Tomorrow, the series to decide the 2008 A.L. Champion will commence. In one corner will be the former whipping boys of fate, now the most successful baseball franchise of the last five years. In the other corner will be a team experiencing the playoffs for the very first time after making 90 losses a yearly tradition.
Will the Red Sox continue atoning for 86 years of failure or will the Rays continue their worst-to-first ascent? What are the key factors for the ALCS?
KEY FACTOR 1: HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE
The dome in St. Petersburg has become a tool the Rays feed off of and use to their advantage. With the crowds showing up at games and banging their cowbells, there’s a reason they’re 23-2 at home with crowds larger than 30,000.
Meanwhile, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman says the final nine outs as an opponent are the hardest in Fenway. The crowd is right on top of the action and can swallow you up if you aren’t careful.
The Rays hold home field. To win the series, at least one game must be won on the road. It’s not going to be easy.
KEY FACTOR 2: JOSH BECKETT
The Sox were able to get away with Beckett’s subpar start against the Angels because of Jon Lester, the gaffes made by the Angels and the short series. In a seven-game series, all the warts of the team will be exposed. We can’t limp into the World Series with only one bona fide starting pitcher; we need two. The Rays’ pitching is so good that we may even need three, but let’s stick to two for now.
Beckett only got one swing-and-a-miss from a right-handed hitter in Game 3, a trend that simply cannot continue. Was it due to his oblique strain? Was it due to his layoff? Can Beckett rise up to the occasion? As Terry Francona aptly puts it: “Before Beckett’s last start, he was the best postseason pitcher maybe in the history of the game. He had the audacity to be a little rusty after two weeks.”
Notice the sarcasm?
Sarcasm aside, if he doesn’t have the audacity to win what will be a pivotal game, (either the Red Sox get their one away game they need or put their foot on the Rays’ neck by taking the first two games) the Rays will continue their Cinderella run.
KEY FACTOR 3: BOTTOM OF THE ORDER
With Mike Lowell out for the ALCS with a hip problem, the depth of the Red Sox lineup shrinks. Now, the bottom of the order looks to be Kotsay/Cora, Lowrie and Varitek.
Lowrie slumped near the end of the year but his .364 average in the ALDS is cause for optimism. However, banking on the rookie would be a mistake. Kotsay and Cora don’t particularly embarrass themselves with the bat, but Lowell they are not. Varitek’s had a terrible year and was pinch-hit for during one of the ALDS games, much to his consternation.
Conversely, the bottom of the order for the Rays is Dioner Navarro, Rocco Baldelli/Fernando Perez/Gabe Gross and Jason Bartlett. Navarro has had an excellent year, while the right-field tandem serves up punch and Bartlett has a .286 batting average. The Rays’ bottom of the order is far deeper, although you could argue that the Red Sox’s 1-6 is superior to the Rays’ 1-6. But the game has nine batters, not six. We can’t have three automatic outs every time through the order.
WHAT ADVANTAGES DO THE RAYS HOLD?
The Rays, as we previously discussed, hold home field advantage. Their pitching is superior from pitchers 1-5 and the bullpen. But can the Rays find their Lester, Beckett and Papelbon? The team is also healthy with the feeling of being invincible as the Cinderella team.
WHAT ADVANTAGES DO THE RED SOX HOLD?
The Red Sox have experience, which is crucial in the playoffs. Some players and teams (looking at you, Cubs of Chicago) simply don’t have the personnel capable of handling the bright lights. It’s been widely said that the Red Sox needed a team of carefree players to win the World Series, and I’m sold on that argument. The Red Sox have been over the hump and won it all twice. They know what it takes. Terry Francona has not been outmanaged once during his playoff career and is quickly establishing himself as one of the best playoff managers of all time.
ENOUGH WITH THE SEMANTICS, WHO’S GONNA WIN?
Evan: Sox in 6.
Ryne: Sox in 6.
Shawn: Sox in 6.
Tim: Sox in 6.