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A tough start for the Rays in the World Series

The Rays bench — from left, Ben Zobrist, Dan Wheeler, Akinori Iwamura, Jason Bartlett and Carlos Pena — watch as the ninth inning of Game 1 winds down Wednesday at Tropicana Field.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

The Rays bench — from left, Ben Zobrist, Dan Wheeler, Akinori Iwamura, Jason Bartlett and Carlos Pena — watch as the ninth inning of Game 1 winds down Wednesday at Tropicana Field.

ST. PETERSBURG — You must admit, it was a magnificent Game 1 celebration. All 13 pitches of it.

The World Series arrived in Tampa Bay on Wednesday evening, and it was everything you might have imagined. It felt historic. It looked impressive. It sounded like every cowbell in America was clanging inside your head.

Unfortunately, the rules dictated that the game eventually had to begin. And the night's festivities took a quick, downhill turn.

Rays pitcher Scott Kazmir walked the second hitter of the game and, on his 14th pitch of the night, gave up a home run to Philadelphia second baseman Chase Utley.

The Rays were chasing the Phillies the rest of the game, and wound up losing 3-2. Oh, they managed a little suspense along the way. There was a bit of excitement and a fraction of hope, but you never really felt as if Tampa Bay was close to gaining control.

So should you be worried this morning? Heck yes.

Losing Game 1 is a blow. And, in recent years, a rather fatal blow.

Historically, the Game 1 loser has come back to win the World Series only 39 percent of the time. And the odds have been even worse in recent years. Since 1997, only one team (the 2002 Angels) has managed to win the Series after dropping the opener.

Those kind of percentages tend to significantly lighten wallets in Las Vegas.

"Perfect. We're underdogs again," reliever J.P. Howell said. "We've set ourselves up like before."

It is true the Rays have something to fear today. They have not only fallen behind in the Series, but they have also ceded their homefield advantage for the time being.

But you may want to consider a couple of factors before launching into full scale panic:

First of all, you have seen this before. Just 12 days earlier, as a matter of fact.

In Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, the Red Sox were even bigger party poopers. At least the Rays scored a couple of runs against Philadelphia on Wednesday night. In the opener of the last series, Daisuke Matsuzaka was virtually untouchable in a 2-0 Boston victory.

The Rays were so devastated by their offensive shortcomings against the Red Sox in that first ALCS game that they went on to outscore Boston 31-13 while winning the next three games.

In other words, Tampa Bay has been through this already. If we have learned nothing else about these Rays as summer has turned into fall, it that this team does not scare easily. The Rays did not blink in the AL East in September, and they did not fold in the ALCS in October.

It's hard to imagine that one loss is going to send these guys into a tailspin, no matter how much higher the stakes have been raised in the World Series.

"It does remind me a little of how things went against Boston," Howell said. "Now we're going to find out, once again, what we're made of."

If that does not convince you, here is another thought:

If you had reason to fear the Phillies in Game 1, you will have less reason today.

Without Cole Hamels on the mound, the Phillies look like a much less intimidating group. The dropoff from Hamels to the rest of Philadelphia's starting pitchers is fairly steep.

So as much as the Rays wanted to win on Wednesday, the presumption was Philadelphia needed to win. Falling a game behind with the Rays set to throw James Shields and Matt Garza in the next two games would have been a horrifying thought for the Phillies.

It is not as if the Rays expected to lose Game 1, but they certainly understood the challenge of facing Hamels. The perception that the Phillies need two victories out of Hamels, and a handful of prayers the rest of the Series, is probably not that far from reality.

"We'll treat this loss just like every other," said third baseman Evan Longoria. "We'll soak it in, and then come back ready to play the next day."

Hamels, by the way, was not the only one throwing nasty changeups on Wednesday. Major League Baseball president Bob DuPuy took the opportunity before the game to remind reporters that the Rays need a new stadium in Tampa Bay.

This is what is known as sticking your fingers in the punch bowl. No matter your opinion about the necessity for a new major league stadium in the area, Game 1 of the World Series is not the time for MLB officials to be pimping it.

How would Bud Selig like it if steroid poster boy Jose Canseco was invited to the All-Star Game to throw out the first pitch? You just don't insult someone's big moment by pushing your own selfish agendas.

And the Rays have gone to great lengths to make sure this event has come off smoothly. They even did a nice job of quietly slipping former managing general partner Vince Naimoli into the first pitch festivities for some acknowledgement without giving his many critics a chance to work up much of a boo or even a hiss.

By the end of the night, there was little left to say.

It wasn't a disaster, but it was certainly a letdown.

Around here, folks have gotten used to that. They have seen the Rays stumble and they have seen them wobble.

But in 2008, we have not yet seen the Rays fall.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

GAME 1 PHILLIES 3 RAYS 2

GAME 2 TODAY AT 8:35 P.M.

Check out our 14-page special World Series section for full coverage of Game 1. Section X

A tough start for the Rays in the World Series 10/23/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 23, 2008 8:35pm]

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