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The 2008 ALCS has already been made out to be a Classic Showdown. Words like "magical", "experience", and "intangibles" are being tossed around like cans of Milwaukee's Best at a frat party. None of these words mean anything in context of reality. Many people are overlooking the obviousness of this series – these two teams have been "fighting" all season. Not just on the field, but in the AL East standings. There will be few surprises in this series. By all accounts the Rays won all of the minor battles – the scuffle, the division, and the season series 10-8, but all of that gets thrown out the window and the War for AL Supremacy begins.
Don't kid yourself, these two teams know each other VERY well and despite public perception that the defending champs have an advantage with their "experience", that won't matter in this series. The Rays have the "experience" of winning against the Red Sox when they've needed to – in September, when the Rays won 4 of 6 head to head games and were without key players Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, and B.J. Upton as the Red Sox were playing their best baseball of the season.
Now the Rays are fully healthy and ready to throw the kitchen sink at their division rivals as the Red Sox have questions concerning their team. Mike Lowell is out for the series and that changes the dynamic of the Red Sox. Josh Beckett is coming off his shortest postseason outing of his career and has been shaky for the past month. Luckily for the Red Sox, other players are peaking at the right time.
A huge factor in this series is Home Field Advantage. Red Sox advocates will wish that fact away by stating HFA didn't help the Angels, but the Rays are clearly dominant at home. They swept the Red Sox at home twice. They had the best home record in baseball since the juggernaut '98 Yankees and a ridiculous 23-2 record at home with crowds over 30,000. Indeed, all of the crowds – despite the ignorant speculation and disregard of understanding the Tampa-St. Petersburg demographics - at Tropicana Field will be sold out for the ALCS.
The Rays are trying to complete the Sox Sweep (beating the White and Red Sox) and the Red Sox are hoping their formula of trading away their big name player mid-season will net them another ring (See: Nomar Garciaparra, 2004)
There are many ways to look at this series... guessing, numerology and assumptions aside – although I will likely have Sports Shaman do a Tarot reading for this one) let's look at reality, position by position, and somewhat in depth.
Breaking down each position:
Carlos Pena: One of the finest fielding first baseman in the game. Plus power and although he strikes out a bunch and pulls most everything, he is a big run producer. Furthermore, he is a supreme optimist and thoroughly enjoys playing for the Rays. He is a clubhouse leader and always smiles, which is why I call him "Cheese" – he always looks ready for a picture opportunity.
Mark Kotsay: Kotsay was a waiver wire addition to the Red Sox late in the season. He is 32 going on 42 and hasn't done much with his bat and may very well end up yielding some time at first to Big Papi which will show how much the Lowell injury hurts this team.
Advantage: It's not even close. With Lowell out, moving Youkilis to third, Kotsay is serviceable at best as an infielder and clearly he's no match to Youk, Pena, or Lowell with the stick. Pena is quietly one of the best 1B in the game two years removed from getting released by the Red Sox.
Rays 9 – 6
Dustin Pedroia: Scrappy personified, he takes advantage of his tiny strike zone and uses the Green Monster to his advantage as evidenced by his AL leading 54 doubles. He was a starting All-Star and even though he’s Boston’s smallest player in stature, he is their biggest player in significance. As Dustin Pedroia goes, so do the Red Sox. He led the AL in hits and runs scored. He has started the 2008 playoffs fairly cold and if the Rays keep him off the bases the Red Sox will have trouble in this series.
Akinori Iwamura: Aki has been the leadoff hitter, setting the table for the Rays and disrupting pitchers on the basepaths. He has been outstanding on defense taking to second like a worm to dirt. His unorthodox style has served him well much like Ichiro's has done for him. Aki has amazing footwork and balance and is the guy responsible for the mohawk movement. Aki is well liked by his teammates and is a fan favorite.
Advantage: Not as far apart as you'd think. Pedroia had a career season and is in the MVP talk, but Aki is a better fielder, a better, faster baserunner and considering it was his first season playing second base, he was fairly outstanding. Perhaps the most important position for both teams, these guys make their teams go!
Red Sox 10 – 8
Jason Bartlett: Many Rays players call JB the team MVP. Surely the addition of Bartlett in the Delmon Young for Matt Garza trade solidified the Rays' weakest position: shortstop. Originally it appeared that Bartlett was merely keeping the position warm until prospect Reid Brignac was ready to take over. Bartlett's effect on the team's overall defense has been quite astounding. He's not going to win a Silver Slugger in his career, but his ability to get crucial hits when needed has been remarkable. His fielding prowess – despite 16 errors on the season - has enabled the Rays to reverse what was one of the historically bad fielding teams in baseball history last season into one of the top ten defensive teams in the game.
Jed Lowrie: 24 year old rookie (and 2007 Arizona Fall League alum) has joined the Pedroia train as this year's player who is exceeding realistic expectations. He had a hot stick for the Sox in the ALDS. His range and arm are adequate as his only two errors this season came as he filled in at third base. He's still a rookie and most likely isn't a permanent solution at short for the Big Spender Red Sox for the long term. Shortstop has been a revolving door for the Red Sox since Nomar was shipped out of Boston.
Advantage: Lowrie is still a rookie. He's roster fodder and you'd think a team with a $100+ million payroll would have more experience in the middle infield. Lowrie is a weak spot on the Red Sox, for sure. Anything Bartlett adds with the bat is a cherry on top.
Evan Longoria: The Rays' best rookie to date (and another 2007 Arizona Fall League alum) was not only an All-Star, but pretty much is assured of the Rookie of the Year award, despite not starting the season with the Big League club and also missing nearly a month due to a wrist injury after getting hit by a pitch. He is a supreme fielder and a heady base runner. Obviously, he has plus power and is also a doubles and run producing machine. Longlorious is unflappable and is already looked to as a team leader due to his calm confidence, superior talent, and general likeability.
Kevin Youkilis: He made a case for himself as an MVP candidate this year and started the All-Star game at first base. .312 – 29 – 115 is a damned fine season and Youk is not only a fan favorite but also a clubhouse leader. It seemed that the Red Sox brass deemed him less dispensable than Manny Ramirez as their tiffs has something to do with Ramirez's mid-season departure, for sure.
Advantage: Longoria is the best young third baseman in the game and might be an MVP several times before his career is over. Some people (mostly me) say that Longoria is the new Mike Schmidt. Youkilis at third isn't a bad thing, but he's perhaps the best defensive first baseman in the game, at third he's merely "good". The edge goes to Longoria simply because...
Rays 10 – 9
Dioner Navarro: A 2008 All-Star for the first time and another Rays player that could be considered as team MVP. He hit a career high .295, which led the team and has established himself as one of the premier catchers in the American League. His handling of the pitching staff has been a key ingredient in the Rays' success this year.
Jason Varitek: "Tek" has been on the downward plunge since 2005 offensively. For the first half of 2008, he was downright putrid. He still manages his pitching staff excellently, but it's obvious his days behind the dish are dwindling. Sure he has "experience", but will that overcome the wear and tear of several lengthy seasons behind the dish. How much more does he have left?
Advantage: Both are switch hitters, both are defensively proficient although Navarro threw out 38% runners and Varitek only 22% this season and both are emotional leaders of their team. Varitek is 36 and has a little more power, while Navarro is 24 years old and is clearly a better player at this stage – who would you rather have?
Rays 9 – 8 (that's generous for Varitek at this point)
Carl Crawford: Still one of the fastest and naturally gifted athletes on the planet, Crawford had a season that he had never had before; he spent a lot of time off the field as his teammates picked up the slack. He returned from hand surgery just in time to get himself on the playoff roster – he wouldn't miss the Rays first postseason for anything. Perhaps the best left fielder in the game when healthy, the Rays have found a way to win without him and will only benefit more from having him. He should get healthier as the playoffs wear on and he's definitely fresh-legged for the series.
Jason Bay: Perhaps the most under-rated player in the game when he was in Pittsburgh, the Red Sox traded for him for two reasons; 1) to get something in return after they decided to expedite the Manny trade and 2) they knew the Rays had their eyes on him. Rumors around a Bay to the Bay deal were rampant since Spring Training and the Rays had more than enough pieces to make a deal, but the Red Sox swooped in and stole away one of the finest fundamentally sound players in the game. Bay always hustles, always backs up other positions, and plays his heart out. He has plus power and might actually be the Red Sox's best position player, though the trendy Sox fans don't seem to recognize his skill.
Advantage: I'm calling this one a tie. Crawford is the better player due to his otherworldly athleticism, but he is still not himself after a season of hand, knee and hamstring injuries. He is superior defensively and on the bases, but Bay is as good as they get with his all-around baseball skills, effort and focus.
B.J. Upton: People were sleeping on Melvin Emmanuel Upton this year despite the fact that he was a 20-20 player last season. He was critiqued for a perceived lack of hustle, but in fact he is so gifted physically that everything he does simply looks too easy. He is wiry and appears thin, but he is country strong. His hands are as amazing as his feet. Keep in mind that even though B.J. has been in the majors for four seasons already, he just turned 24 in August. He has some refining to do as a player, but the sky is the limit for him as he will only get better. The reports of his immaturity are vastly overstated as he is as fine a gentleman as I have met in the game. His pedigree starts with his dad who was a decorated policeman and NCAA basketball referee. B.J. has the respect of his teammates and is one of manager Joe Maddon's favorite players. They have a close bond indicated by Upton's insistence that Maddon joined the team movement and got a Mohawk too.
Jacoby Ellsbury/Coco Crisp: Speed and not much else. Ellsbury might have led the league in stolen bases this year by six over Upton, but he doesn't exude Upton's strength and has NOWHERE near the arm that Upton does in the outfield. Ellsbury made a lot of diving catches this year that Upton didn't because B.J. gets a great jump on balls hit to him and gets to the spot to make those same difficult catches easy.
Crisp is a piece of dogcrap and a defiler of the ethics of the game. He plays dirty and disrespects the game with his antics. He is fast and a capable fielder and has a better arm than Ellsbury (whose arm makes Johnny Damon seem like Roberto Clemente).
Advantage: This matchup is perhaps the biggest assumption of them all. People know Ellsbury's name, but B.J. is the superior player and despite the numbers, it's really not that close. If Upton didn't open eyes with his two HR performance in game 4 of the ALDS or his laser of an arm, nothing will. People will probably overlook him forever but he's one of the best skilled outfielders in baseball. His extreme speed and cannon arm allow him to play a shallower center field than any CF in the game. His training as an infielder increased his overall baseball awareness. Ellsbury and Crisp are quality players, but neither is a superstar and neither will ever be.
Rays 9 - 8
J.D. Drew: A player that seemed destined for greatness before he decided to spurn the Phillies and stuck it out in the Independent Northern League before getting drafted again by the Cardinals. A vagabond perhaps due to his cactus-like personality, there's no doubt he should have been a great player with his tools. He has a great batting eye and draws walks easily. He's still a pretty damned good player when healthy – which seems to be rarely. He's played more than 135 games in a season in only 3 of his 11 years in the bigs. Will his back hold up? Will his lack of emotion hinder his teammates? This guy is more questions than answers.
Gabe Gross: If you want to talk "intangibles", THIS GUY has them. He has been disgustingly good at getting the big hit at the right moment. He's had several walk-off hits this season and he's made amazing catches at the right moments. He doesn't seem to play until the 8th inning or later. Despite his pedestrian season totals, he's been as huge for the Rays as anybody. He's a very smart player and a hell of an athlete – he was a college quarterback, just like his manager Joe Maddon.
Advantage: Drew is far and away the superior player in this matchup, but I have the feeling that Gross will continue his streak of coming up big when it's needed and Drew will revert to form in shrinking in the spotlight.
Red Sox 9 - 6
David Ortiz: Perhaps once the most feared lefthanded hitter in the game and certainly a prime time performer Big Papi took a dip this season due to a wrist injury. Ortiz will see a lot of the "Bonds shift", a defensive alignment first unveiled on the world by Joe Maddon when he was a bench coach for the Angels in the 2002 World Series. Ortiz can flat out hit, but unfortunately, that's ALL he can do. He is frozen molasses on the basepaths and a spastic hatchetman with the glove. He is the heart and soul of the team, but you can't help but wonder how much he'll miss the protection of Manny Ramirez behind him in the lineup during this series. If Kotsay can't get going at the plate, Ortiz might be relegated to donning the leather.
Cliff Floyd: One of the purest line drive hitters in baseball the last two decades, people look at his HR totals and think he doesn't have pop. He kills outfield walls with his line shots and typically is a pull hitter but can use the whole field. He also has a knack of getting go-ahead RBI in tie game situations. He was brought to the Rays to mentor Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton and provide leadership in the locker room in leading by example and by flashing his World Series ring. He's the older brother of the team and has been a vital cog in the team's success despite missing half the season to a knee injury. More than likely he'll only DH against righties and Rocco Baldelli will DH against lefties.
Advantage: Both players have had lengthy careers and seen it all in the game. Ortiz is the superior player, but age and injury is catching up to him. Not having Manny behind him has been the bigger explanation in his lessened effectiveness. Pitchers aren't afraid to attack him like in the past. Floyd is great when he's healthy and one of the smarter players in the game, but it seems he's always fighting a nagging affliction. Both players aren't what they used to be, but still better than most DHs.
Red Sox 10 – 8
Baldelli's return should have been the "feel good" story of 2008, but he's still contending with his mitochondrial disorder and the fatigue it produces. He is still a very talented ballplayer. Hinske carried the Rays while Pena was ailing. Aybar carried the Rays when Longoria was hurt. Fernando Perez might be the fastest Ray of them all and has had a blessed trime in the majors. Zobrist started at 4 different positions this season and is the kind of utility player Jo Maddon loves.
"The Mayor" is a glove at first and little else, Alex Cora is a coach in uniform, David Ross' career highlight will always be his first HR – he hit it off Mark Grace in a blowout - Kevin Cash is barely a major leaguer and who is Gil Velazquez?? The Red Sox bench is thin and even one injury to a starter will crush the team.
Advantage: The Lowell injury and the fact that the Red Sox are carrying three catchers clearly limits their options. None of these guys (including Crisp) will strike fear in the Rays. The Rays bench has been outstanding all season long. Baldelli, Aybar and Hinske can all start and Zobrist can play any position on the field.
Rays 9 - 6
The Rays staff had the 3rd best ERA in MLB with a 3.82. The Red Sox were ninth in baseball at 4.01.
James Shields: Shields is dominant in the Trop. He is a younger, more finesse version of Curt Schilling. He attacks and challenges hitters and comes at them with a wide array of pitches, arm angles and has a disgusting changeup. He doesn't walk batters and he gets them to get themselves out.
Daisuke Matsuzaka: Yes, Dice-K is a difficult pitcher to hit, but you don't need many hits to do damage to him. He walks a lot of batters - led all of MLB in walks in 2008 - and his 18-3 record is very misleading; he had plenty of run support this year. He had an amazing 6.23 runs of support per start. He's not invincible and might be the most over-rated starter in baseball this season. The Angels got to him with three runs on eight hits in 5 innings off him in Game 2 of the ALDS.
Scott Kazmir: Kazmir hasn't been himself this season. He missed the first month and a half of the season with elbow soreness and his last several starts he has given up the long ball. Against the White Sox, he was clearly too hyped up and started very shaky before settling down. When he's on, he's one of the best three lefties in the game.
Josh Beckett: Beckett didn't have a great season and is clearly been battling physical issues. He has a history of performing big in October and also against the Rays, but it seems he's more vulnerable now than ever. His regular season performances seems to indicate that he has focus issues and he clearly has a monster ego. His last five starts of the season were mediocre and his ALDS start against the Angels was the shortest playoff outing of his career.
Matt Garza: Garza has a big game mentality. He has nasty stuff. He can dominate and entire game. Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to keep his fiery competitiveness in check at all times. He gets a bit emotional and tries to do too much at times. He tends to have one bad inning and dominates the rest of the game. His mental toughness and make up is what you want from a starter in the playoffs. He pitches much better at home than on the road.
Jon Lester: Lester improved as the season went on and was a solid 7 inning pitcher each night out. There's a perception that Lester is one of the top flight lefties in the game – That's what they said about Erik Bedard last year, too. Lester is a nibbler and doesn't attack the strike zone; he relies on getting batters to chase pitches on the corners. He also demonstrated that he can be taken out early with aggressive hitting attack, jumping on his pitches early in the count – as demonstrated by the Blue Jays in August and September.
Andy Sonnanstine: "Greg Maddux-Lite" had his first whole season and showed that pitchers can control games without a 90+ mph fastball. His deceptive delivery and pinpoint control helped him to 13 wins. Sonny is a gutsy competitor and although he's prone to the longball it comes at times when there are no baserunners. He has some of the best junk pitches on the staff and won the 4th starter slot over Edwin Jackson, despite Jackson's more dominant "stuff".
Tim Wakefield: Wakefield might be playing his last season. I know knuckleballers can pitch forever, but Wakefield seems to have lost his effectiveness. The knuckler doesn't move like it used to and he got shelled a couple of times in August and September. The Rays knocked him out of the third inning of their game on September 17th by having their switch hitters bat righthanded. Maddon's approach proved effective as Willy Aybar had a HR off Wakefield and another RBI single while Fernando Perez and Gabe Bross also took him deep. When Wakefield is off, he's a batting practice pitcher. By far, Wakefield is the least effective of the Red Sox pitchers.
Advantage: These two staffs are two of the best staffs in baseball and are more evenly matched than people think. On any given evening, the Rays starters can be more dominant than the Red Sox starters. The Red Sox starters have benefited much more from early and more run support than the Rays starters, but Wakefield is the weakest link – his knuckler is a craps shoot. He is ineffective against the Rays and will need the Green Monster to keep them in the yard in Game 4. More than likely each team will get one dominant start from one of its starters and the series will come down to bullpens.
Tie 10-10 (although the stats say the Rays are better)
The Rays' improvement in the bullpen is the greatest and simplest explanation why they improved so much over last season. In 2007, the bullpen had a 6.16 ERA – the worst in over 50 years! This season, they allowed a MLB best, miniscule .220 batting average, had a 3.55 ERA and had the fourth fewest blown saves of any bullpen. Balfour has been lights out and J.P. Howell has been steady in multi-inning relief. Trever Miller is the lefty specialist and Chad Bradford's sidearm dealing has been a change of pace addition to the 'pen. Rookie David Price is destined to be a staff ace for a long time to come but will be the secret weapon in times of long relief need. Former #1 overall pick Price is far and away the best pitching prospect in the game and was Minor League player of the Year after advancing through all three levels of the minors before debuting in a Rays uniform in September. He is a fierce competitor and does not rattle at all. His composure, work ethic, and skill is second to no pitcher in this series, and he's the youngest of them all.
The Red Sox bullpen is not on the same level as the Rays. They allowed a .247 batting average and had a collective ERA of 4.00. Justin Masterson has assumed the setup role since converting from a starter and is prone to walks. Lopez is the lefty specialist and Paul Byrd will be the long relief guy. The Red Sox' bullpen got smacked around a little bit against the Angels and certainly are the most likely part of the Sox roster to falter in this series.
Advantage: The Red Sox have a pretty good bullpen, however they are a bit overrated by the general consensus while the bullpen is clearly the Rays team's strength. The bullpen is going to decide this series since the starting pitchers are fairly evenly matched. The Red Sox bullpen is vulnerable and if the Sox hope to win this series, they will need to avoid using their ‘pen.
Rays 10 - 8
Jonathan Papelbon: As good as they get. One of the three best closers in the game and a natural born psycho on the mound. He has supreme confidence and nasty stuff. He comes right at hitters and has the goods to blow anyone away. Pressure seems to be a non-issue with him. However, the Rays have demonstrated that he's not invincible and can be beat when they defeated him in Fenway in September with the division title on the line. He might be able to forget that and move on, then again... maybe he hasn't.
Dan Wheeler: Reunited with his old pitching coach Jim Hickey from Houston after last year's trade for Ty Wigginton, Wheeler has been thrust into the closer role due to the health issues of Troy Percival. Wheeler is certainly competent enough even though he tends to give up solo Home Runs when he has a two run lead. He's seasoned and has the stuff to be a closer as he has been outstanding as setup man. Grant Balfour and his nasty stuff might also get opportunities to close.
Advantage: Papelbon is a clear cut advantage for the Red Sox – if they can get to him. The Rays have shown they can beat Papelbon at Fenway and don't fear him or any reliever (they also beat Rivera this season, too). Papelbon is still a better closer than Wheeler who has good enough stuff, but has been a setup man for most of his career and is now the closer by default. One thing that works to the Rays' advantage is their ability to use anyone in the closer role.
Red Sox 10 - 7
Joe Maddon: Maddon is Manager of the Year... hands down. He is the eternal optimist and handled his team like a wise sage all season long. He's "been there" before and directed a team with little talent and a piss poor attitude in 2006 into a powerhouse for years to come by showing the team that cohesiveness, 100% focus and togetherness will overcome adversity. He spent 33 years with the Angels organization, has learned from the best and seen it all. He never is at a loss for multi-syllablical words to express himself and is finally getting his due. Maddon has relied on guile, creativity and unorthodox methods to lead this team and the players believe in him 100%.
It started in Spring with all-out effort and "9=8". He inspired the franchise with his slogans and bringing in inspirational figures to ground and unite the team. Now they have a chance to make 9=1.
Terry Francona: Michael Jordan's minor league manager should never have been fired from the Phillies. He is a master at managing people and a wonderful game tactician. His dad was a ballplayer, he came up into the bigs with high expectations and never really played to his potential getting relegated to a role player. He learned the game from the bench during his playing career and his carefree attitude has breathed fresh air into a smothering media contingency in the New England.
Advantage: Let's be honest, these are two of the best managers and ego massagers in the game today. They both do things "out-of-the-box" at times and are both calculating with their usage of players.
Totals and Summary:
Oddly enough it's the Rays wearing mohawks, much as the rebellious participants did at the Boston Tea Party, standing up to the Oppressors of Freedom and overthrowing the King's taxation. Maybe this will be the new revolution; the Boston Sweep Party? OK, I won't go as far as to call it a sweep no matter how much I want to. The Red Sox put a lot of effort into beating the Angels and the Rays are suddenly hitting on all cylinders and the healthiest they've been all season.
Advantage: These teams are evenly matched – as indicated by their season win totals being a mere two game difference in baseball's toughest division. The series will come down to strengths and weaknesses.
The Rays are deeper and have a stronger bullpen, plus home field advantage and the mojo of the year. These are the types of seasons that the Baseball gods smile at and shine brightly upon. It's hard for a team with this much momentum and cohesion to suddenly lose that winning formula. They are brothers in arms, a family with one mission - to overcome any obstacle placed before them.
Rays 116 – 110 – see? I told you they are closely matched!
Prediction: Rays in 5. Great pitching and defense beats great hitting. The Rays have built their team on the proven championship formula and health has been on their side at the right moment - Now.
The Rays sweep the first two games at home in close scoring but not-that-close contests, the Red Sox beat Garza in Fenway then get blown out in Game 4. Game 5 goes extra innings as Papelbon allows the tying run in the 9th and the Rays pull their magic out of the cap once again at Fenway.