As a Tampa Bay Rays fan, you probably want to keep your eyes on a few things as the ALDS gets under way Thursday at the Trop. No, I'm not referring to Paul Azinger throwing out the first pitch; I'm talking about the in-game issues the Rays will face.
First off, how will the playoff first-timer Rays manage all the pressure that is October? It's a pretty loaded question, and quite frankly, I'm worried that the Rays don't have all the answers. Here's a couple challenges with any October situation: youth, inexperience, lack of leadership.
Rays fans, you can check off on all three of those, especially the first two. Granted, in your situation, the youth has been great this year, I mean, look no further than third baseman Evan Longoria, who has all but locked up the A.L. Rookie of the Year award.
Inexperience is another big factor that the Rays must overcome. After all, this is the first-ever playoff appearance for the Floridians.
With regards to leadership, I truly believe that this team has just one leader, Carl Crawford. The problem is, though, that he hasn't played in almost two months. Not to mention, manager Joe Maddon isn't even sure if he will insert Crawford into the lineup as the everyday left fielder for the playoffs.
Second of all, can the Chicago White Sox be ready for the grueling playoffs after having exerted so much energy clinching the final A.L. playoff spot? That's obviously to be determined, but one thing is for sure: This squad needs to start swinging the bats. They can't simply rely on shutouts everyday, especially against the potent Rays offense.
Sure, throwing Danks, Buerhle, and Floyd is an almost guarantee for three quality starts, but the White Sox's offense has been utterly abysmal of late. Konerko, Dye, and Thome can provide the necessary pop, but they will need substantial contributions from the likes of Alexei Ramirez and A.J. Pierzynski if they plan on advancing anywhere in the playoffs.
Third, the Rays' fans should be excited by the factor of home-field advantage. After all, the Rays had the best home record in the majors this year at 57-24. Moreover, they are virtually unbeatable at the Trop when 30,000-plus make their way to the stadium. I think it's a pretty safe bet that the attendance figures will easily surpass that plateau.
What is going on in Tampa (or St. Petersburg, as it were) cannot be understated. This city, the fans, and the team are ready for a playoff series after nine years of MLB futility.
So who will come out on top? It's hard to make a prediction, but with the home-field advantage and obvious rest, it's awfully difficult to pick against the A.L. East champion Rays.