Series: ALDS, Game 4; Rays lead 2-1Time: 5:07 p.m.Starters:Andy Sonnanstine (13-9, 4.38) vs. Gavin Floyd (17-8, 3.83)
Like Game 3 winner John Danks did yesterday, Floyd is taking the mound at the Cell today to save his team's season for the second time in a week. Floyd was the winner in the make-up game against the Tigers last Monday that forced Tuesday's playoff against the Twins, which was won by Danks. Facing a largely right-handed Tigers lineup, Floyd struck out eight in that game while allowing just two runs (one earned) in six innings. This evening, however, he'll have to contend with a Rays' lineup that features six left-handed hitters. That's significant because lefties hit .259/.340/.485 with 19 home runs in 371 at-bats against Floyd this year. Two of the lefties Floyd will face tonight, leadoff man Akinori Iwamura (5-for-13 with a triple and a homer) and switch-hitting catcher Dioner Navarro (5-for-11 with three doubles), are among the Rays' hottest hitters. In addition, lefty-hitting first baseman Carlos Peña went 2-for-5 yesterday after sitting out Game 2 and most of Game 1 with a scratched cornea. None of those three lefties have ever faced Floyd before, though, in part because the 25-year-old former Phillies prospect has never faced the Rays. However, Floyd saw enough of the Rays' lefty DH Cliff Floyd in the National League to give up a single, a double and a homer to him in 11 at-bats.
Sonnanstine faced the White Sox three times this year, the first of which saw him shut out Chicago on three hits at the Trop in April. In those starts, plus one from June of '07, the batter with the most success against Sonnanstine was A.J. Pierzynski, who went 6-for-9, all singles. Sonnanstine has been one of the primary benefactors of the Rays' improved defense this year. As a rookie last year Sonnanstine posted a 5.85 ERA in 22 starts, in part due to his opponents' .333 batting average on balls in play. This season his BABIP dipped to .309 and his ERA dropped nearly run and a half. Another reason for that improvement has been Sonnanstine's ability to get his home run rate down to a roughly-league-average 0.98 home runs per nine innings from 1.24 HR/9 last year. In 88 plate appearances the men on the White Sox's playoff roster have just one home run against Sonnanstine, that coming off Jim Thome's bat in their last meeting in late August.
The Angels deserve considerable credit for pulling out last night's 12-inning win after losing 11 straight playoff games to the Red Sox and making what could have been a back-breaking misplay in the bottom of the second on Jacoby Ellsbury's three-run bloop single. Still, they likely only postponed the inevitable. Lester dominated the Halos in Game 1 (7 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 7 K), and he's been close to unbeatable at Fenway this year (11-1, 2.49 ERA, that one loss coming on April 9). In his last seven home starts Lester went 7-0 with a 1.88 ERA and averaged nearly seven innings per start. Oh, and he threw a no-hitter against the Royals at Fenway in mid-May. With Josh Beckett either hurt, ineffective or both, the 24-year-old Lester is quickly emerging as the Red Sox's ace, and he'll likely pitch them into the ALCS tonight.
Lackey pitched well in Game 1, but wasn't really much competition for Lester. The good news for Angels fans is that Lackey was a significantly better pitcher on the road this year, going 7-2 with a 3.23 ERA and allowing less than a hit per inning outside of Anaheim. Lackey nearly had a no-hitter at Fenway himself in late July, but had it broken up by a Dustin Pedroia single and a Kevin Youkilis home run with one out in the ninth. Youkilis hit another dinger off Lackey in his other start against the Sox and, as I wrote in my Game 1 preview, home runs proved to be Lackey's bugaboo as the season progressed. Lackey allowed seven home runs in his last five starts of the regular season, 20 in his last 15 starts, and the two-run jack he surrendered to Jason Bay in Game 1 was the difference in that game. Home runs are a bad bugaboo to have entering an elimination game at Fenway Park, but if Lester's on his game, Lackey could keep the Sox in the park and still lose.
Even if both starters struggle, the advantage remains with the Red Sox, as their relievers were more efficient in last night's extra-inning contest. The top three men in the Angels bullpen (Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields and Jose Arredondo), each threw at least 28 pitches last night (Rodriguez threw 33 in his only inning of work), while the only Boston reliever to reach that number was Jonathan Papelbon, who threw 31 across two scoreless innings. Hideki Okajima and Justin Masterson threw just 17 and 16 pitches, respectively. What's more, the Sox didn't dip into their supply of re-purposed starters, leaving Tim Wakefield and Paul Byrd fresh, while the Angels' Jered Weaver threw 34 pitches across two innings (though he did get the win). The Angels have shown a lot of fight by coming back to tie Game 2 and outlasting the Sox in Game 3, but if this were a boxing match, they'd have just fallen for the rope-a-dope. The only question is who's going to throw the knockout punch tonight.