The Tampa Bay Rays finished off the Cleveland Indians 4-0 in the Wildcard game last night with relative ease, impressive considering the fact the Rays had to travel to Texas two days before and defeat the Rangers before dismantling the Indians on the road as well on one of the game’s biggest stages. It’s obvious this is a well-coached team, and has been for the last five years or so. Nothing seems to faze the Rays, and that’s a testament to Joe Maddon, the rest of the coaching staff, and the leaders in that clubhouse. It makes for a dangerous combination during postseason play.
And a dangerous first round match-up for the Red Sox.
Although I’m sure the Sox were enjoying their few days off in anticipation of the ALDS (playing simulated games in front of thousands of fans and whatnot), I’m even more sure they didn’t want to see a highly motivated and on-fire Rays team in round one. Believe it or not, the Red Sox did finish 12-7 against the Rays this year, so they have gotten the better of the boys of St. Petersburg thus far in 2013, but in a situation where the Rays don’t have to use the Roberto Hernandez’s of the world, it’s obvious that the Sox would have much rather faced off against the likes of Scott Kazmir, Ulbaldo Jimenez, and Corey Kluber in round one.
It seems the Rays have started a witness protection program for mediocre baseball players over these last few years. They turned James Loney into an all-star player in 2013, and made David Dejesus an impact asset down the stretch. And I’m sure Delmon Young, a guy the lackluster Phillies didn’t even want in their lineup, was expected to hit homeruns in October on 100mph fastballs for the Rays. It’s easy to look at this lineup as an island of misfit toys, but their situational and clutch hitting is a major strength in the postseason.
Unfortunately for the Rays, the Red Sox boast one of the best, if not the best, lineups in baseball (they led MLB in runs, OBP, and OPS) , and the Rays aren’t going to run into the deer-in-the-headlights type lineup the Indians threw out there. This lineup has postseason experience, from David Ortiz to Shane Victorino, as well as clutch bats off the bench in the form of Jonny Gomes. Keeping this team off the base-paths is no easy task with the way they work counts, and with most of the lineup able to hit the ball out of the ballpark, they’re a pitcher’s worst nightmare.
Advantage: Red Sox
Jon Lester and John Lackey are enjoying bounce back seasons (thanks John Farrell), and more importantly, have combined for over 400 innings in 2013. Clay Buchholz has also looked good after returning from the disabled list, and could provide a huge boost this postseason if his fastball velocity has completely returned. Jake Peavy has been a great addition as well, going 4-1 in his 10 starts in Boston.
However, the Tampa Bay Rays have starting pitching for days (and weeks, months, years, and decades for that matter). Matt Moore is hit or miss at this point in his career, but there is no denying he has the stuff to baffle any lineup. David Price is as good as it gets and the Red Sox current roster as a whole has hit only .215 off the southpaw in his career. He’ll be tough in game 2. Alex Cobb is as fiery of a competitor I’ve ever seen, and the guy can just plain pitch. He doesn’t need his best stuff to give the Rays a chance. You’d also be hard-pressed to find a 4th starter better than Chris Archer and his 95mph fastball. Simply put, this rotation has it all: depth, talent, and an overwhelming desire to win. If the Rays do take the series, this will be a huge reason why.
Both these teams can “pick it” parse (the Rays finished 2nd in fielding percentage and the Sox 5th in the AL), but when it comes down to it, the Rays boast a superior defensive SS in Yunel Escobar, a superior catcher in Jose Molina, and a superior defensive 1st baseman in James Loney.
The Rays have a stacked bullpen, from left-handed fire-baller Jake McGee to arrow-shooting closer Fernando Rodney. Joel Peralta is vastly underrated as a set-up man as well, there’s a reason he led MLB in appearances (80) after all, and his change-up makes him a weapon against left-handed and right-handed hitters. For whatever reason, however, the Red Sox have been able to get to the Rays bullpen arms this year. Rodney has a 6.75ERA and Peralta has a 4.84 against Boston in 2013, and with the emergence of Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa in the Red Sox bullpen, this one is likely to be a toss-up.
After spending most of the last decade going station to station and banking on the three-run homerun (Earl Weaver style), the Boston Red Sox had a historic season on the basepaths, swiping 123 bags and only being caught an unheard of 19 times throughout the course of 2013, an 87% success rate. The Rays, however, struggled in that area, with only 73 steals and a 66% success rate. Don’t get me wrong, both these teams will take the extra base when it’s there, but the days of the Rays stealing 12 bags a series against the Red Sox are over.
Advantage: Red Sox
John Farrell has done an excellent job this season, starting anew with a 69-win team ruined by Bobby Valentine and turning them into an AL East juggernaut. His contributions will most likely win him manager of the year.
However, there’s something about John Maddon, from the way he gets contributions from the Delmon Young’s and the James Loney’s of the world to the way he loosens up the clubhouse by randomly bringing in giant pythons for his players to play with. The players genuinely like and respect him, and it shows on the field.
This series will most likely be the closest of all the division series’, the epitome of playoff baseball. These two teams know each other like the backs of their hands, and are as evenly matched as it gets. But with David Price going in game 2 and a possible game 5, you have to give the Rays a slight advantage, especially when they head home to play in that cow-bell filled spaceship in St. Pete.
Prediction: Rays in 5
You can follow Shawn Ferris on Twitter @RealShawnFerris.