Breaking down Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
Series: ALCS, Game 4; Rays lead 2-1Time: 8:07 p.m. ESTTV: TBSStarters: Andy Sonnanstine (1-0, 3.18, postseaon) vs. Tim Wakefield (10-11, 4.13, regular season)
By beating Jon Lester last night the Rays have completely changed the outlook of the ALCS. Entering this series the only sure thing seemed to be that the Red Sox would win behind Lester in Game 3 and would have the upper hand with Lester pitching again if the series went seven games. Now the Rays have a very real chance to wrap up this series before Lester gets a chance to make up for last night. A victory tonight would put them one win away from the World Series, and the Rays not only have the momentum but they also have the advantage in tonight's starting pitching matchup.
Sonnanstine made a great leap forward this year, shaving nearly a run and a half off his rookie year ERA from 2007 with the help of the Rays' vastly improved defense and a reduced home run rate. He's also the only starter that the Rays will throw in this series who wasn't significantly better at Tropicana Field than on the road. That is best and most applicably exemplified by his two starts against the Red Sox --both of which came in September -- one at home, one at Fenway Park. In the two starts combined, the 25-year-old right-hander allowed just two runs, both unearned, while striking out 12 in 13 innings. The better of those two starts (7 IP, 7 K, 0 BB) was the one in Fenway. Jed Lowrie had three of the seven hits that Sonnanstine allowed in those two games. Sonnanstine gave up just three hits in his win in the clinching Game 4 of the ALDS against the White Sox in Chicago, but two of them were solo home runs, the latter knocking him from the game with two outs in the sixth. Both of those home runs were hit by right-handed hitters, who have been harder on Sonnanstine than lefties this year (.289 BA vs. .265).
Opposing Sonnanstine will be 42-year-old knuckleballer Wakefield, who hasn't pitched since Sept. 28, when he tossed five shutout innings at home against a Yankees lineup populated by minor league call-ups. The right-handed Wakefield is a postseason veteran who would have been the MVP of the 2003 ALCS had he not given up the series-ending home run to Aaron Boone in extra innings in Game 7. Given his success in that series it's surprising to see that Wakefield has a 6.36 career ERA across eight postseasons dating back to 1992. In his three Octobers since that fateful pitch to Boone, Wakefield has allowed 21 runs in as many innings across three starts and three relief appearances. In the three starts he has averaged less than five innings while posting a 9.22 ERA.
Things don't get much better for Wakefield when you look at his 5.87 ERA in three starts against the Rays this year, all of which took place in Florida. That number was inflated by his last start against Tampa Bay on Sept. 17, when the Rays roughed up Wakefield for six runs in 2 1/3 innings, connecting for three home runs (Gabe Gross, Willy Aybar and Fernando Perez). Among the Rays with solid career numbers against Wakefield are Akinori Iwamura (.417/.517/.542 and just one strikeout in 29 plate appearances), Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett and Dioner Navarro. Rookie Evan Longoria is 3 for 6 against Wakefield, and the aforementioned home runs by Aybar and Perez came in their only career confrontations with Wakefield. If there's any consolation for Wakefield it's that he has been better at home this year (7-4, 3.10 ERA and just nine home runs allowed in 14 starts, though with a startling 10 hit batsmen), where he has yet to face this year's Rays squad.
Of course with the way the Rays have been stinging the ball in the last two games it may not matter who's pitching or where. After being shut out in Game 1 Tampa Bay scored 18 runs and launched seven home runs in Games 2 and 3 combined, hitting .307/.356/.617 as a team. Despite all that offense the Rays have still scored off only four Boston pitchers in this series: Josh Beckett, Mike Timlin, Lester and Paul Byrd (the last of whom did his team a great favor by eating up all 3 1/3 relief innings last night). Of those four Beckett is almost surely hurt, Timlin wasn't even on Boston's ALDS roster and neither Timlin nor Byrd had pitched since the regular season. Then again, neither has Wakefield.