After four days off, the three American League division winners finally make their 2013 postseason debuts as the two AL Division Series kick off in Boston and Oakland, respectively.
Start time: 3:00 p.m. ET
From Sunday to Wednesday the Rays won three straight do-or-die games in three different cities. That survival act after having their season pushed to the brink was certainly impressive, but it also forced them to burn the two pitchers who were their best starters down the stretch. As a result, David Price and Alex Cobb will only pitch once each in this series, putting the burden of the Game 1 and potentially Game 5 on sophomore Matt Moore.
Not that Moore is a slouch. He went 8-1 with a 2.33 ERA in his final 12 starts of the regular season and shutout the Red Sox at Fenway Park the last time he faced them, on July 22, allowing just two singles and a walk. He also went 10-1 with a 2.74 ERA on the road on the season. However, Moore sat out all of August due to inflammation in his pitching elbow and has completed six innings just once in his six starts since returning from the disabled list and walked 6.2 men per nine innings in those six outings.
Meanwhile, Jon Lester, who matches up with Moore today, went 5-2 with a 2.19 ERA in his final 10 starts of the regular season, nine of which were quality. He allowed three runs in 13 1/3 innings (2.03 ERA) in two home starts against the Rays this season. On the season, Lester is 7-1 with a 3.09 ERA at home with better walk, strikeout and home run rates than on the road despite Fenway being a hitters' park.
Some of the batter-hitter matchups that you might think would favor the Rays in this game don't conform to expectations. You'd think that lefty-killer Delmon Young would be a key weapon against the lefthanded Lester, but Young is just 6-for-31 (.194) without an extra-base hit in his career against Lester. You would also think that the lefty Moore would neutralize the big lefty bat of David Ortiz, but that's not true either. Ortiz has gone 6-for-13 with three extra-base hits and a walk in his limited exposure to Moore, reaching base in half of their confrontations and slugging .846.
Tigers at A's
Start time: 9:30 p.m. ET
Starting pitchers: Max Scherzer (21-3, 2.90 ERA) vs. Bartolo Colon (18-6, 2.65 ERA)
Scherzer, the presumptive AL Cy Young award winner, belongs in the same category as Adam Wainwright and Clayton Kershaw, pitchers whose dominance and ultimate victory in their respective Game 1 starts Thursday night was as expected as it was impressive. Scherzer, beyond his Cy Young credentials (go past the gaudy record and find a league-best 0.97 WHIP, 240 strikeouts in 214 1/3 innings and a 4.29 K/BB) went 9-2 with a 2.28 ERA on the road this season striking out 10.5 men per nine innings in his road grays. Included in those road numbers was an April start in Oakland in which he allowed just one earned run in six innings and struck out 11.
That said, Scherzer did struggle in a rematch against the A's in Detroit at the end of August (5 IP, 6 R, his worst start of the season by Game Score), and his Game 1 opponent, the undead Bartolo Colon, was one of just four qualified AL pitchers with a lower ERA than Scherzer's this season, finishing second in the league with a 2.65 mark.
Colon, who was serving a performance-enhancing drug suspension when these two teams met in last year's ALDS, will be making his first postseason start since his Cy Young season of 2005. Colon struck out less than half as many men as Scherzer this season, but strikes are still crucial to his success. He pounds the strike zone (he walked just 29 men, hit none and threw just one wild pitch in 190 1/3 innings this season), throwing a ton of first-pitch strikes and using a nasty two-seamer that cuts back over the plate to get bad contact. When he does strike batters out, he gets a high percentage of called third strikes.
Colon spent two weeks on the disabled list with a groin strain in August. That time off may have helped him keep his 40-year-old arm fresh. In five starts since returning, he has gone 4-1 with a 1.16 ERA.
Scherzer's strikeouts are crucial because the Tigers are running out a defense behind him that has a hobbled Miguel Cabrera at third base and Jhonny Peralta in leftfield. Peralta has made just three career appearances in the outfield, all of those being starts in left on the final weekend of the regular season. While Peralta was serving his Biogenesis suspension, the Tigers replaced him at shortstop with the slick-fielding, light-hitting Jose Iglesias, but they want his bat in the lineup and Andy Dirks' disappointing season gave them a place to put it. As for Cabrera, the likely AL MVP has been slowed by hip flexor, abdominal, and groin strains and has just two extra-base hits in his last 25 games (96 PA). So, while he continues to get on base, he's unlikely to deliver the big hit the Tigers might otherwise expect from him. Of course, the Tigers beat the A's in last year's ALDS with Cabrera hitting a mere .250/.318/.350.