ALDS 2013: Step-by-Step Guide for the Tampa Bay Rays to Win the Series

Ben Stepansky@@benstepanskyCorrespondent IOctober 3, 2013

ALDS 2013: Step-by-Step Guide for the Tampa Bay Rays to Win the Series

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    Evan Longoria joins the celebration around Fernando Rodney after beating the Cleveland Indians.
    Evan Longoria joins the celebration around Fernando Rodney after beating the Cleveland Indians.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    As the Tampa Bay Rays march into Fenway Park for their American League Division Series against the Boston Red Sox on Friday, no team is more battle tested on the road than Joe Maddon's troops.

    Alex Cobb, who just three-and-a-half months ago was carted off the field after taking a line drive to his right ear, gave his team 6.2 innings of shutout baseball Thursday, escaping multiple jams to forge a 4-0 victory over the Cleveland Indians in the AL Wild Card Play-In Game. 

    Three consecutive road elimination games were no trouble for the Rays. They defeated the Toronto Blue Jays to close out the regular season, neatly handled the Texas Rangers to claim the final wild-card spot and disposed of the Indians last night.

    Now, a five-game set against their AL East rival, the Red Sox, that will begin at Fenway is the latest obstacle to overcome. Boston got the better of Tampa Bay during the regular season, winning 12 of 19 matchups, but as we all know, the playoffs is a new opportunity, a clean slate and a separate season.

    There are certain steps the Rays must take to knock off the team with the best record in baseball. Let's take a look.

Step 1: Keep the Red Sox off the Base Paths...

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    Jacoby Ellsbury swipes a bag.
    Jacoby Ellsbury swipes a bag.Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    The Red Sox are an extremely patient team that will take advantage of pitchers' mistakes early and often. 

    Their No. 1 ranked offense led the majors in OBP (.349) and OPS (.795) while drawing the second-most walks all season (581). Put a runner on base—specifically Jacoby Ellsbury—and you're entering a world of pain, evidenced by an 87 percent success rate swiping bases (123 steals while only being caught 19 times).

    Second to only the Detroit Tigers, the Red Sox team batting average with runners on (.285) and with runners in scoring position (.278) helped produce the highest scoring team in baseball (758 runs).

    You get the point. 

    To counteract the potent Sox offense, Rays pitching must pound the zone, throw lots of strikes and get ahead of batters. By keeping the Red Sox hitters off balance and behind in counts, a lineup that boasts eight of nine starters with on-base percentages at .333 or better won't be able to leverage its run-scoring abilities.

    Obviously, this strategy is easier said than done, and if Sox hitters decide to swing early, the plan could backfire. But it will be better for Rays pitchers to trust their fielders to make plays than hand the series over to the Sox at the behest of base on balls.

...While Putting Men on Base for Evan Longoria

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    Longoria can drive the ball to all parts of the ballpark.
    Longoria can drive the ball to all parts of the ballpark.Elsa/Getty Images

    Over his last seven games of the regular season, including the one-game playoff against the Rangers, Evan Longoria has hit .414 (12-for-29) with five extra-base hits (three home runs) and 11 RBI. 

    Scoring runs will be a premium against the Red Sox, so taking advantage of each and every opportunity is essential. After watching David DeJesus and Wil Myers struggle in the one- and two-holes (2-for-14) against the Rangers and Indians, don't be surprised if Maddon slips Desmond Jennings ahead of Longoria in the lineup. 

    Consistency during the season has been an issue for the Rays top home run and RBI producer, but if he can find his sweet stroke and sustain it for the entire series, Red Sox pitching may run into some trouble. 

    In 2013, Longoria is just 2-for-12 against Game 1 starter Jon Lester, however, those two hits were home runs. Against Game 2 pitcher John Lackey, Longoria is 3-for-6, also with a home run. 

    Without a serious threat in the middle of the lineup, the Rays will be ousted at the Trop. Longoria has been a Sox killer before, and he must do it again.

Step 2: Get Strong, Starting Pitching...

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    Matt Moore will pitch in his first playoff game Friday.
    Matt Moore will pitch in his first playoff game Friday.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    It couldn't be a more cliche key to victory.

    However, for a starting rotation that ranked among the best in the majors in 2013, providing quality starts and pitching deep into games could not be more valuable in the upcoming series against the Red Sox. 

    At age 24, Matt Moore, who went 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA and made his first All-Star appearance this season, will take the rubber in Game 1 against left-hander Jon Lester. David Price (7-3, 2.87 ERA in second half) will start Game 2 and Chris Archer (9-7, 3.22 ERA) will likely getting the call in Game 3 before Alex Cobb (11-3, 2.76 ERA) takes the mound again in Game 4. 

    Joe Maddon won't be actively attempting to avoid the bullpen, he'll just be squeezing as much out of his starters as possible. In fact, the bullpen was pretty good for the Rays in 2013 with the AL's second-best Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which is defined by Fangraphs as "measur[ing] what a player’s ERA should have looked like over a given time period, assuming that performance on balls in play and timing were league average."

    Some important relievers like set-up man Joel Peralta and closer Fernando Rodney can struggle with their control, though. Peralta has a 4.3 BB/9 ratio while Rodney's is closer to five at 4.9. Many Rays relievers have had trouble with the Sox offense as well, watching their ERA's skyrocket in the season series. Peralta (4.82), Rodney (6.75) and Jamey Wright (6.14) will hope for better success in October. 

    Sometimes cliches are warranted.

...While Rattling Sox Starters Early

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    The Rays will try to hop out in front of Jon Lester and the Red Sox.
    The Rays will try to hop out in front of Jon Lester and the Red Sox.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Red Sox manager John Farrell named the resurgent Jon Lester the Game 1 starter against the Rays. After a rough June in which he compiled a 7.62 ERA and recorded nearly as many walks (16) as strike outs (23), Lester has proven his worth as an ace, going 7-2 with a 2.57 ERA in the second half. 

    John Lackey gets the start in Game 2 thanks to his superior home pitching statistics—a 6-3 record with a 2.47 ERA at Fenway Park—compared to his road results (4-10, 4.48 ERA). Clay Buchholz (12-1, 1.74 ERA) and Jake Peavy (12-5, 4.17 ERA) will hurl at the Trop.

    On the whole, the Sox playoff rotation is strong. Lester, Lackey and Buchholz are pitching like No. 1 starters and Peavy has such emotional fire on the mound. But if the Rays can put runs up on the board early and get inside the head of any of these pitchers, demons can derail the Sox staff. 

    Lester has had confidence issues, Lackey has a troubled past in Boston (See: chicken and beer) and Buchholz, though returning strong, missed much of the season with a sensitive shoulder issue.

    I'm not saying these will derail the Sox season, but one can't deny their presence.

    Furthermore, the Sox's long-inning relief options are by no means waterproof. Starter Ryan Dempster with his 4.57 ERA has been moved to the bullpen and Franklin Morales is by no means a shutdown reliever.

    Rattling the starters and outscoring the Red Sox is an important avenue for the Rays advancing this postseason.

Step 3: Steal a Game at Fenway

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    Fenway is the stage Friday night.
    Fenway is the stage Friday night.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Losing a playoff game at home is demoralizing to both the team and its fanbase. If the Rays can take one (or both) games at Fenway, they'll return to the Trop at least tied in the series.

    Now, Tropicana Field is arguably a shared home for both the Rays and Red Sox, as Red Sox Nation spreads down to St. Petersburg, but a home game is a home game and batting in the bottom of the inning is beneficial for any team.

    The Rays were 51-30 at home in 2013 and 41-41 on the road. Throwing Moore (2-0, 1.80 ERA vs. Red Sox in 2013) and Price (2-2, 2.48 ERA) in Game 1 and 2 should give Tampa Bay a solid shot at returning to St. Pete in a good position.

    The last time the AL East rivals met in the playoffs was for the 2008 ALCS, which the Rays won in seven games. The two teams split the four games at Tropicana Field, but the Rays won two of three games at Fenway Park, outscoring the Red Sox 29-13.

    This series goes just five games but prepare for all five games to be played.


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