B.J. Upton: The MVP of games 1-6 belonged to B.J. Upton, but after Garza's game seven performance, I have no problem with him winning the MVP. However, everyone needs to remember the series B.J. Upton had. All he did was hit .321/.394/.786 with four home runs and an ALCS tying record 11 RBI (D.Ortiz, 2004). His seven post season home runs also ties an AL record (T.Glaus, 2002). Upton stepped up in the biggest series and did so with one shoulder.
David Price: Some doctors believe that medicine is best served in small doses. This was the case in the ALCS with David Price. He only made two appearances, pitched a total of two innings, but the Rays would not be in the World Series without him. In a wild game two, Price came in the 11th inning. He was facing runners on first and second with one out in his post season debut. All he did next was strike out Mark Kotsay and force Jed Lowrie to ground out to end the inning. The Rays would walk off with a win in the bottom of the inning. There is no telling what happens if the Rays go into Fenway down 0-2 if they lose that game.
Then we have game seven where Price broke out in a big way. One of the most memorable images I will have for the rest of my life is Price striking out J.D. Drew with the bases loaded and then screaming into his glove as he walked off the field. After consulting with Dioner Navarro, Joe Maddon decided to send Price out for the 9th and the rest is history. Two K's and a ground out and the Rays are going to the World Series. At age 23, Price is the youngest pitcher to register a save in game seven. This guy is the real deal and will be in the Rays rotation on opening day 2009.
Carlos Pena: One of the feel good stories of the playoffs, Carlos Pena, is the heart and soul of the Rays. He was released by four teams including the Red Sox, Yankees and even the Rays before breaking out last year. This season was a down year, partly because of injuries, but when we needed to lean on him, he came through. He came through again in the ALCS. Los hit .269/.406/.654 with three home runs in three consecutive games. He drove in six runs and also walked a team high six times in the seven game series. He also called a team meeting before game seven and rallied the troops.
Willy Aybar & Rocco Baldelli: The lefty hitmen. Baldelli and Aybar combine to give the Rays the additional right handed bats they need vs. left handed pitching. I can't get enough of Willy Aybar. Maybe the most underrated player of this post season, Aybar has just come up big time and time again. Just looking back on my last few reviews, Aybar had been a mainstay on the list. The ALCS was no different. He played in six games and hit .421/.421/.789 with two home runs and six RBI. He had a monster game four with four hits including a home run and five RBI. He also hit a big home run and scored two of the three Rays runs in game seven.Seriously, Willy Aybar for Jeff Ridgway. I can't stress the importance of that trade enough.
Rocco Baldelli is the other lefty hitman on the Rays bench. Baldelli started two games in the series and both were against lefty, Jon Lester. He came up big in both games. In game three, he had a three run blast that capped off a rout. In game seven, he may have come up with the biggest hit of the series when he drove in Aybar for the go ahead run. Rocco's story would've been great even if he was just traveling with the team. The fact that he is playing and is a key contributor is just amazing.
Defense: The Rays played perfect defense over the first seven games of the playoffs. They made no errors in the ALDS and went errorless in first three games against Boston. However, the team would make six errors over the final four games. Five errors coming from the left side of the infield(Longoria, 3 and Bartlett, 2) was a complete shock. Only Longoria's error in game five turned out to be a real game changer. Instead of ending the 9th inning on a ground ball, Longoria threw the ball away allowing Kevin Youkilis to reach base, and well, you know the story. Gabe Gross also played terrible defense in game five, but was not charged with an error. Jason Barlett made a huge error in the 8th inning of game seven, but luckily the team was able to work around that. The only other error came in game four when B.J. Upton over ran a ball in center field, but the game was out of hand at that point.
Just to end it on a positive note, there were a lot of tremendous defensive plays that were over looked. B.J. Upton made some incredible running catches throughout the series envoking memories of Eric Davis. Evan Longoria made some great pickups at third base. Aki Iwamura made a tough play look easy on the series clinching play and Rocco Baldelli also had a huge running catch in game seven that took away extra bases. The Rays turned six double plays in seven games and none bigger than the strike'em out throw'em double play in the 7th inning of game seven.
Matt Garza: What more can you say about what Matt Garza did in the ALCS? Going into the series all anyone could talk about was how great Jon Lester was. They failed to mention Matt Garza. That made Garza angry, and you wouldn't like him when he's angry. He out pitched Lester in games three and seven, picking up wins both times and allowing just one run in each start. He was dominant in game seven, striking out nine batters and allowing just the solo home run to Pedroia in seven innings. He's throw some complete games and one hitters this season, but that was his best start of the year. Tommy mentioned how great the Willy Aybar trade turned out, enough can't be said about the Matt Garza/Delmon Young deal that Andrew Friedman made. Without Matt Garza this team isn't in the World Series. Period.
Evan Longoria: Most years Longoria's performance in the ALCS would have been more than enough to earn him the MVP. But as we know, this isn't most seasons. Evan hit .259/.333/.815 along with four home runs and eight rbi in the seven games. He even hit a home run in four straight games. His biggest hit of the series however was the game tying double he slapped down the line in game seven that allowed Carlos Pena to score from first base. His bat went cold after the first game of the Division Series, so it was good to see him get it back against Boston. He's not going to see a lot of inside fastballs vs the Phillies, so he'll need to adjust and concentrate on taking the ball the other way. If he can do that, or the Philly pitches make a mistake, he could be in for another big series.
Rest of Rotation: After Matt Garza the rest of the rotation was still pretty solid. James Shields pitched well in both of his starts, unfortunatley he wasn't the beneficiary of the offensive outbursts of the Rays in games 2-5, as the team scored only two runs total in his two starts. He's allowed too many hits in his starts, 9 and 6, something he can't do in the World Series. The Red Sox were very familiar with Shields so they could lay off his low changeup, hopefully the Phillies won't do the same. Scott Kazmir was terrible in his game two start, allowing five runs and three home runs in 4.1IP. The Rays ended up winning that game in extra innings to prevent him from getting the loss. He pitched much better in game five, throwing his best game in a long time. Kaz allowed zero runs and only two hits, while striking out seven, but got the no decision because the Rays blew a 7-0 lead. In the World Series opener vs the Phillies the Rays need him to be the Kazmir of game five, not game two. Andy Sonnanstine has been the model of consistancy for awhile now. In a pivitol game four Sonnanstine threw 7.1 great innings, never really getting into trouble. He's really stepped it up in big games lately.
Base Stealing: The Rays stole 11 bases in 12 tries against the Red Sox. The Red Sox really had no answer for the speed of the Rays. Any time someone like Crawford or Upton got on base they seemed to run. Even players like Carlos Pena and Aki Iwamura and Gabe Gross had steals in this series. When Gabe Gross is stealing on you, you know you're in trouble. Jason Varitek and the Sox could do nothing to hinder the Rays running ability. The steals weren't a main reason for the Rays series win, that would be the home runs and the pitching, but seemingly always having a man in scoring position is a great advantage to have.
Bullpen: The bullpen was was only significantly involved in three games in the series, two, five and seven. They relieved Scott Kazmir in the 6th inning of the wild game two, and allowed three runs in over six innings of relief, with Dan Wheeler being the hero by throwing 3.1 innings and allowing only one hit. In game five the normally relilable bullpen allowed one of the most historic comebacks in post season history. Scott Kazmir gave them a 7-0 lead heading into the seventh inning, yet they couldn't hold it. Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour allowed home runs to David Ortiz and J.D. Drew that allowed the Sox to get back into the game. We here at OPS have never liked Wheeler being put into high pressure situations so his failure wasn't unexpected, but Grant Balfour's was. He allowed five runs and four walks while only striking one out in 2.1 innings of work against the Red Sox. For someone who had the highest K/9 of any reliever in baseball this season, that's not good. Maddon didn't use him in game seven, and I can't say I blame him. As for that game seven, the bullpen was good, allowing one hit and two walks in two innings of work. Maddon managed game seven like there was no tomorrow, which is exactly how he had to. He used four relievers to get three outs in the eighth inning, with David Price coming in and closing the door. The Rays got to the playoffs because of their bullpen, and the pen was a big reason the Rays are going to the World Series.