The wildcard-winning Boston Red Sox eliminated the Los Angeles Angels in the American League Division Series and have advanced to the American League Championship Series, where their American League East division counterpart awaits.
This time, though, it isn’t the New York Yankees waiting for Boston. It is the AL East-champion Tampa Bay Rays.
Few in the baseball world saw the Rays coming this season. Tampa Bay won the AL East by beating out the Red Sox by two games. The Rays then made short work of the Chicago White Sox in the ALDS.
The defending world champions took down the Los Angeles Angels, the team with the best record in all of Major League Baseball in the regular season, in four games. Rookie shortstop Jed Lowrie sent the Sox to the ALCS with his walk-off single in Game Four, which scored left fielder Jason Bay.
Tampa Bay eked out a 10-8 victory in the season series, but as we are told time and time again, the playoffs are a completely different animal.
These teams are no strangers to each other, but who has the advantage?
Outfield – Both teams are quick at all three positions, meaning defense shouldn’t be much of a problem for either team.
Performance at the plate will be integral in the outfield battle, and some of the hottest hitters in this series roam the outfield.
B.J. Upton’s two home runs drove Tampa’s Game Four, and ALDS-clinching, victory over the White Sox.
Boston’s Jason Bay hit two important home runs of his own in Boston’s ALDS win over Los Angeles.
Upton leads Tampa Bay’s three starting outfielders with a postseason batting average of .278. J.D. Drew, who had only four at-bats since Aug. 17, is hitting .286 in the postseason – the lowest mark amongst Boston’s regular starting outfielders.
Advantage – With Bay, Drew and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury more than carrying their weight at the dish, the advantage goes to the Red Sox.
Infield – Both sets of infields made their share of blunders in their respective wins in LDS play, so once again, any separation will come down to how these players swing the lumber.
Much of Tampa Bay’s offensive production has come by way of the infielders. First baseman Carlos Pena has an October batting average of .500 while catcher Dioner Navarro isn’t far behind, hitting .400.
Second baseman Akinori Iwamura may have been the unsung hero for Tampa Bay in the Division Series, batting .389 while racking up 13 total bases and scoring three runs in four games.
Lastly, there’s that Evan Longoria guy. You may have heard of him.
Advantage – Boston’s infield surely isn’t slacking. Jed Lowrie leads the infield with a .364 batting average. But regular season MVP candidates Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia combined for five hits in 35 at-bats against the Angels. That must change for the Sox to head back to the World Series.
Easy edge for the Rays.
Pitching – Looking at these two pitching staffs, it looks as though the defending champs have a decided advantage.
As the people who say such things say, looks can be deceiving.
Matt Garza was responsible for Tampa Bay’s only loss to the White Sox, giving up seven hits and five earned runs in six innings. Every other Rays starter has an earned run average under 4.30, led by Andy Sonnanstine’s 3.18 mark.
Any Boston starter not named Jon Lester has been shaky, at best. Daisuke Matsuzaka was rock-solid during the season but continued his postseason struggles in Game Two against the Angels.
Josh Beckett appeared to be pitching rusty or hurt in Game Three of the ALDS. For Boston’s sake, it had better not be the latter.
Both bullpens have been lights-out. Tampa’s J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour and Chad Bradford have yet to surrender and earned run in a combined 10 2/3 innings.
Boston’s Manny Delcarmen has been virtually flawless in October, allowing only one hit in 2 1/3 innings pitched.
Advantage – The only difference between these two pitching staffs has been the men at the end of the line. Rays closer Dan Wheeler allowed a run in his only inning pitched while Jonathan Papelbon has a spotless ERA while striking out seven batters in three innings pitched.
Papelbon gives the Sox a slight advantage.
Intangibles – There are two different airs of confidence in this series, which makes these teams equally dangerous.
Tampa Bay’s players have rid of the Cinderella tag and believe they can beat anyone. Boston’s players have been in this position before and believe they have what it takes to be the first repeat World Series champions in a decade.
Both teams will be even more confident at home. The road team went 3-15 in the season series, with Tampa Bay picking up the only series victory as a visitor.
Advantage – There doesn’t seem to be an advantage in this department. In fact, this may be as simple as a coin flip.
But when it comes down to the big game, experience is invaluable. Four Red Sox regulars have two World Series rings with the club while 13 more won a ring last year.
The only experience Tampa Bay has is a four-game series victory over the Chicago White Sox.
Who wins? – The key to this series is going to be road victories. Jon Lester won’t take the mound until Game Three – in Boston – which makes it legitimately possible for the Rays to take a 2-0 series lead to Beantown.
Game One starters James Shields and Daisuke Matsuzaka will set the tone for both teams. Another shaky October start for Dice-K may put the Red Sox down early for the third ALCS in a row.
But that hasn’t meant much. When facing elimination in their last two trips to the ALCS, the Red Sox are 7-0. Repeating that feat may be a hard assignment … but eliminating Boston could prove to be even harder.
Prediction – Boston in six.