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American League Championship
This is the kind of match up that is simply impossible to predict.
Both teams have very capable offenses, especially at the top of the lineup. The mix and match of speed (Akinori Iwamura, B.J. Upton, and Carl Crawford) and power (Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, Cliff Floyd) gives the Rays a versatile offense that is very difficult to pitch against and handle on the base pads. The Red Sox have two pesky young players that hit for average and are dangerous on the bases in Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, and then they bludgeon you with power 3 to 6 with David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, J.D. Drew, and Jason Bay. From 1 to 6, there is just no way to pitch around this Red Sox line-up; and this is WITHOUT Mike Lowell! What the Rays lose in the top 6 match-up is made up for in the bottom 3 match-up; without Lowell, the Red Sox bottom three is a notable weakness, while the Rays round out their line-up with Jason Bartlett and Dioner Navarro; neither with much power, but both can hit for average and keep an inning or a rally alive. – Slight edge to the Red Sox.
Starting pitching is another tough one to call. Scott Kazmir and James Shields are an excellent one-two punch, and when their stuff if on, they are awfully hard to beat. Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine are good, young pitchers but are hit or miss; Garza was rattled in the ALDS, which is definitely a concern for the Rays. Sonnanstine is not overpowering, but often pitches well enough to at least give the team a chance to win. The Red Sox meanwhile continue to pitch insanely well. Jon Lester has emerged as a true ace this year, and has proven in out dueling John Lackey twice that he is not wavering in the playoffs. Daisuke Matsuzaka continues to defy logic, reason, and baseball by putting base runners on and getting into jams and finding away to escape from them every single time. Josh Beckett did not pitch well in his game against the Los Angeles Angels, but it is hard to count such a perennial playoff all-star out. And whoever they decide to go with if they need a 4th pitcher, Tim Wakefield/Paul Byrd/Bartolo Colon are all capable of at least pitching well enough to keep their team in the game. Once again, I have to give an edge to the Red Sox.
Bullpens are strong points for both teams. Runs are going to be hard to come by in the later innings of these games, which is going to make starting pitching and jumping out to early leads that much more important. No edge for either team here really; other then perhaps the playoff experience of the Red Sox.
So I give the Red Sox the edge in every category. So why am I saying this series is impossible to predict? Quite simply, it is because every bit of pressure is on the Red Sox. Obviously, the Angels let it get in their heads that they couldn't beat the Red Sox, and they crumbled in some key situations. The Rays will not do the same; they are not afraid of anyone. They aren't afraid of the aura that comes with the Red Sox. They are just a bunch of brash kids out to prove the world wrong. Meanwhile the Red Sox have already been penciled into the World Series, and now that the Angels are out of the way, the media figures they can only beat themselves at this point. If they play with fire like they did against the Angels, they may not get away with it against a team that has already vastly surpassed their expectations, has nothing to lose, and has taken advantage of opponent mistakes all season long. How do you beat a team with no fear of losing?
I'm going to take the Red Sox. They have the edge on the field, and believe they are too accustomed to winning come playoff time (so crazy to read that still...) to cough up 4 games in this series. Plus, there is always the chance the Rays finally crumble under the pressure. Should be an awesome series.
PREDICTION: Red Sox in 7