It took a collapse aided by chicken and beer, two managerial changes, one blockbuster trade involving a couple hundred million dollars in contracts and an offseason of signing free agents known as much for their character as their play, but the Boston Red Sox made a statement in their first playoff game since 2009.
Taking on division rival Tampa Bay, a team coming off three straight victories in win-or-go-home situations, the Red Sox packed a wallop in their 12-2 victory at Fenway Park on Friday to take a 1-0 lead in the American League Division Series.
The wheels came off for the Rays in the fourth inning, with the Red Sox subsequently hitting their stride. Dustin Pedroia got the first hit off Tampa Bay starter Matt Moore with a single and moved to third on what proved to be a critical mistake by rookie outfielder Wil Myers.
David Ortiz hit a fly ball near the right-center field wall that Myers had a beat on, yet the rookie outfielder moved in at the last minute and the ball hopped the fence for a ground-rule double, putting Pedroia on third.
It's not entirely clear what Myers was doing or what he heard, but TBS analyst and former Red Sox great Pedro Martinez offered this hypothesis, courtesy of Keith Olbermann:
Pedro Martinez's theory on Myers: #RedSox bullpenner preparing to catch what he assumed was a homer, shouted "I Got It" - Myers heard that— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) October 4, 2013
Myers, however, refuted that after the game, telling reporters that the explanation for what caused the miscue was much simpler (h/t Jerry Crasnick of ESPN):
No mystery voice in #redsox bullpen. Wil Myers said he saw Jennings out of corner of his eye and peeled off Ortiz fly ball.— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) October 4, 2013
Whatever the reason for Myers' mental gaffe, the floodgates opened after that. The Red Sox scored five runs in the fourth inning, three more in the fifth and put the finishing touches with a four-run eighth inning.
There is certainly plenty of blame to put on Tampa Bay's shoulders for this game. Aside from the Myers miscue, Jarrod Saltalamacchia reached base on an infield single in which Moore did a poor job of covering first base, and Sean Rodriguez misplayed a ball hit off the Green Monster by Will Middlebrooks.
Boston's offense is good enough on its own, but when it is getting five or six outs in an inning you get...well, you get exactly what we saw on Friday afternoon.
All of this makes you wonder how the Rays will be able to keep things close in this series.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's remember that David Price will be starting Game 2 and could make the Red Sox look silly because he is that good.
However, when the Rays don't have their best pitcher on the mound, what can they do to keep this lineup down?
The sad answer, especially for those of us who like drama in the playoffs, is not much. This wasn't just a random one-time occurrence for the Red Sox.
At a time when offensive numbers are down across the board in baseball, Boston has put together a deep lineup that can punish anyone.
Here are some key offensive numbers for the Red Sox, and how they compare to everyone else around baseball:
|No. 2 Team||796 (Detroit)||322 (St. Louis)||2,491 (Detroit)||.780 (Detroit)|
Those are impressive numbers, and not just because the Red Sox led the league in all those categories, but also due to the fact that the distance between them and the No. 2 team is so vast.
For perspective, the distance between the Red Sox and Tigers in runs scored is greater than the distance between the Tigers and the sixth-ranked Indians who had 745 runs. They were the only team that averaged more than five runs per game in 2013.
The other scary thing is how easily the Red Sox make adjustments. They got to Moore the second time he went through the order, which as Marc Normandin of Baseball Prospectus notes, is no accident.
A reminder: the Red Sox hit .300/.363/.492 *as a team* this year against starting pitchers the second time through the lineup.— Marc Normandin (@Marc_Normandin) October 4, 2013
I would say that the one way the Rays can hope to contain this quick-strike, high-powered Boston offense is to put a strikeout pitcher on the mound.
If there is one weakness to the Red Sox lineup, it is their high strikeout total. They whiffed 1,308 times, eighth most in the big leagues.
Yet even that theory doesn't hold much weight because a majority of those strikeouts, 450 (34.4 percent) to be exact, came from just three players (Mike Napoli, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Stephen Drew).
And those three players still had on-base percentages over .330, so when you combine that with players who are always putting the ball in play like Dustin Pedroia and Shane Victorino, not to mention David Ortiz, who controls the zone very well for a slugger with just 88 strikeouts in 518 at-bats, there are really no dead spots in the lineup.
You never want to say that the Rays are out of a series because the one thing they have built as well as any team in baseball is a pitching staff. But this isn't the same group it used to be. In the past they could have turned to James Shields before or after Price, but he was traded to Kansas City for Myers.
What is more likely to happen the rest of this series?
I am not saying the Rays shouldn't have made the trade. It was a great move then, and remains a brilliant move today. But now they are relying on pitchers who don't have Shields' track record, like Moore or Chris Archer or Alex Cobb, to get them over the hump in the postseason.
With Price being the only starter that warrants trust at this point, with Cobb a fairly distant second, it's going to be extremely difficult for the Rays to keep those potent Red Sox bats down for too long.
To their credit, the Rays did hold Boston to just 71 runs in 19 regular-season games. That was the lowest total the Red Sox scored against any AL East team this season, with Baltimore far behind at 84.
When we made our World Series picks, I went with the Red Sox because they are capable of doing exactly what they did on Friday game after game after game. No one else in baseball, with the possible exception of St. Louis, which just got shellacked by Pittsburgh in Game 2 of the NLDS, can match that offensive potency and consistency.
Even though it was just one game, how do you not feel confident about where the Red Sox are at right now? And we didn't even talk about the pitching, with Jon Lester going 7.2 innings and allowing just two runs on three hits.
If they get that kind of effort from Lester throughout these playoffs, with a solid bullpen and quality depth behind him, Boston will be celebrating a third World Series title since 2004. Not bad for a franchise that endured 86 years of misery.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
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