In a matchup of American League East Rivals, the division champion Tampa Bay Rays (97-65) face off against the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox (95-67) for the right to represent the A.L. in the World Series. The Rays closed out the Chicago White Sox in 4 games and owned MLB's best home record (57-24 at Tropicana Field). They took the season series 10-8, winning 8 out of 9 at home against Boston relying on excellent starting pitching and a lights-out bullpen to win the division. The Sox might have conceded the division to Tampa Bay but are a confident bunch heading into the ALCS after beating the Anaheim Angels handily.
Boston underwent an extreme makeover halfway into the season with the trade of Manny Ramirez. Ever since 2003, Ramirez and DH David Ortiz anchored the middle part of the order, tormenting pitchers with their majestic home runs and clutch, postseason hits time after time. Even though Ortiz is still here, he struggled all year with a wrist injury and simply was not the same hitter without Manny protecting him. AL MVP candidate 1B/3B Kevin Youkilis has filled in admirably, hitting .312 with 29 HR and 115 RBI. The 'Greek God of Walks' became more aggressive at the plate this season, bypassing the base on balls for more home runs and doubles. Fellow infielder and MVP candidate 2B Dustin Pedroia is coming off a tough division series against the Angels, but always seems to come up big at the right time. Look for 'Petey' to step up his game in this series. RF Jason Bay, acquired for Ramirez, has been better than advertised leading the Sox in postseason batting average (.412) as well as hitting two home runs in the first two games against the Halos. Bay has been a welcome addition to the clubhouse and continues to produce amidst his skeptics and doubters. CF Jacoby Ellsbury brings sparkling defense and elite speed on the basepaths. Whenever he is on base, opposing pitchers must account for him or pay the consequences. OF/1B Mark Kotsay steps into the lineup with 2007 World Series MVP 3B Mike Lowell out with a bad hip. Lowell's bat and gold-glove defense will be missed but the versatility of Youkilis and Kotsay gives Boston good fallback options. RF J.D. Drew will need to step up in Lowell's absence as he did in the division series with a game-winning HR off of Francisco Rodriguez in Game 2 of the ALDS. Rookie SS Jed Lowrie and C Jason Varitek round out the bottom of the lineup. Both came up with big hits in the clincher against the Angels. Tek had a key hit to set up their first run and Lowrie ended the series with his walkoff single.
When you look at Tampa's offensive statistics, they don't overly impress you. What is extremely impressive is that the players, both young and veteran, have bought into manager Joe Maddon's philosophy of fundamentally sound baseball in all aspects of the game. The Rays don't jump out at you in any statistical category, but they do what is necessary to win games. LF Carl Crawford, the team's best overall player since he put on the jersey, battled through a tough year playing in only 109 games due to injuries. He is back for the postseason, but can he be effective after such a long time off?1B Carlos Pena had a breakthrough season slugging 31 HR and 102 RBI. 3B Evan Longoria was on pace for a monster season before a fractured wrist midseason threatened to derail his promising rookie campaign. He still ended the season with 27 HR and 85 RBI. Showing no postseason jitters and no lingering effects of the injury, Longoria homered in his first 2 at-bats against the Chicago White Sox in the division series. CF Justin Upton, who has underachieved and been in Maddon's doghouse all year, is finally starting to show maturity in the postseason hitting 3 HR in 4 games compared to the 9 HR he hit all season. RF Gabe Gross has been solid defensively and added pop towards the bottom of the order with 15 HR. 2B Akinori Iwamura and SS Jason Bartlett provide a nice twin killing combination. Iwamura, the elder statesman of the team, has made the transition from 3B to 2B seamlessly allowing Longoria to play his natural position and led the team with a .274 batting average. C Dioner Navarro continues to produce solid numbers (.294 BA, 7 HR 54 RBI) and is one of the best in the league at throwing out basestealers (38%). Cliff Floyd and Rocco Baldelli will platoon at DH, depending on who is pitching. Look for Floyd to get the bulk of the playing time because 3 of the 4 Red Sox starters are right handed. Baldelli will come off the bench and start when Jon Lester takes the mound in Game 3.
Daisuke Matsuzaka wheeled and dealed in and out of trouble continually on his way to an impressive 18-3 mark with a 2.90 ERA. His opponents batting average was an AL best .211, but he also led the league in walks per 9 innings. Dice-K will need to step his game up against the Rays in Game 1 because they are a patient ballclub who will not swing at bad pitches. Game 2 starter Josh Beckett (12-10, 4.03 ERA) has battled injuries from the beginning of spring training. A healthy Beckett gives the defending champs the best postseason pitcher of this era and a bonafide ace at the top of the rotation. But is he healthy? The Sox sure hope so and need him to come up big as always. Lester has been Boston's best and most consistent starter all season long and is slated for Game 3. The lefty posted career highs in every category, compiling a 16-6 record with a 3.21 ERA. Whether it was a No-Hitter against the Royals in Fenway or a critical Game 4 against the Angels in the ALDS, Lester has more than answered the call on every occasion. Dating back to last year's game clincher against the Colorado Rockies, the Sox ace has not given up an earned run in over his last 20 innings pitched. Tim Wakefield (10-11, 4.13 ERA), the longest tenured player on the team, brings his knuckler to the fold in Game 4. Manager Terry Francona has a lot of confidence and loyalty in Wake, choosing him over Paul Byrd due to his past success against Tampa Bay.
James Shields (14-8, 3.56 ERA) is coming off a career year and will square off against Dice-K in the opening game. Shields was the workhorse of the staff this year, leading the team in innings pitched with just over 215. He does not have dominant stuff, but mixes his speeds well and is not afraid to pitch on the inner half of the plate. Scott Kazmir (12-8, 3.49 ERA), the team's ace, had another promising year until the latter part of the season where he suffered shoulder/elbow fatigue. When he is on, however, he is one of the best in MLB and has always given Red Sox hitters fits with his power fastball and slider. Matt Garza (11-9, 3.70 ERA) was acquired in the offseason along with Bartlett in exchange for OF Delmon Young and takes the ball in Game 3. His overpowering fastball and demeanor on the mound can be downright intimidating, especially when he has command of his secondary pitches. Andy Sonnanstine (13-9, 4.38 ERA) has been a capable fourth starter all season and is one of Maddon's favorite players on the team. Sonnanstine doesn't wow you with anything but always seems to keep his team in the game with an opportunity to win. That is all you can ask for from a fourth starter.
Jonathon Papelbon is one of the best closers in the game and has not allowed a run in his postseason career (almost 20 innings pitched). Consider the game over when he enters the game with a lead because he attacks the strike zone and seldom walks anyone (77K/8BB). Hideki Okajima was not nearly as effective this season as he was last, but is still a dependable arm in the pen. His 'okey-dokey' split-change is still untouchable if he can keep hitters honest with his fastball and curveball. Rookie Justin Masterson and Manny Delcarmen give Francona two hard-throwing options in case Okajima is not available. Masterson uses his heavy sinker to induce groundball double plays while Delcarmen uses an assortment of pitches including a live fastball, a good curveball, and an improving changeup. Javier Lopez remains the lefty-specialist and veteran Mike Timlin was recently added to the roster to bolster the depth of the bullpen.
The Ray's strength lies here in their bullpen. Even without their closer, Troy Percival, TB relied on Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, and Trever Miller to get the job done. Wheeler has stepped up big time, becoming as reliable as it gets come crunch time and stabilizing the back end of the bullpen. Howell has been especially tough against left-handed batters (.188 OBA) and wll be relied upon to neutralize Ortiz and Drew. Balfour brings a bulldog mentality and competitive mean streak to the mound. He is one guy you do not want to charge the mound against or risk losing some teeth. Miller and Edwin Jackson will serve as long men in case any game is out of hand. Rookie sensation David Price was added to the roster for depth and could be a weapon aagainst lefties.
Francona has won two World Series championships and is on the cusp of his third in five years. His ability to handle the media, insert the right lineup, and handle the pitching staff has been nothing short of extraordinary. In a media-frenzy town like Boston, he is constantly second-guessed and not given the credit he deserves due to the high payroll and talent of his players. Francona is the ultimate player's manager and takes bullet after bullet for each and every one of them. They will run through walls for him because they know he would do the same.
Maddon has done a masterful job on his way to A.L. Manager of the Year. With a $44 million dollar payroll to work with, he needed every cent to hold off the powerhouse Red Sox and Yankees. Learning how to win as a team, especially one so young, is not easy and he was able to do it when no one in the world thought he could. Everyone in that dugout believes it and that is all that matters. Now with the pennant at stake, can he get his upstart Rays to finish the miracle season with an improbable championship?
Tampa Bay has been defying odds all year and finds a way to win. If they need a bunt, they bunt. A crucial HR?No problem. MLB's underdog now faces off against Goliath. In what should be an exciting series, I look for the two teams to go the distance with Boston coming out on top. ALCS MVP: Jon Lester