ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The team of 10,000 losses won the 100th game of its magical season last night, and it was a thriller.

Phillies 3, Tampa Bay Rays 2.

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One win down, three to go before Philadelphia's first major sports championship in a quarter-century.

Can you take three more of these?

The Phillies' first World Series game in 15 years was preceded by six off days, enough time for anxiety to build a comfy nest in the guts of players as well as fans.

Would the layoff take the Phillies out of the rhythm that saw them win seven of nine playoff games? Would the Rays, survivors of a tumultuous seven-game series against the Boston Red Sox, ride momentum and home-field advantage to a quick lead?

What was the deal with those rubber ducks, anyway?

Chase Utley, whose comment to manager Charlie Manuel led to the distribution of those mysterious ducks, delivered a quick answer in his very first at-bat. Utley's two-run home run off Rays starter Scott Kazmir dispelled worries about rust and instantly flipped the momentum in the Phillies' favor.

"If you want to take the wind out of their sails and shut up them cowbells, hit some home runs," Manuel said.

After trying to bunt earlier in the at-bat - the ball went blessedly foul - Utley drove Kazmir's 2-2 pitch into the seats behind right field. Jayson Werth, who had drawn a walk off the wobbly Kazmir, pumped his fist as he rounded second base, and the Phillies were on the board before ace lefthander Cole Hamels ever took the mound.

Fittingly, the Phillies' two Cali-cool stars - Utley and Hamels - showed up calm and composed amid the cowbell din and airless atmosphere of the hideous Tropicana Field.

"Cole's pretty good, man," Manuel said with his own touch of Cali-cool. "I'm glad he's pitching for us."

Hamels, winner of the MVP trophy for the National League Championship Series, delivered his fourth stellar postseason performance, shackling a Rays lineup that had marauded through the Red Sox pitching staff during the AL Championship Series.

Hamels allowed just two runs, including a towering solo homer by Carl Crawford, in his seven innings. He was nearly flawless, and he had to be. Other than Utley's homer, the Phillies managed to scratch out just one run. They had plenty of chances, filling the pond with ducks (so to speak) but stranding nine of them through eight innings.

"I always say it's better to come up empty with a lot of guys in scoring position than not have any runners at all," Utley said.

Four times, the Phillies had a runner on third with one out and failed to bring him home. Squandering that many chances means asking for trouble, especially in the every-pitch-matters World Series. The Phillies asked, but Hamels and relievers Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge were there to provide the answers.

And so the Phillies ultimately fulfilled the preseason prophecy of Rollins, their all-star shortstop and all-world oracle. The man who declared the Phillies the "team to beat" in their breakthrough season of 2007 went a step further this time. He said the Phillies would win 100 games.

They won 92 in the regular season, enough to steal their second consecutive division title from the rival New York Mets. After the Phillies won their first playoff series since 1993, Rollins pointed out that he'd never actually said "regular season."

To win the World Series, he said, the Phillies would need 103 wins overall.

Thanks to Cali-cool Utley and Hamels, they reached 100.

Three more to go. Can you take it?

A word of caution is in order: The Rays lost Game 1 of the ALCS here, 2-0. Some of that was Boston starter Daisuke Matsuzaka. Some of that was no doubt the young Rays adjusting to the brighter lights and higher pressure of the second round of the playoffs.

They got the hang of it, scoring a total of 38 runs over the next four games to take control of that series. It took seven games, but the Rays eliminated the defending champions. They will not go quietly against these Phillies.

Brett Myers, who starts Game 2 here tonight, can give his team a firm grip on this World Series before it comes back to Philadelphia for three games. It will help if the offense can come up with a few of the clutch hits that went undelivered after the first inning of Game 1.

It is far from over, but the Phillies accomplished the primary goal of every road team in a series. They won, reclaiming home-field advantage. Whatever happens tonight, they will have a chance to win the World Series without returning to this awful dome for Games 6 or 7.

Let's just say the Phillies have all their ducks in a row.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.
Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.