smartest moves I've ever seen in baseball," he added, a reference to the chilly weather typical in the area early and late in the season. "It's going to be horrible."
EXPLANATION OF THE WEEK:
Indians reliever Kerry Wood, on giving up a game-losing, three-run homer to Boston's Jason Bay on Monday: "It was a fastball down the middle. Good hitters hit that pitch. Bad hitters hit that pitch."
TECH NOTE OF THE WEEK:
Giants closer Brian Wilson told the San Jose Mercury-News that he's giving up Twitter. It seems he posted three updates Saturday night, suggesting he was out partying hearty in Scottsdale, Ariz. But when he blew a save against the Diamondbacks the following day, bloggers jumped all over him.
So he's through. "I can't believe anyone would question my character," he said. "I wasn't out at all Saturday night. I was playing video games. But you know what? People will believe what they want to believe."
Or at least what they read on people's Twitter accounts.
Here's just one more reminder of how baseball has changed.
It was 89 years ago today that Jay Oeschger, of the Boston Braves, and Leon Cadore, of the Brooklyn Robins, started a game against each other at Braves Field. Both pitchers gave up only one run. Both had complete games. But neither got a win. The game ended in a tie.
After 26 innings.
Today, of course, a starter who goes six or seven is considered a workhorse. *