Twice this week, the Tampa Bay Rays found themselves in a win-or-go-home scenario, and both times the Rays emerged victorious, living to play another day.
Their reward? A trip up to Fenway Park to face off against their division rivals, the Boston Red Sox, which to some may seem more like a punishment than a reward, given Tampa Bay's losing record against the Sox during the regular season.
But the playoffs are a different animal, and if we've learned anything from watching baseball over the years it's that in a short series, anything can—and usually does—happen.
With that in mind, let's take a look at five steps the Rays need to take if they have any hopes of finding success and living to play another day once again, this time in the American League Championship Series.
To borrow a line from "the most interesting man in the world," the Rays don't always steal bases—but when they do, they prefer to do so with Jarrod Saltalamacchia behind the plate.
Of Tampa Bay's 73 steals on the season, 16 came against Boston—more than twice as many as the Rays recorded against any other team. Saltalamacchia allowed 10 of those stolen bases, failing to throw a single runner out.
Boston's starting catcher threw out a paltry 21.2 percent of base stealers, allowing 89 swipes on the season, the highest total among qualified major league catchers.
While only two Rays recorded double-digit stolen base totals this season—Desmond Jennings (20) and Ben Zobrist (11)—Joe Maddon needs to give his players the green light to take off running more often than not, daring Saltalamacchia to try and stop them.
For the second season in a row, Tampa Bay was baseball's most patient team at the plate, drawing walks 9.4 percent of the time, the highest mark in the game. Coupled with an 18.8 percent strikeout rate that ranked in the bottom third of baseball, it's easy to see why the Rays won more games than they lost.
While that walk rate increases slightly against Boston, reaching the 10 percent mark, the team's strikeout rate makes a more significant jump, rising to 21.9 percent of the time. That's not good, and it's three of the team's most important bats that shoulder the bulk of the blame:
|Player||2013 BB%||2013 BB% vs. Boston||2013 K%||2013 K% vs. Boston|
If the Rays are going to find success in the ALDS against the Red Sox, the entire team—especially this trio of players—is going to have to buckle down and get back to what made them a successful team during the regular season—a more disciplined approach at the plate than their opponents.
Some teams thrive when their backs are against the wall, overcoming the odds—and the deficit on the scoreboard—as if it were second nature. Others simply aren't wired that way.
When it comes to the Rays taking on the Red Sox, the latter is most definitely the case.
In the 19 games that the two teams played this season, Tampa Bay scored first eight times, going 5-3 in those games. In the other 11, games in which Boston opened the scoring? A 2-9 record. That puts immense pressure on the team's starting rotation—and defense—to be sharp in the early innings.
There is some good news, however.
As you can see from the numbers below, this season, Tampa Bay's offense is at its best—and does most of its damage—in the first three innings of a game:
|Innings 1-3||.267||.340||.779||183 (65)||255||268||206/387|
|Innings 4-6||.253||.321||.736||169 (65)||229||234||180/378|
|Innings 7-9||.248||.322||.688||124 (32)||172||183||180/377|
If the Rays can keep true to their splits for the bulk of the season, their chances of success against the Red Sox increase substantially. If not, the team's remarkable run to the postseason is likely to come to a quick and abrupt end.
Aside from the team's need to get out to an early lead against Boston due to their history against the Red Sox this season, a major reason why Tampa Bay needs to score early is because their starting rotation gets hit the hardest in the first three innings of the game.
Not even David Price, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, is immune to this phenomenon of starting off slow. Take a look at the ugly truth:
|Pitcher||ERA in Innings 1-3||WHIP in Innings 1-3||ERA in Innings 4-6||WHIP in Innings 4-6||ERA in Innings 7-9||WHIP in Innings 7-9|
In a short series, Tampa Bay's starters may not have the luxury of rebounding from a slow start to the game—and that could be the difference between advancing to the ALCS and going home.
Simply put, the team's starters need to elevate their games much earlier than they have been up to this point.
Playing Boston 19 times during the regular season, the Rays undoubtedly have binders as thick as encyclopedias full of information on their division rivals, from every batter's tendencies at the plate to what kind of food the players eat before the game and how that translates to their production on the field.
Tampa Bay has everything that it needs to prepare for this series, and there won't be any surprises when the series begins on Friday.
While the same can be said of the Red Sox, it's up to Joe Maddon and his coaching staff to prove that they are superior planners to John Farrell and his staff on the other side of the field.
That's easier said than done, to be sure, but there's a reason that Maddon is a perennial candidate for AL Manager of the Year honors—now is the time for him to remind the rest of baseball why that's the case.