How they Got Here
It’s funny to think of a team that has won two World Series in the past 10 seasons as underdogs, but given their brutal September collapse in 2011 and 2012's dead last finish under Bobby Valentine’s reign of terror, that’s one way to look at the Boston Red Sox. Of course, it’s not the same sort of underdog situation as the Pirates over in the NL, but it’s still remarkable that the Red Sox were able to climb from their basement finish in 2012 to win 97 games in just one season. When the blockbuster "Nick Punto deal" sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and Nick Punto to the Dodgers in one of the biggest salary dumps in baseball history, it seemed like it might be years before the Red Sox rebounded. Instead, they immediately went out and signed seven free agents, lesser talents than the men they replaced, but all of whom exceeded expectations this season. The Red Sox found their team chemistry (and coated it in facial hair), their health, and their ideal manager, and finished the season tied for the best record in baseball.
Boston’s route to the postseason might have come as a surprise to many, but there’s nothing unexpected about the Rays beating a path to the playoffs. There was some initial concern that the team wouldn’t score enough runs to pair with their strong pitching, but at times this season, such as May, when the club scored almost six runs a game and the pitching staff was allowing nearly five, it seemed as if the naysayers had it backwards. Despite a healthy season from Evan Longoria and the June arrival of rookie sensation Wil Myers, the offense and pitching weren’t often in sync; the Rays sandwiched two losing months around a 21-5 July. They were in a statistical tie with the Red Sox for first place in the AL East as late as August 24, but subsided to .500 thereafter and were forced to settle for the wild card after winning a playoff against the Rangers. Nonetheless, this was the sixth straight season that the Rays have finished over .500, and the fifth season with 90 or more wins since 2008.
While the Sox have been sitting in Boston waiting to find out who they’d be facing in this series, the Rays have powered through two games this week, and are riding a wave of adrenaline after winning a Game-163 tiebreaker against the Rangers and the Wild Card play-in game against the Indians, both on the road. Hailing from the same division, these two teams know each other well, and at the risk of oversimplifying two well-rounded teams, it’s going to be a battle of great pitching (Rays) vs. great offense (Red Sox). They have faced off 19 times this season, and the Red Sox have won 12 times. The Rays and Sox haven’t faced each other in the postseason since 2008, and the Rays won that series, clinching their first World Series berth against the Red Sox in a series that went seven games.
Red Sox Offense
There is so much to say about the Red Sox offense, all of it good. Think of their depth: The Red Sox had more regulars, nine, with an OPS+ above 110 than any team in history. The Sox led the league in OPS, runs scored, doubles, runs batted in, on-base percentage, slugging… You get the picture, right? David Ortiz, playing in his eighth postseason with the Sox, is 37 this season, but he certainly hasn’t hit like it (.309/.395/.564 with 30 home runs). Mike Napoli, whose offer was restructured to an incentive-laden contract instead of guaranteed money due to injury concerns, earned his full payday; Napoli had the team’s second-highest OPS+ (129) and hit 23 home runs, including three grand slams. The Sox have been very successful at stealing bases this season, reaching safely 87 percent of the time; this could be key against the Rays, who caught just 22 percent of basestealers this season. The Sox have a lot of specialized hitters -- Shane Victorino is producing now that he’s staying on the right side of the plate, Jacoby Ellsbury has been slugging and stealing (though he may be hindered by a late-season foot fracture), and hitters like Dustin Pedroia and Daniel Nava do whatever they can to get on base.
If you look at the numbers and stop at Rays’ 700 runs, ninth in the AL, it’s easy to mistake them for a light-hitting offense. That would be a mistake; even though they don’t have the biggest sluggers in the league, what they lack in raw power they make up for in lineup balance. They make pitchers work, posting the highest walk percentage in the league (the Red Sox were mere fractions of a percent behind them) and with the possible exception of Jose Molina there are no automatic outs.
The team’s best hitter remains Evan Longoria; healthy this season, he played in 160 games and hit .269/.343/.498 with 32 home runs, just one shy of his season high. The promotion of Wil Myers in June gave the team a second all-around hitter and power threat (.293/.354/.478) and helped cushion second-half slumps and Ben Zobrist’s ebbing power (his slugging percentage dropped 70 points this season). James Loney, who was with the Sox last season, rebounded from some lean offensive years (.299/.348/.430 this season, though he slowed dramatically in the second half), and has had a sharp defensive season at first base.
Edge: Red Sox.
Red Sox Pitching
Boston’s rotation has come a long way from their beer and fried chicken days of 2011; while the offense is the team’s strongest suit, good pitching from starters and relievers played a big role in the team’s 97 wins. The Sox will use a four-man rotation for this series: Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, and Jake Peavy, (in that order). That quartet is full of good comeback stories: Lester has built on a strong finish to 2012 and rebounded after an otherwise miserable season; Lackey, who has been booed just as much as A-Rod at Fenway since 2010, finally gave the team a season worthy of his Angels years; Peavy, who last appeared in the postseason in 2006, was liberated from the dead-end White Sox in late July and will now pitch in October. As for Buchholz, if not for injury he would probably be starting Game 1; he’s made 35 starts since his career-altering turnaround last June, going 19-7 with a 2.69 ERA.
It took awhile for the Red Sox to find the right arms for their bullpen this season, but they achieved stability in the end, cycling through Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey, and Andrew Miller in the late innings thanks to season-ending injuries to all of them before landing on Koji Uehara, a 38-year-old with a fastball that sits around 90 miles per hour, but whose real weapon is arguably the game's greatest splitter. He struck out 101 batters in 74-1/3 innings, walked just nine, and even retired 37 consecutive batters at one point. Ryan Dempster, who spent the bulk of the season doing mediocre work in the rotation while dealing with an on-and-off again groin injury, was shifted to the bullpen in the final week of the season, and he could give the Sox some much- needed flexibility in long-relief should one of the starters struggle. Rookie Brandon Workman, who spent most of the season starting in Double- and Triple-A, could do the same. The Red Sox will carry three lefties in the pen. Spot lefty Craig Breslow was actually better against righties than lefties this year, not an unusual occurrence for him. He’ll be supplemented by Franklin Morales and another deposed starter in Felix Doubront. Junichi Tazawa will do the bulk of the eighth-inning work along with Breslow, depending on match-ups.
The Rays will open the series with two left-handers, Matt Moore in Game 1 and David Price in Game 2. Alex Cobb, who didn’t allow a run in 6.2 innings in Wednesday night’s Wild Card game, will pitch Game 3 on full rest; the Game 4 starter will be Jeremy Hellickson. Moore had a great start to the season but landed on the disabled list in late July due to elbow soreness. He was wild upon returning in September, walking 20 in 29 innings to go with 28 strikeouts and a 2.79 ERA -- as Joe Maddon has said, "He may walk a couple of guys, but they don’t hit him." Most of his post-injury starts were on the short side; he hasn’t gone more than 6.1 innings since returning. Moore had two starts against the Red Sox this season and he won both of them, including a two-hit shutout on July 22nd. Game 2 starter David Price also spent time on the disabled list, but since returning in July, he’s much like he did last season when he won the Cy Young, posting a 2.53 ERA in 18 starts. He made five starts against the Red Sox this year, including one when he was hurt and pitching poorly -- he held them to a .167 batting average. For his career, Price is 6-1 with a 1.88 ERA in 10 starts at Fenway Park.
With the two lefty starters, as well as Alex Torres, Wesley Wright, and Jake McGee, Maddon can southpaw the Red Sox all day long. But the Red Sox didn’t have any particular problem against left-handed pitchers this season (though David Ortiz hit only .260/.315/.418 against them, but solid performances by hitters like Pedoria, Napoli, and Victorino more than made up for it). Out of the bullpen, expect to see Maddon rely heavily on Joel Peralta, who led the majors in appearances and holds. If there’s one real concern with the Rays’ pitching, it’s closer Fernando Rodney, whose conversion rate for saves ranked 28th in the majors (20 or more save opportunities). He has had some serious command issues this season, issuing 36 walks in 66.2 innings, but he might have found is rhythm just in time for the playoffs: In September/October, Rodney has a 0.82 ERA and issued just three walks against 10 strikeouts.
The late decision to start Hellickson instead of Archer pushes the latter’s 95 mph fastball to the bullpen, giving Maddon an additional weapon, albeit at the risk of his having to mop up for a pitcher who posted a 5.17 ERA during the regular season.
If you combined the Rays and Red Sox rosters, you’d have one hell of a defensive team. The Rays are strong in the infield; Evan Longoria is the team’s best defender, and Yunel Escobar and Ben Zobrist have been outstanding at shortstop and second respectively this season, but they have some weaknesses in the outfield with a banged up Desmond Jennings in center and their platoon left fielders forced to defend doubles off of the Green Monster. The Red Sox don’t have a great infield defensively (Dustin Pedroia and the occasional web gem from former catcher Mike Napoli), but they have Shane Victorino and Jacoby Ellsbury in the outfield, both of whom possess speed and good arms when fully healthy.
Both teams are in the middle of the pack according to defensive stats, and they both will have a little bit of a home-field defensive advantage considering the Sox know the nooks and crannies of their antique ballpark and the Rays know the poor sightlines, weird shadows, and catwalks of the Trop well. The Rays are more fun to watch defensively considering they deploy elaborate shifts for nearly every hitter in the league these days, but the defensive stats don’t seem to indicate that it has helped them much.
Edge: It’s a draw.
John Farrell was part of the 2007 Red Sox World Series victory as the team’s pitching coach, and his decision to return to Boston brought a much-needed sense of continuity; he inherited a group of players with a willingness to do just about anything he asks as long as it doesn’t involve playing for Bobby Valentine. As a former pitcher and pitching coach, Farrell is regarded as a "pitching first" manager, and though he didn’t pinch-hit too often (92 plate appearances, or almost 100 fewer than the Rays) he used hitters like Jonny Gomes or Mike Carp to great effect, getting a collective .244/.359/.564 with seven home runs. Joe Maddon, the hippest manager in all of baseball, has been here before, too. He’s won AL Manager of the Year twice, and he’s consistently cultivated success with a low payroll. Maddon is a progressive manager who likes to try new things -- he’s big on defensive shifts, loves platoon splits, and he’s not afraid to parade out his entire bullpen over the course of a game if he thinks it’ll win the game. But not all meddling is good: he did more pinch hitting -- by far -- than any other manager in the AL this season, getting a weak .213/.293/.302 and just one home run as the payout.
Edge: Though Farrell has done wonders for the spirit and productivity of the Sox, but when it comes to in-game strategy in these important playoff games, the advantage is to Maddon. Though Maddon may set himself up for more opportunities to fail by being too active, but he also may steal his team some chances they might not have had otherwise. Qui audet adipiscitur.
Since I can’t predict the future (and hate being wrong) I’m going to play it safe here with two obvious choices: Delmon Young, with his incongruous (to his regular-season mediocrity) record of playoff heroics, and David Ortiz. In his postseason career, Young has nine home runs and has hit .266/.328/.560 in 119 plate appearances. Ortiz has 12 career postseason home runs and countless October bat-flips, with .283/.388/.520 rates in 289 postseason plate appearances. Aside from the obvious choices, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Daniel Nava, Mike Carp, and Sam Fuld all have their moments on the highlight reel as well at some point in this series.
This is going to be a pretty evenly matched series, but this is how I think it plays out: The Rays will win the pitching duels and the Sox the shootouts. Rays win Game 1 behind Moore, Lackey has the redemption performance of his career in Game 2, Peavy gets the first playoff win of his career in Game 3, Rays squeak out a win in extra innings in Game 4 just to make things interesting, and then Sox win game 5 at home.