It had to come to this, the league's two best teams from the league's strongest division. The Rays as a representation of all that can be right about an organization on the way up, the Red Sox as a representation of all that can be right about an organization that already has it made. Every bit as much as the NLCS, this year's ALCS promises a tight, exciting, and hard-fought matchup.
Some ancient rivalries require their history, while some active rivalries simply make them. The series split was essentially a wash -- the Rays won it 10-8, while the Red Sox outscored Tampa Bay 87-67. Getting into Pythagorean projections over what that run differential means with only 18 games to work with would be a bit silly, because it would give you the impression the Sox were a wee bit unlucky, when in fact these are, were, and remain two very well-matched teams. However, it's also worth noting that while 16 runs of that 20-run differential came in two blowout Red Sox wins, they didn't come against scrubs: one of those wins was a May wipeout of
On the other hand, in their six regular-season series, the first four were all 3-0 sweeps by the home teams, and then the Rays won two of three in the last home-and-home pair of September series. It might be safe to say that those experiences reflect a shared confidence that the league's best two home teams can defend their own turf, that neither team outclasses the other, and that conjuring up any meme of the Rays' relative inexperience and awe facing the two-time world champs would be just another sportswriterly canard.
There might be a perception that the Red Sox have lost some of their offensive firepower -- after all,
Not to get overly Rumsfeldian over playing the team you've got, but at the time they made the trade, the Red Sox had no reason to believe they'd get what Manny did as a Dodger, and as a matter of unknowables, there's no guarantee he would have done so were he still in Boston. In the end, this was a win-win deal that gave the Sox a more mobile left fielder who quickly made himself familiar with the Rays' staff by bashing three homers in four games against them for Boston; if you want to ask yourself "WWMD?", could he really have done any better? The problem, as far as it goes, is that Bay's first at-bats against first Shields and then
Beyond the names now so very familiar from several Octobers past, it's the new guys who are especially interesting.
If there's an element of mystery, it's whether the famous people show up. Pedroia cooled off down the stretch, and his quiet ALDS wasn't a happy development. Ortiz's wrist woes and subsequent struggles at the plate have caused New England-wide panic attacks; in the last four weeks of the regular season he delivered his usual power but hit only .234/.289/.584 overall.
One of the other neat features of the Red Sox lineup is that this particular unit isn't being haunted by the ghost of
The Rays' offense is an elegant blend of speed and power, with a few dashes of OBP in all the right places. In part that's because they finished second in the AL in walks behind the Red Sox, their .265 team EqA rated third, again a notch behind the Red Sox; where the Red Sox offense got a huge home boost, scoring 5.7 runs at home but 4.7 on the road, the Rays averaged a much more even 4.9 at home and 4.6 everywhere else. The Rays keep things relatively simple by coming straight at opponents with
A tactical asset that might make a difference in this round is the Rays' speed. Where the Angels' speed has become something of a diminishing quantity, the Rays are a legitimately fast team, leading the league in steals despite losing Crawford and
A big question is whether or not this October could turn into Upton's coming-out party. After a season where a bum shoulder hampered his anticipated power output, he didn't seem any worse for wear facing good pitching against the White Sox while bashing three homers in the ALDS. Although he doesn't have a great track record against the Sox's front three (.186/.255/.349 with two homers in 47 PA), that's also a reflection of a young hitter. If he doesn't improve upon that, he'll have to settle for ALDS stardom, but he's better against fly-ball pitchers than any other type, and that's what he'll get to see in this series. This makes for an interesting contrast with the Rays' other blossoming star; with Longoria's pair of bombs to start off Game 1 of the ALDS, it remains to be seen whether he can build on that. He's been particularly homer-happy in the Trop this season, delivering two-thirds of his 27 homers at home, with a disparity in his home/road ISO marks of .292 batting in the bottom half of innings against .223 in the tops. That's not a bad thing, not when you've got home-field advantage, as the Rays do. What's interesting about Longoria's performance is the radical difference between his BABIP at home and on the road -- just .258 at home, against .365 on the road. That's pretty extreme, especially in light of his fly-ball tendencies. Given that he's not as dangerous against fly-ball pitchers and that's what the Red Sox are running out there, he may not have much of a chance to add to his legend.
With Lowell's breakdown, this goes from being an area of relative advantage for the Rays to an obvious romp. The Sox kept third catcher
As for the Rays' bench, the surprise may be the decision to drop Hinske for an eleventh pitcher, but as the ALDS proved, Maddon decided against employing him when a few opportunities cropped up (pinch-hitting for Bartlett in Game 3, or coming in for Pena at first base in Game 2), at which point it's just as well -- if you've got a choice between using and not using a roster spot, I'll go with using it, even if I'd rather Hinske got employed. Instead, Maddon's selections reflect a sense of history and perhaps his past as a coach with
If there's a goofy side bet to make in this series, it's whether either Hernandez or Velazquez get onto the field. Only present on their respective rosters because of injuries, if you've just switched on the game and you spot either, it's either a blowout or already in extras.
At first glance, the decision to lead off with Shields seems a bit strange; he'd be in line for a Game 5 start in Fenway. If the goal in leading off with Shields is to exploit his big home/road split (home: 2.59 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and just nine homers allowed in 121 1/3 IP; road: 4.82, 1.39, and 15 allowed in 93 1/3 IP), they only get that one time out. Add in that Shields has been crushed in Fenway twice already, and this starts to look like a really bad idea. However, because of that handy-dandy day off between Game 4 and Game 5, what we might instead see is the Game 2 starter making a Game 5start on a normal four days' rest, and then have Shields come out to face the Sox again on his home turf in Game 6. That would be an especially neat trick in the sense that it still accords Shields the honor of leading off the series, and if there's a real-world concern over Kazmir getting overly worked up, maybe this helps take the edge off.
You can count on the Sox to work the wild lefty -- all the better to bring Papi back into play -- but because of the schedule, however soon the Sox work Kazmir to his limit wouldn't militate against that Game 5 start. Admittedly, this wasn't Kazmir's best year against the Red Sox, as he took beatings his first and last times out against them while managing only one quality start in four tries. His inconsistency down the stretch is certainly cause for concern, but given the opponent and the opportunity, the Rays will have to play their cards extremely carefully deciding who starts where. If they don't, they will cost themselves the opportunity of maximizing the potential benefits while also putting their bullpen on the spot much earlier in games than they should want. The one thing to see will be if
The story's somewhat similar for the Red Sox:
The Red Sox may feature the names you know, but this is the unit with the biggest disparity between the two teams. Pick your numerical poison with a funny-sounding label: by WXRL, FRA, or ARP, the qualitative advantage the Rays possess in terms of both depth and talent is beyond question. The Rays don't have the famous closer, but it hasn't hurt them so far, so just plug up your ears when this fact gets belabored by studio save-mongers and jabbery play-by-play types.
Looking at the Raypen,
Because of the relative balance of righties and lefties in the Rays' starting lineup, I don't think
The massive change of fortunes in the bullpen for the Rays has been matched by what's been done on defense. This season, they finished atop the majors in Defensive Efficiency, doing the best job of converting balls in play into outs; this represented a worst-to-first improvement of a less-touted sort. The addition of Bartlett might not tidily translate into perfect defensive work for him, but positional interrelationships aren't really something sabermetrics has sorted out; it seems safe to concede that, with Iwamura and Bartlett up the middle, Upton settling into his first full season in center, and with Longoria as slick on the hot corner as Pena is on his, this is a unit with good glove work at the key positions.
The Red Sox are no slouches, finishing fifth overall this year and second last; adjust for the difficulty of playing in Fenway's nooks and crannies with Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (or PADE), and the Sox rank first in the league ahead of the Rays. Suffice it to say it's another area in which the two teams are evenly matched. Lowrie won't win any awards for his play at short, but remember, the Sox have a power/fly-ball rotation for the most part, and infield defense is, for them, less critical than the fact that with their quartet of regular outfielders they have a rangy crew who can help prevent in-play extra-base hits from happening in the first place.
Both men know their jobs, with Maddon coming along fast where Francona had to put in a bumpy first few years with the Phillies to really master his craft. Maddon's a product of the Scioscia school of putting pressure on a defense with some aggression on the basepaths, which means on defense, you can anticipate a lot of attempts by the Sox to limit the Rays running game through deterrence by holding runners close. Francona's not much for pitching out, and Varitek's not much for throwing people out. Maddon's not afraid to take risks with two outs if the risk/reward is between having a runner in scoring position and hitting reset on his lineup with a solid option leading off the next frame. Similarly, Francona will push with both Ellsbury and Crisp, and look for opportunities for a Red Sox team that's faster than it gets credit for. Francona might bunt with Crisp or Pedroia late in a game, and Bartlett might get asked to drop one down, but generally speaking, neither skipper's a Mauch-keteer when it comes to the sac bunt. Both will end up using their benches mostly to rotate in platoon partners -- Crisp for the Sox, Baldelli and Aybar for the Rays. Both have proven adaptable when it comes to changing gears in the bullpen: Francona in his willingness to work Masterson into more important situations as the season progressed; Maddon in his ability to roll with the peripatetic Percival and former closer
I'm left thinking that it's as even now, having run through it, as I felt going in. However, with the oddity of the schedule, I'm gambling that the Rays go with the Shields-skipping gambit for Game 5 that puts him at home twice in this series. In that instance, I can see the Rays taking a quick 2-0 lead at home, a Red Sox win in Game 3, Sonnanstine surprising people in Game 4, a Red Sox homestand-closing win in Game 4, and then the Rays winning the series in six, because if they don't, it'll be the Red Sox in seven. It may not have the same drama as the 1986 NLCS, where the Mets had to win in Game 6 or lose to