After a 28-game turnaround from 2012, 97 victories and an American League East title, the Boston Red Sox have earned home-field advantage throughout the postseason and the right to sit back and watch Tampa Bay and Cleveland battle for the right to arrive at Fenway Park for the ALDS on Friday.
Fans from Tampa to Cleveland to Red Sox players and management will be watching with bated breathe on Wednesday night when Alex Cobb and Danny Salazar toe the rubber at Progressive Field to determine the true AL Wild Card winner for 2013.
Much like the St. Louis Cardinals won't actively root for a victor on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, the sentiment is surely there deep down for the Red Sox on Wednesday. If anyone in Boston takes an objective look at the potential five-game postseason series battle, rooting interest will be clear.
In order to successfully get through the ALDS and on to bigger things in October, the Red Sox should be rooting for the Indians in the AL Wild Card game.
Before diving into four reasons that cast the Rays as a much bigger threat than the Indians, let's disclose this fact: Boston played well against both teams during the 2013 regular season. With a 12-7 record over Tampa and 6-1 over Cleveland, the Red Sox will enter the ALDS with confidence against either foe.
Of course, the postseason is a far different animal. Here are four reasons the Red Sox should hope to avoid the Rays.
1. Tampa owns the blueprint for shutting down Boston's offense
As explained here, the key to shutting down the high-powered Red Sox offense lies in simplicity: Throw strikes, limit walks and pitch deep into games. Despite profiling as a young, inexperienced staff, Tampa has the arms to do just that.
Led by David Price (5.59 SO/BB), the Rays, along with Alex Cobb (2.98 SO/BB) and Chris Archer (2.66 SO/BB), boast three starting pitchers that can limit free passes and Boston's ability to wear down opposing starters.
If Matt Moore (1.88 SO/BB) can show command and control, his raw stuff is good enough to get Red Sox hitters out on a consistent basis.
Rays manager Joe Maddon has these numbers and every Boston weakness available to him in order to craft a rotation, game plan and game-by-game decisions to derail Boston's hopes of a sustained October run, but it's up to the four Tampa arms to execute and render the Red Sox's best weapon a non-factor.
Over the years, the Red Sox-Rays rivalry has become one of the best in baseball. Until 2008, it flew under the radar due to Tampa's ineptitude during their first decade as a major league team. Of course, that didn't stop brawls and bench-clearing moments during Boston's time as powerhouse in the early 2000s.
Since 2008, including the seven-game American League Championship Series that propelled the Rays into their lone World Series appearance, Boston and Tampa have played 116 times. The ledger during those contests: Tampa 62, Boston 54.
Despite roster, managerial and front office changes on either side, the Red Sox and Rays know each other as well as any rivals in the sport.
If Tampa walks into Fenway Park on Friday afternoon for Game 1 of the ALDS, there won't be any wide eyes or overwhelmed players. Instead, expect business as usual for a team that can call Boston a second home.
3. The overrated narratives of Cleveland's possible battle with Boston
Look, Terry Francona, days after this quote via Twitter, returning to Boston with a new team and attempting to upset the Red Sox would be a tremendous storyline for baseball writers around the country. Factor in ex-Red Sox prospect Justin Masterson possibly serving as Cleveland's closer and former hated Yankees in Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi and it's clear that Indians-Red Sox is a drama made for October television.
Yet, the narratives of Terry's revenge and Boston ruing the way they treated their two-time World Series champion manager are a bit overrated. Yes, Tito received a raw deal, but Boston is in good hands with the Ben Cherington-John Farrell combination. It's more than likely that Boston is set up to be a contender for a longer period of time than Cleveland, regardless of the outcome of this potential ALDS.
Most importantly, though, the narrative won't change the game on the field. Will Francona want to beat the Red Sox more than he would have, say, Baltimore, if the Orioles had won the AL East?
I find that hard to believe.
TBS would undoubtedly recant the highs and lows of Francona's tenure in Boston, but unless Ubaldo Jimenez pitches great and Jason Kipnis hits the cover off the ball, it won't matter.
4. Boston's luck over Tampa could be about to run out
In the aftermath of a Boston victory over Tampa on September 12, Rays manager Joe Maddon had this to say (via Boston.com) about potentially seeing the Red Sox down the line: “We’re really looking forward to playing them in the playoffs."
Maddon could have been foreshadowing the inevitable, but, when looking at the numbers, he might have been offering a glimpse into why his team would want to see Boston in October.
As noted above, the Red Sox won 12 of 19 games over the Rays during the regular season. A deeper dive into those numbers, however, shows how fortunate those 12 wins were.
In an ultra-informative piece written by Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe in mid-September, the Red Sox scribe pointed out how Boston was winning the majority of battles with Tampa despite not hitting the ball very well.
Up to that point, Boston had posted a .207 batting average against Tampa pitching, but that number rose to .280 with runners in scoring position. On the other side, Tampa hit .237, but less than .150 during their best scoring chances.
While 19 games isn't a very small sample size, it's not big enough to give those numbers true merit. In other words, Boston's ability to hit over 130 points higher with men in scoring position may not carry over into the postseason.
If it doesn't, their margin for error will be very, very small, leading to close games and a managerial battle that can decide the series.
Which team should the Red Sox root for on Wednesday night?