Red Sox vs. Rays ALDS preview

October 04, 2013 - 6:17 am

The Red Sox have been waiting to find out which team they would be playing in the American League Division Series since finishing up the regular season on Sunday. They found out the answer after Wednesday's AL wild card game and they'll be facing a familiar opponent in the Rays, as the Red Sox kick off their first postseason run since 2009. The Sox have known where they stand for quite a a while now. After becoming the first team in the American League to clinch a playoff spot, they clinched the AL East title a day later. They also secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with the best record in the American League at 97'€“65. The Red Sox finished with a 5½-game lead in the American League East, pulling into sole possession of first place on May 27 and remaining there for the rest of the season, completing the worst-to-first turnaround from 2012. Gaining home-field advantage was no small feat for the Red Sox, who finished the year with a 53'€“28 record at Fenway Park. "That's what we wanted. That'€™s why you play," Dustin Pedroia said of winning the top seed in the AL. "It'€™s a huge advantage. That'€™s a pretty big accomplishment for our team. There'€™s a lot of great teams. We'€™ve got the best record. It sets us up nicely. We'€™ve still got to go out and play well, obviously. It doesn'€™t matter where you'€™re playing. But it helps us that we get to hit last." Said Jonny Gomes: "We grinded, we battled, we worked hard for the home-field advantage and we got that. I think this park in Fenway probably stands at the top of the board for what a home-field advantage means with the hostile environment, the big wall." Though the Red Sox dropped their final series of the season, they finished with more series wins than any other team in baseball. One of the most impressive aspects about this team is its ability to stave off any prolonged losing streaks, having never lost more than three in a row. It's been a pressure-filled week of baseball for the Rays, having played three elimination games in a row. They held on to win a tight one against the Blue Jays in Game 162, resulting in a tie with the Rangers for the second wild card. Things went more smoothly in the tiebreaker game, the 163rd game of the season for the Rays, who defeated Texas by a 5-2 score. Alex Cobb and the Rays bullpen shined in the AL wild card matchup, shutting out the Indians and advancing to the ALDS with a 4-0 victory. Because of the string do-or-die games, the Rays were unable to set up the rotation the way they'd like to heading into the ALDS. The Rays are a very hot team. Though they dropped two of three to the Blue Jays in the final series of the regular season, they've won 15 of their last 20 games. They continue to win even though they haven't played a game on their home turf since Sept. 23. While the Red Sox have been resting, working out and playing intrasquad games for four days now, the Rays have played in three different cities.

"I want to believe it's going to create some kind of different form of momentum going into this series, because we've been playing," manager Joe Maddon said. "We've been playing under duress, and we're not tired. Don't be deceived, we're not tired. I might look bad right now, but I'm not that tired. I'll be fine by tomorrow, and I think our players will feel the same way." "I want to believe the journey we've just gone through [over the last week] is going to hopefully relax our hitters a bit," Maddon added, "so you might see a better offensive ball club to go along with pitching and defense." The Rays pitching staff was dominant as usual in the regular season, and this year the team fielded an extremely solid defense, finishing second in the majors with a .990 fielding percentage. The combination of Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar and James Loney in the infield has played a notable role in the Rays' success. But the Red Sox were able to get the better of the Rays offense, with Sox pitchers combining for a 2.93 ERA in 19 games against Tampa Bay. The Red Sox won 12 of the 19 games in the season series, but the games weren't anywhere near lopsided. The Sox outscored the Rays by 14 runs, and it often came down to pitchers' duels. The Red Sox hit just .208/.280/.333 against Rays pitching, compiling a lower OPS against the Rays than against any other opponent. There's a lot of history in this matchup, with the Red Sox and Rays seeing plenty of each other throughout the regular season. The last time these two clubs met in postseason play was back in 2008, when the Rays defeated the Red Sox in a seven-game ALCS to advance to the World Series. Here are the pitching matchups for the ALDS. Game 1, Friday: Jon Lester (15-8, 3.75) vs. Matt Moore (17-4, 3.29) Game 2, Saturday: John Lackey (10-13, 3.52) vs.  David Price (10-8, 3.33) Game 3, Monday: Clay Buchholz (12-1, 1.74) vs. TBD Game 4, Tuesday (if necessary): Jake Peavy (12-5, 4.17) vs. TBD Game 5, Thursday (if necessary): Lester vs. TBD  WHO'S HOT: RED SOX
'€¢ Buchholz looks like he hasn'€™t missed a beat since returning from the disabled list, going 3-1 with a 1.88 ERA, giving up just five earned runs in 24 innings. He only got the chance to face the Rays once this season, but he had what was arguably his best start of the year against them, going eight scoreless inning while allowing just two hits and striking out 11 back in April at Fenway Park. '€¢ Although many questions surround the bullpen heading into the playoffs, the ninth inning obviously belongs to Koji Uehara. The closer has had a remarkable regular season, finishing with a 1.09 ERA and 0.565 WHIP in 74 1/3 IP, posting a phenomenal 11.22 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Uehara has been absolutely dominant since July 9, allowing just one earned run in 37 IP (a 0.24 ERA) while giving up 10 hits and only one walk, fanning 48 batters. The righty has been especially tough against Rays hitters this season, tossing 10 2/3 scoreless innings against Tampa Bay while allowing only two hits and two walks. Only five members of the Rays have hits off of Uehara: Evan Longoria (3-for-18), Ben Zobrist (2-for-14), Matt Joyce (2-for-7), David DeJesus (1-for-2) and Delmon Young (1-for-2). The only thing Uehara has working against him is his brief but ugly postseason history. The 38-year-old pitched in the playoffs for the Rangers in 2011 and again for the Rangers in last year'€™s wild card game. In 2 1/3 innings of work, Uehara gave up five runs on five hits and two walks, with three of those hits leaving the ballpark. The good news is that his last playoff appearance, an inning in the 2012 AL Wild Card game, was a scoreless one. '€¢ Uehara'€™s been unbelievable this season, but there'€™s another member of the relief corps whose efforts this year should not be overlooked. Craig Breslow has worked his way into an eighth-inning role with an extremely solid season out of the 'pen, compiling a 1.81 ERA and 1.123 WHIP in 59 2/3 innings. Breslow has been lights-out recently, allowing just one run in his last 25 2/3 innings of work (since July 22, 28 appearances), good for a 0.35 ERA. The lefty has been much more impressive away from Fenway Park, posting a 3.29 ERA in 27 1/3 innings at home compared to a miniscule 0.56 ERA in 32 1/3 innings on the road. Breslow has given up three runs on six hits in seven innings this season against the Rays, but there aren'€™t many Rays hitters that fare exceptionally well against the left-hander. Luke Scott is the outlier, going 5-for-10 lifetime with two doubles and a home run. Though Breslow has been in the game for eight years, bouncing between six teams, this will be the first taste of the postseason for the 33-year-old. '€¢ Mike Napoli had arguably his best month of the season in September, hitting .333/.494/.733 with six doubles, six home runs and 16 RBIs in his last 20 games. But the first baseman has been dealing with nagging pain from plantar fasciitis in his foot. Napoli has had trouble handling Tampa Bay pitching this season, hitting just .217 against the Rays with seven doubles and a home run, while he'€™s gone just 4-for-28 at Tropicana Field this year. '€¢ Jon Lester, the Game 1 starter, has bounced back to ace form in the last couple of months. Although his last start was mediocre (four runs on nine hits in five innings against the Orioles), he had gone 5-2 with a 1.80 ERA in his last nine starts. He lost just twice in the second half. Lester went 2-1 in four starts against the Rays this season, but he allowed five home runs to the Tampa Bay lineup, the most he'€™s given up to any team this season. '€¢ Jarrod Saltalamacchia ended his best offensive season on a high note, hitting in 11 straight games, the longest hitting streak of his career. The catcher finished the year with the highest batting average (.273), slugging percentage (.466), most RBIs (65) and most hits (116) of his career. WHO'S HOT: RAYS '€¢ The Red Sox will have their work cut out for them against Price, the Game 2 starter. They've faced Price five times this season, and he's been impressive in each start. In 30 innings, Price has allowed just nine runs while giving up 19 hits and only three walks compared to 30 strikeouts. His WHIP against the Red Sox sits at a tiny 0.673. Price has been solid lately, though not spectacular. He's allowed exactly two earned runs in each of his last five starts, but one of those outings lasted only five innings. He finished the season with a 3.33 ERA in 186 2/3 innings pitched, resulting in a 10-8 record. '€¢ Though Price, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, is widely considered the ace of the Tampa Bay staff, Cobb's dominance this season should not be overlooked. He was lights-out in the wild card game against the Indians, which was just more of the same for the righty, who has posted a 2.76 ERA in 22 starts this season. Cobb missed two months of action after he was drilled in the head by a line drive while on the mound, but he came back as strong as ever. Cobb held opposing hitters to a .219/.295/.348 line in nine games since returning, going 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA. The Red Sox are one team Cobb hasn't fared well against, however. In four starts against Boston this season, Cobb has given up 13 runs in 22 2/3 innings (5.16 ERA), allowing 24 hits and 10 walks. Shane Victorino and Napoli have managed to hit Cobb pretty well, going 4-for-11 and 3-for-9, respectively. '€¢ Desmond Jennings has been swinging a hot bat, hitting .351/.444/.622 with five doubles, a triple and a home run in the last 12 games of the regular season. But Jennings has been nursing a hamstring injury which looked to be bothering him during the tiebreaker and wild card games. The speedy Rays leadoff hitter has stolen 20 bases this season (although he's been caught eight times) and finished the year with a .252/.334/.414 line. '€¢ Rookie Wil Myers is looking as good as advertised with the bat. The 22-year-old has driven in 53 runs in only 88 major league games, and wrapped on the season on a hot streak, hitting .323/.380/.566 with four home runs and 12 doubles in his last 26 games. Myers may strike out a lot (almost 25 percent of the time) but he's shown off his game-changing power, becoming a force in a relatively mediocre Rays lineup. Myers finished the season with 13 home runs and 23 doubles and slugging .478. WHO'S NOT: RED SOX '€¢ Lackey has been one of the team'€™s most consistent starters, but he'€™s hit a rough patch heading into the postseason. He finished with a 10-13 record (his losing record has a lot to do with the average of 3.76 runs the Red Sox score behind him) and posted his lowest ERA (3.52) since his Cy Young Award-winning season in 2007. However, September was his worst month, giving up an average of almost five runs per games in five starts. The second half as a whole pales in comparison to the righty'€™s outstanding first half; his ERA is 4.48 in the second half compared to 2.78 in the earlier portion of the season. Lackey will get the call in Game 2 of the series since he'€™s been stellar at home this season -- his ERA at Fenway is just 2.47 and his record is 6-3, while it'€™s 4.48 and 4-10 on the road. He hasn'€™t had a lot of luck facing Tampa Bay this season, giving up a total of nine runs and 19 hits in two starts (10 innings), though both of those starts came on the road. There are a number of Rays hitters who have had Lackey'€™s number throughout their careers: Longoria (.323 in 31 at-bats, three doubles and two home runs), Zobrist (.407, three doubles), Scott (.333), Yunel Escobar (8-for-15) and Young (.353 in 17 at-bats) have all had success against Lackey. But the veteran has another thing going for him: experience. In 14 postseason games (12 starts) and 78 innings, Lackey has compiled a 3.12 ERA. '€¢ If there'€™s one weakness on this Red Sox club, it'€™s the innings in between their starter'€™s final frame and the ninth inning. While Uehara and Breslow have been dominant, the rest of the bullpen has been rather shaky. Junichi Tazawa, who was impressive in 2013, has shown flashes of brilliance but has not been the most reliable of relievers. Tazawa'€™s final numbers on the year don'€™t look so bad: a 3.16 ERA, 1.200 WHIP, 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings as opposed to 1.6 walks per nine in 71 appearances, by far the most of his major league career. But since Aug. 20, he'€™s allowed 14 hits and eight runs in 14 appearances (10 2/3 innings). September was his worst month of the season by far. The good news is that Tazawa has been able to shut down the Rays offense this season, allowing six hits and a run in 9 1/3 innings with 11 strikeouts to his credit. Another oft-used arm in the late innings is Brandon Workman, the rookie who came up as a starter but proved to be a valuable bullpen asset. Workman has posted a 4.97 ERA in 41 2/3 innings this season, but his ERA as a reliever is a lofty 6.94 in 23 1/3 innings. He, like Tazawa, has not been good as of late, with a 7.00 ERA in 10 appearances this September. It seems that Workman is best when he'€™s being used on a regular basis; he'€™s allowed 12 runs in just 8 2/3 innings while walking six when he'€™s working on six or more days of rest. WHO'S NOT: RAYS '€¢ Joel Peralta has been one of the go-to guys in the Rays bullpen, appearing 80 games, but he's been a bit shaky as of late. Peralta has given up 10 runs (only eight earned) in his last 13 appearances (12 1/3 innings) allowing two home runs and 10 walks. Peralta has had trouble with command all season long, walking an average 4.3 batters per nine innings. He hasn't had much luck against the Red Sox, posting a 4.82 ERA in 9 1/3 innings and walking six batters. '€¢ Fernando Rodney is certainly not the same unhittable closer he was in 2012. Though he's impressively given up just one run in his last 12 innings, his last couple of regular-season outings were anxiety-inducing. He allowed a run on five hits and a walk in his last two appearances. Rodney ended up earning 37 saves with a 3.38 ERA and 1.335 WHIP on the year, but the Red Sox got to him on multiple occasions, scoring a total of five runs in 6 2/3 innings against the closer. To Rodney's credit, he did toss a perfect ninth inning in the wild card playoff, striking out two. '€¢ Escobar has been an asset in the field at shortstop, but somewhat of a liability in the lineup, at least over the past few weeks. Escobar has seen his average dip from .267 to .256 with a rough slump to end the season, going 5-for-39 in his final 14 games of the regular season, notching only one multi-hit game in that time span. Red Sox pitchers held Escobar to a .231 average this season, though he did knock five doubles and draw 10 walks.