We all knew it was coming.
Anyone who was paying attention knew that the Rays would some day be a force to be reckoned with. You can't stockpile first-round draft picks—like Roseanne Barr collecting Twinkies before a Hostess factory closure—without eventually having a very talented team.
No, this isn't a fluke. It was very predictable. Yet, if you asked just about anyone before the season whom they'd pick in an October showdown of the Red Sox and the Rays, I think you'd get an incredulous look and a quick answer: the Red Sox.
Things aren't so clear these days. The Rays won 10-of-18 games against the Sox this season and took two out of three games in Fenway last month. Boston managed to win only one game at Tropicana Field all season.
The home-field advantage of both teams suggests that this series is unlikely to be sweep, especially given how evenly matched the two clubs are.
So how will it all end up? Let's take a position-by-position look at the lineup of the two ALCS contenders.
Boston: Jason Varitek
Tampa Bay: Dioner Navarro
On paper, this looks like a no-brainer. Navarro hit .295 in the regular season but was not nearly so potent in his 18 games versus the Red Sox, when he batted .190. Defensively, he was also stellar, leading the league by throwing out basestealers 38 percent of the time.
The only real cause for concern for Rays fans is that his second-half numbers (.275/.333/.385) have shown a bit of late season decline.
As I’ve chronicled before, Varitek’s offensive production has been atrocious this year, and his September performance (.183/.286/.300) did nothing to quiet the fears of Red Sox fans, after a very hopeful August (.264/.376/.431). Nor has he been successful at managing opponents’ baserunners, catching base-stealers only 22 percent of the time.
The one major plus Tek provides is his experience and aptitude for handling pitchers. Given the youth of the Red Sox staff, this quality must not be underestimated. While this factor, combined with Varitek’s postseason experience, may make the matchup a bit less lop-sided, Tampa Bay has a clear advantage behind the plate.
Boston: Mark Kotsay
Tampa Bay: Carlos Pena
Pena may not have duplicated his breakout numbers from 2007, but with 31 homers and 102 RBI, nobody in Saint Petersburg has been complaining. Pena has also shown a knack for coming up big in tight spots, as evidenced by his .338/.471/.738 line in close and late situation. He also played very well against Boston this season, batting.314/.429/.647 in over 60 trips to the plate.
Kotsay, who will play first due to Mike Lowell’s injury, has only one real advantage over Pena: defense. He flashed his skills with the glove several times during the ALDS and might just be as capable at the position as Kevin Youkilis, who is sliding over to third base to sub for Lowell.
Kotsay is no competition for Pena with the bat, but the Red Sox hope that he’ll be able to play at his career levels, which means a decent batting average and on-base percentage, and a little pop.
Significant Edge: Rays
Boston: Dustin Pedroia
Tampa Bay: Akinori Iwamura
Iwamura’s numbers are deceiving. At first glance, his .274/.349/.380 line suggests that his matchup with Pedroia would be a laugher. But Iwamura has batted .319/.385/.551 versus Boston this season, and .333/.440/.429 in close and late situations. He’s continued his timely hitting in October, batting .389/.421/.722 during his four ALDS games versus the White Sox.
Pedroia had also performed in the clutch all season (.368/.419/.526 close and late), but has shriveled in the postseason, so far. Apart from one double, which was indeed timely, driving in a run that helped Boston to win Game Four of its ALDS, Pedroia has gone hitless.
Of course, not much can be drawn from any of these ALDS numbers, given their small sample sizes. The Red Sox hope that his numbers so far are a statistical anomaly and that he returns to his MVP ways in the ALCS.
Edge: Red Sox
Boston: Jed Lowrie
Tampa Bay: Jason Bartlett
This one shouldn’t be close, right? After all, Bartlett is the MVP of the Rays (I could write an entire piece on how objectively absurd that last statement is).
Bartlett and Lowrie are actually very similar in their offensive and defensive contributions. Lowrie may have a bit more gap power, while Bartlett may be slightly better with the glove.
It’s a pretty even call, but I’ll give Lowrie the edge, based on the momentum stemming from his decent ALDS performance at the plate (.364 average, .462 on-base percentage), which culminated his series-winning hit in Game Four.
Slight Edge: Red Sox
Red Sox: Kevin Youkilis
Rays: Evan Longoria
In all likelihood, Longoria will be the Rookie of the Year this season, and he could be competing for MVP awards as soon as 2009. He is really that good. He is still a rookie, though, and good pitchers find rookie weaknesses.
Red Sox pitchers held him to a .245.373.367 line, with 15 whiffs in 49 at-bats in 2008. He hit pretty well during the ALDS (.267/.353/.667), but still struck out six times in 15 at-bats.
Youkilis managed only a .232 average against Tampa Bay this season, but he still somehow drove in 14 runs in those 18 games. Again, small sample sizes can lead to odd conclusions.
In 2008 Youkilis was a monster with the bat (.312/.390/.569) and a natural with the glove at both first and third base. He wins this matchup, at least for now.
Edge: Red Sox
Boston: David Ortiz
Tampa Bay: Cliff Floyd/Rocco Baldelli
Floyd is now quite a few seasons removed from being a feared slugger, having failed to post an on-base plus slugging percentage rate (OPS) of over .900 since 2002. His 24 at-bats against Boston in 2008 were entirely forgettable (.401 OPS), and he was equally limp in the ALDS (.600 OPS).
He’s been platooned all year (he only had 10 at-bats versus lefties in 2008), so expect to see Rocco Baldelli in the role when Boston has a southpaw on the mound.
October is when Ortiz is supposed to shine, but he did anything but that in the ALDS, batting .235/.350/.294. Ortiz showed returning power in September, blasting six home runs and slugging .581, a couple of months removed from his midseason wrist surgery.
But his batting average was still quite low, suggesting that his hands still aren’t as quick as they once were (Ortiz has admitted as much to the press). Still, no one would choose Floyd or Baldelli over Ortiz when the game’s on the line.
Significant Edge: Red Sox
Boston: Jason Bay
Tampa Bay: Carl Crawford
Crawford had his worst season since 2003 this year, before hitting the disabled list midseason with a finger injury. He still can burn on the base paths, but it’s unclear how ready his bat is for postseason baseball, and nothing he did in the ALDS suggested otherwise. At this point, he has to be considered a bit of an unknown.
Bay has to be happy to have broken out of Pittsburgh, which may not play October baseball until the Lunar Colony fields a team in the early 22nd century. He showed his appreciation for the opportunity to play in the ALDS by putting up a .412/.474/.882 line against the Angels. Bay has done nothing but rake since the Red Sox acquired him, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll stop now.
Edge: Red Sox
Boston: Jacoby Ellsbury
Tampa Bay: B.J. Upton
Upton has had a very nice postseason so far, matching the promise he’s had going back to when he was selected second in the 2002 draft. Against the White Sox, he hit three home runs and scored five times, although he only managed to get on base at a .316 clip.
Upton’s 2008 has been a little disappointing (.273/.383.401, with nine home runs), after his breakout 2007 in which he hit 24 home runs to go along with a .300/.386/.508 line. The Rays hope that Upton is reverting back to 2007 form at just the right time.
Ellsbury was no slouch himself in the ALDS (.333/.400/.500), racking up six RBI and swiping three bags against the Angels. Ellsbury also disappointed a bit in 2008 after putting up excellent numbers in his September 2007 call-up (.353/.394/.509) and the 2007 postseason (.360/.429/.520). Maybe he just likes autumn, since he put up a .340/.367/.521 last month, too.
These players have very similar profiles, both having the ability to hit for average, run the bases extremely well, and play excellent defense. Upton has a slight edge because of the power potential he has shown both last season and so far this October.
Slight Edge: Rays
Boston: J.D. Drew/Coco Crisp
Tampa Bay: Gabe Gross/Fernando Perez
Gross has only one asset: a very strong arm. He might be worth having on a team as a defensive replacement, but he has no business starting games. He’s had one somewhat worthwhile season with the bat in his entire career (2003, when he went .274/.382/.476 for Milwaukee in 208 at-bats), but has otherwise been the picture of futility with the stick.
His career averages now sit at .242/.340/.412, and he’s done no better so far this October (.167/.375/.167), coming off of an anemic September (.240/.329/.387).
Perez has hit lefties adequately enough in this, his first, year (.292/.414/.458). He is not much of an option against righties (.222/.300/.417), so perhaps Gross is the best the Rays can come up with in most cases.
Once again, Drew came up big in October, with a game-winning two-run shot in Game Two of the ALDS. He was putting up MVP numbers (.302/.412/.572 before the All-Star break) when his back became an issue in August. He only managed 50 at-bats in August and September, and it seems that each game will bring a game-time decision on his status.
Since Drew has wilted a bit against lefties during his career (.246/.342/.398 over the last few seasons) it makes sense to sub in Crisp in at least those situations, to give Drew’s back a breather.
Of course, Crisp lacks Drew’s power at the plate, but at .283/.344/.407, he is an adequate replacement and provides some pesky speed. To put it in prospective, Crisp is better than either of the Rays’ two options.
Significant Edge: Red Sox
When it's all said and done, the Red Sox have guys you can feel comfortable counting on in the second through sixth spots in the lineup (Pedroia, Ortiz, Youkilis, Drew, Bay), whereas Tampa bay has a couple of sure performers (Pena, Upton, Longoria) and a few question marks (Gross, Crawford, Floyd). While Tampa wins some positional matchups, I give the Red Sox a slight overall edge in lineup strength.
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