There is more surrounding the 2008 version of the American League Championship Series than just the continuation of the worst-to-first story that the Tampa Bay Rays are writing or the challenge of winning back-to-back World Titles for the Nation. One storyline I will be following is to see if the big stage of the ALCS can actually make Tropicana Field look like a fun, exciting atmosphere instead of a dry, boring basement. Also, will this series come to blows (literally)?
Flashback to June 5 when James Shields hit Coco Crisp with an inside fastball and after a brief delay, Crisp charged the mound and started a brawl between the newly-formed AL East rivals. Could it happen again? Well, it is the playoffs and these teams played each other 18 times in the regular season. Though, the hot tempered Crisp isn’t likely to see much of the field except in obvious pinch-running situations. Then again, if you were in the opposing dugout watching Jonathan Papelbon’s gyrations, wouldn’t that drive you to violence?
These teams are remarkably evenly-matched and like the NLCS, there is no clear cut favorite. In those 18 head-to-head meetings this year, it has been a sea-saw battle with the Rays holding the edge 10-8. An interesting trend is the multiple series sweeps early in the year. Each team broke out the broom twice against the other during the first four three-game sets this season. Take a look at the results:
April 25-27 @ Tampa = Rays sweep
May 2-4 @ Boston = Sox sweep
June 3-5 @ Boston = Sox sweep
June 30-July 2 @ Tampa = Rays sweep
Sept. 8-10 @ Boston = Rays win 2 of 3
Sept. 15-17 @ Tampa = Rays win 2 of 3
This shows each teams’ inability to win on the road. The Rays did win four of six down the stretch in September with the Sox on their heels. We already know and recent (cough…Cubs) happenings continue to suggest that regular season success, even head-to-head doesn’t hold much water in October.
We do have the advantage of seeing the probable pitching match-ups in the first four games. Take a look at how these shake out:
Game 1: Shields (TB) vs. Dice-K (BOS)
Game 2: Kazmir (TB) vs. Beckett (BOS)
Game 3: Garza (TB) vs. Lester (BOS)
Game 4: Sonnanstine (TB) vs. Wakefield (BOS)
The James Shields-Scott Kazmir 1-2 punch in the first two at the Trop could prove tough for Boston to crack. Shields was 9-2 with a 2.59 ERA and Kazmir 8-2 with a 2.90 ERA at home in the regular slate. Seems unbeatable right? Well, there are a couple disturbing trends for Rays fans that can’t be ignored, especially with Kazmir. He has been unable to stay healthy in the past, and despite not being injured, his second-half numbers pale in comparison to his first half output. His ERA post-All-Star break jumped an entire run (3.04 to 4.02), he allowed 15 homers compared to just eight in the 1H. His K-BB ratio was 91 K – 31 BB in the 1H and finished at 75 K – 39 BB in the 2H. He also wasn’t exactly dominant in the win over the White Sox in Game 2 of the ALDS – 5.1 innings, 8 hits, 2 earned runs. He limited the damage. Similarly, Shields wasn’t razor sharp in his outing against the Sox in the opening game of the series either, going 6.1, allowing six hits and 3 ER. Not bad, just not great. What’s more is that both have struggled against the Sox this year. The Sox hit .324 off Kazmir and tagged him for 18 runs in 18 innings. Shields was a little better, tossing a complete game against them on April 27 and then coming right back and allowing seven earned in 3.2 innings on May 3. Cumulatively though, the Sox posted a 5.85 ERA on him as well.
On the flipside, the Sox starters, with the exception of Tim Wakefield fared well against the Rays this season. Jon Lester is quickly becoming what Josh Beckett was in past Octobers. He was 3-0 with a 0.90 ERA in three starts against Tampa this year. Dice-K was 1-0 with a 3.00 and the Rays hit just .228 against him in 15 innings. Beckett handled them in five starts and ended up 2-1 with a 2.06 and a .209 batting average against. These aren’t flattering numbers for the Rays hitters. As mentioned, they did hit Wakefield well – 0-2 with a 5.87 ERA. Then again, there was a night-and-day difference between the 42-year old knuckleballer at home (7-4 – 3.10 ERA) than on the road in 2008 (3-7, 5.14) and it is no coincidence that he is slated to get the ball in Game 4 in Boston.
The Rays offense was the most consistent of all remaining teams in the ALDS, scoring six runs in each of their three victories. The contribution of B.J. Upton in Game 4 could be a welcome sign of things to come for a Rays offense that ranked in the bottom-half of the AL in runs scored. Catcher Dioner Navarro was six-for-15 with three doubles and three RBI in the series and, in what could be a key component to the Rays’ success this series is lead-off man Akinori Iwamura who finished seven-of-18 with a homer and four RBI in the ALDS. Iwamura has had success against two of Boston’s starters – 10-for-24 (.417) vs. Wakefield and 9-for-24 (.375) against Matsuzaka. Evan Longoria hit two jacks in his first two post-season at-bats and then fell off, collecting just two more hits the rest of the way. Carl Crawford is back but needs to find his timing. He was just 3-for-14 against the White Sox, but did draw two walks and steal three bases. The offense still revolves around slugger Carlos Pena who missed a game of the ALDS after getting banged up in Game 1. He returned and finished five-for-10. He will be a major factor as he has been all year.
The Red Sox offense suffered a major loss when Manny decided he didn’t want to play in Boston anymore. It could be worse, but Jason Bay is handling his business, playing in games that actually matter can bring out the best in some athletes. Jacoby Ellsbury sets the table for the meat of the lineup, but there has to be some worry with David Ortiz as he isn’t driving the ball as we are accustomed to seeing. There may be more to this injury than he or the Red Sox are letting on. Last year’s hero Mike Lowell is shut down because of the hip and that will force Mark Kotsay to man first base and into the lineup, while Kevin Youkilis moves over to third. J.D. Drew and his back continue to be a question mark and most likely will be the rest of the way out. Jed Lowrie has stepped up and given the Red Sox a solid presence at shortstop, but expect to see a little Alex Cora as well. Neither strikes much fear in opposing teams, but can be serviceable.
On to the bullpens. First of all, Rays closer Troy Percival says he feels fine and should be added to the roster but whether he unseats Dan Wheeler as the end-gamer remains to be seen. Grant Balfour was awesome in the regular season (6-2, 1.54 ERA) and continued to earn appearances in the ALDS, pitching in three games, tossing 3.1 innings and only allowing one free pass with four strikeouts. J.P. Howell might have been the most impressive out of the ‘pen against the White Sox, pitching 4.1 innings, allowing just two hits and struck out six. He is a key lefty to that units success. Chad Bradford, the guy who throws the ball from the ground up also saw some action (3.0 IP, 1 hit) and fared well. This unit was solid all season and that isn’t expected to change.
The Boston bullpen hinges around closer Jonathan Papelbon, who the Sox didn’t want to use in that clinching Game 4 against the Angels, and they didn’t have to. He will be rested and called upon, sometimes in the eighth inning to get outs. Hideki Okajima wasn’t as lights out as he was in 2007 and looked bad in one of his two outings. Two newer names to learn are Manny Delcarmen and Justin Masterson. The TBS crew mentioned on more than one occasion that Francona loves giving Masterson the ball “when rested”. He saw the ball in all four games against the Angels. Delcarmen and lefty Javier Lopez are rather inexperienced in this atmosphere but will need to grow up quickly.
Neither team holds a distinct advantage in the bullpen.
Again, these teams are so evenly matched it should make for a great series. I think the Rays are playing possessed right now and the city is behind them for the first time. That could give them the boost they need to overcome the “experience factor” the Red Sox hold. That said, so many factors go into a seven-game series and this one seems destined to reach the maximum games needed for conclusion. The basement will come alive and the Rays will win it. Now give me some more of that Kool-Aid.
Rays in seven