The American League East champion Boston Red Sox will open their Division Series on Friday in Boston against the division rival Tampa Bay Rays, winners of the AL Wild-Card Game. The Sox won the season series 12-7 and had the AL's best home record at 53-28; the Rays have the worst road record of all the league's playoff teams but hold a 62-54 advantage over the Red Sox since 2008, including their seven-game win against Boston in the 2008 ALCS.
Player To Watch: Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox, CF
Ellsbury's terrific contract year was derailed by a compression fracture in his foot that he suffered in early September. As a result, he hasn't played back-to-back days since Sept. 4-5, though he quelled some injury concerns by playing three games in the last week of season, going 3-for-11 with a home run. (He also participated in Wednesday's intrasquad scrimmage and doubled, according to Twitter reports.)
There's no doubting the importance of Ellsbury to Boston's lineup. He's the consummate leadoff hitter who combines a good on-base percentage (.355) with great speed (a big league-leading 52 stolen bases). He's so important as a tone setter that the Red Sox are 52-16 when he scores a run and 27-39 when he doesn't. Ellsbury has paced this offense in the postseason before, too, as the Sox won all six of his starts (and the World Series) in Oct. 2007, during which he went 9-for-24 (.375).
Ellsbury is also one of Boston's best defenders. During the season, he saved 13 runs above average, according to the Fielding Bible, which ranked sixth in the majors at his position. If his foot is healed -- and all indications are that it is, up to and including a swinging bunt single on Sunday -- he's an offensive and defensive threat for the Sox.
Key Matchup: David Ortiz against the Rays' bullpen lefties
Ortiz was, once again, Boston's best hitter this season. His 30 home runs, 103 RBIs, 76 walks, .309 average, .395 on-base percentage and .564 slugging all led the team.
But, per usual, his left/right splits were a bit skewed and, in fact, were more exaggerated this season. Entering 2013, Ortiz had a .972 career OPS against righthanded pitchers and .824 against lefties, but this year those diverged further, to a 1.092 OPS against righthanders and .733 against lefthanders.
The job of shutting him down in the late innings will fall to Tampa Bay's lefty relievers, Jake McGee, Alex Torres and Cesar Ramos. In Ortiz's career, he is 1-for-8 with a walk against Ramos, 1-for-5 against McGee and 1-for-3 with a double against Torres.
Stat To Know: 82-18
That's the Rays' record when allowing four or fewer runs, the best in the majors. Tampa Bay's pedestrian offense, which ranked ninth in the AL with 700 run scoreds, further emphasizes the importance of its superb pitching and defense, as its lineup isn't made to win high-scoring games ending 7-6 or 10-8. But the Rays' run prevention was mightily consistent this season in holding opponents' lineups in check.
VERDUCCI: Tampa Bay rides System to victory yet again
It's of vital importance that they keep the score low and not have any lapses on the mound or in the field because they're not going to win a slugfest. That's especially true against the Red Sox, who, by the way, are the only club to have scored more than 800 runs, a threshold they blew past on their way to 853.
Roster Snapshot: Red Sox' depth
Few teams are as deep as Boston is. It got above-average offensive production (i.e. above the big league standard of a .714 OPS this season) at eight of its nine lineup slots this season, its pinch-hitters had a .923 OPS that led the majors by more than 100 points and each of its top four starting pitchers -- Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy -- are former All-Stars.
About the one area where the Sox have been stretched thin is in the bullpen. Koji Uehara, for instance, was third on the Opening Day depth chart at closer; all he's done since inheriting the role is unconscionably dominate -- a 1.09 ERA in 74 1/3 innings that included retiring 37 straight batters -- but his transfer to the ninth innings has left the early part of the bullpen a little more vulnerable.
X-factor: Matt Moore, Rays, LHP
The second big league start of Moore's career came in the playoffs -- ALDS Game 1 in 2011, to be exact -- and he's set to get the ALDS Game 1 assignment again on Friday in Boston. In that outing two years ago, also on the road (in Texas), Moore was dominant, throwing seven shutout innings and allowing just two hits and two walks.
Moore's performance could determine the series for Tampa Bay, as he's likely to get the ball in Games 1 and 5, both at Fenway Park. The Rays are 14-2 (.875) in games he has started on the road and not even half as good, 29-39 (.426), in all other games played away from Tropicana Field.
Moore won both starts against the Red Sox this year, one at home and one on the road, but he also has battled bouts of wildness all year. He has walked four or more hitters in eight starts, which is tied for third-most in the AL, and he's facing a lineup that ranked second in the majors in walks.
Prediction: Red Sox in 5
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