From 69-93 in 2012 to an American League-best 97-65 in 2013, the Boston Red Sox enter October rested and ready for a run to the Fall Classic. The first step of their postseason quest begins on Friday with Game 1 of the ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Despite besting Tampa by five full games atop the AL East standings, taking 12 of 19 head-to-head battles during the regular season and sporting a run differential more than 140 runs better, the Red Sox are no lock to down the Rays now.
Tampa is hot, winners of back-to-back games in which their season was on the line. Due to the familiarity of the two teams, Joe Maddon's team will enter Fenway Park confident on Friday afternoon.
In order for the Red Sox to surpass a team they were better than for six months, they'll need to follow this step-by-step guide. As the only Bleacher Report expert to pick Tampa to advance through this round, Boston will be in trouble if the following criteria isn't met during the ALDS.
Here is how the Red Sox can win the ALDS:
1. Use Tampa's fatigue against them
As noted on the Rays-Indians TBS broadcast, Tampa has played 39 games in 41 days dating back to late August. Despite receiving a complete game from David Price in Texas on Monday night and enjoying the fruits of Tuesday and Thursday off this week, the roster is gassed. If not for outstanding rotation depth, few would give Tampa a chance in Boston after using David Price and Alex Cobb just to reach this point.
If Tampa is running on fumes, Boston is fresh and raring to go since resting from the moment their regular-season finale was complete on Sunday.
Starting with the regular-season finale in Toronto to the tiebreaker game in Texas to the AL Wild Card Game in Cleveland to Game 1 in Boston, the Rays have spent most of their time on a plane over the last week. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have slept in their own beds and worked out in Fenway Park to prepare for their ALDS opponent.
If there's a time to catch Tampa asleep, in this case almost literally rather than figuratively, it's during Games 1 and 2. If Boston allows Tampa to win a game while catching its bearings, the Rays will be difficult to stop.
2. Exploit Matt Moore's weakness
When piecing together the blueprint for shutting down Boston's high-powered offensive attack, the depth, talent and skill of Tampa's rotation stood out. In David Price, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer, the Rays have the type of pitchers that can give this Red Sox lineup trouble in a short series.
The one name not mentioned, Matt Moore, happens to be toeing the rubber for Game 1 on Friday.
While the 24-year-old left-hander did make the AL All-Star roster, win 17 games and post an ERA+ of 116 this season, his command can still be suspect at times. Despite posting a K/9 rate of 8.6, Moore only featured a season SO/BB ratio of 1.88. Among starters with at least 150 innings pitched in 2013, Moore had the ninth-worst rate in baseball.
His stuff his dominant, but it's too often curtailed by poor command and control. If Boston's patient lineup can wait him out, Tampa will have to dive into its bullpen early, thus putting a strain on the Game 2 starter to go deep into that game to preserve the pen.
Working up Moore's pitch count can have a domino effect for the entire series. If Boston knocks Moore out before the sixth inning of Game 1, it's a boon for their chances.
3. Get the ball to Uehara
By any objective measure, Koji Uehara was amazing during the 2013 season. His ascension to Red Sox closer amidst injuries is one of the best stories of the season and a major reason for Boston's worst-to-first turnaround in the American League East.
While Uehara isn't quite ready to profile as Mariano Rivera in October, his skill level and ability to pitch better in the biggest moments should give Red Sox fans confidence that he'll translate his regular-season success into the playoffs.
Holding the lead heading into the ninth inning is a solid plan for any team in any game, but it's almost a sure victory for this Red Sox team.
Through John Farrell's managing and execution on the field, the Red Sox need to think of the ALDS as eight-inning games. If it has the lead through eight frames, it's likely over with Uehara awaiting for the ninth.
4. Continue to beat Tampa in the clutch
Although Boston won the season series over Tampa by a significant margin (12-7), it didn't dominate the affairs from start to finish.
As Rays manager Joe Maddon (via MLB.com) pointed out in September, the games have been decided in critical moments, not by Boston dominance.
"This series, this whole season, is lopsided in regards to wins and losses [against the Red Sox]," said Maddon, "but it's been a lot closer than that. We're really looking forward to playing them in the playoffs."
Heading into its mid-September series, Boston had posted a .207 batting average against Tampa pitching, but that number rose to .280 with runners in scoring position.
In other words, Tampa's pitching shut down Boston's hitting for most of the game, but the American League's best offense was able to come through with clutch hits when it did have runners get into scoring position.
While hitting with runners in scoring position isn't a repeatable "skill," teams that succeed through October often get the big hits in the big moments, despite the level of pitching on the other side.
As that shot off the bat of Mike Carp reminds us, Boston was at its best in the biggest moments during 19 meetings with Tampa this season. In order to advance, that will have to carry over for five more contests.
5. Control Tampa's left-handed bats
If Red Sox manager John Farrell considers it a key, so will we. Per Ian Browne of MLB.com: "To control their left-handed hitters is critical from our standpoint, and that's not to say that [Evan] Longoria, [Wil] Myers and other right-handers in that lineup can't do damage. But when they've scored a number of runs, it's what their left-handed hitters have done."
Any series with Tampa usually starts with a game plan to shut down Evan Longoria. Since the call-up of Wil Myers, his right-handed power stick is now also part of that conversation. However, Farrell's point about stopping the lefties could be the key to this series.
Ben Zobrist, James Loney and Matt Joyce rarely get credit for the offensive contributors they are in Tampa's success.
Zobrist, due to his ability to play multiple defensive positions and all-around game, isn't lauded for his offense, but he owns the 23rd highest OBP in baseball since 2009. His .366 mark is better than Derek Jeter, Evan Longoria or Mark Teixeira.
Loney, known as a steady glove man but declining hitter, deserved his No. 3 spot in Tampa's order during Wednesday night's Wild Card Game due to a 118 OPS+ during the regular season.
Joyce, despite struggling (.375 OPS) in September, still cranked 18 home runs during the season, and owns a career slugging percentage of .481 against right-handed pitching.
Longoria and Myers are the best offensive players in Tampa's lineup, but there's enough left-handed firepower to give John Farrell matchup headaches during late-game pitching changes.
For Boston to succeed, they'll need to keep Tampa's complementary bats quiet.
What is the key to Rays-Red Sox?
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