The best regular-season team in the American League is four wins away from being crowned the best postseason team in the league. After eliminating the Tampa Bay Rays in four games, the Boston Red Sox are heading home to rest up and await the winner of Thursday's Game 5 between the Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics.
For the ninth time in franchise history and first since 2008, the Red Sox are headed to the League Championship Series. They'll enter as the favorites to reach the World Series, but don't crown them yet. In order for the Red Sox to complete the task and find their way to the World Series, they'll have to navigate through a difficult seven-game series with either Oakland or Detroit.
Although the series with Tampa, especially during the last two games, felt like the final frontier on the path to a World Series, it was just the start.
After 162 regular-season games and four in early October, the grind has arrived. In the aftermath of Boston's series-clinching 3-1 victory over the Rays on Tuesday, Jacoby Ellsbury noted to Rachel Nichols on TBS that the team is "mentally exhausted" after the League Division Series. Between the last out of the LDS and Game 1 of the LCS on Saturday, Boston must shake off the mental fatigue and prepare for its biggest test yet.
Regardless of the opponent, Detroit or Oakland, the competition is about to get tougher for Boston in the American League. As the other ALDS series has shown, both the Tigers and Athletics aren't just good teams; they're each capable of extended runs through October due to quality starting pitching and power bats.
During the regular season, Boston won 12 of 19 games with Tampa Bay but didn't win the season series against either Detroit or Oakland. In six games with the Athletics, the teams split, 3-3. In seven games with Detroit, the Tigers took the season series by winning four.
Due to an explosion of offense in Boston during the first two games of the LDS, the Tampa Bay Rays never seemed to gain traction in their series loss to the Red Sox. Boston is too talented to be overtaken by a team with zero margin for error.
When the ALCS opens, the slate will be clean. Boston will need to pick up where it left off during the postseason's first two games, not during its less impressive trip to Tampa. In a five-game series, winning the first two can demoralize an opponent, but neither Detroit nor Oakland would be in nearly as big of a hole in a seven-game tilt.
If the Red Sox are to make it to the World Series, they'll need Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz to pitch them there. Both are capable of dominating either of the potential ALCS opponents, but don't overlook Lester's career numbers against Detroit and Buchholz's against Oakland. If the Red Sox capture the American League crown, they'll need a reversal of fortune for their two homegrown arms.
The following chart shows how some of Detroit's hitters have fared against Jon Lester during his career:
With Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez all hitting well off him, Lester will need to adjust. If he fails to, Detroit's offense will overwhelm him and put Boston in a very, very big hole in two ALCS games.
If the opponent is Oakland, the spotlight shines on Clay Buchholz's career against Oakland, specifically its excellent leadoff hitter.
The following chart shows how some of Oakland hitters have hit Buchholz during his career:
As you can see, the sample is much smaller, probably predicated by the youth and constant overhauling in Oakland, but one hitter stands out: Coco Crisp.
The 33-year-old outfielder has carried over a career year into October. As Mike Axisa of CBS Sports pointed out after Game 4 of the Athletics-Tigers series, Crisp set career highs in home runs, walks and OPS+ during the regular season.
During his career, he's hit .308 with a home run off Buchholz. Despite being overshadowed by a bigger star like Yoenis Cespedes or an MVP candidate like Josh Donaldson, Coco Crisp is makes the A's engine run. Boston must keep him off the bases to succeed, especially during Buchholz starts.
With the 2013 postseason shifting from the Wild Card Round to the LDS to the LCS, the stakes have been raised. There's little question that Boston has earned the right to be called the favorite in the American League. After dominating the best division in baseball, it disposed of a Tampa team that I believed could reach the World Series.
Will the Red Sox win the American League pennant?
Now, the Sox will continue to be the hunted in the American League. If their top two pitchers can handle the opposing hitters who have given them trouble in the past, Boston should have enough offense, led by Shane Victorino and David Ortiz, and enough relief pitching, led by Koji Uehara, to reach the World Series.
It's too early to crown the Red Sox as American League champions, but the formula is there for a continued run through October. The challenge will become more difficult, but, judging by how Boston responded to a spirited Rays comeback in the LDS, it should be up to the task.
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