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ALCS Preview: Boston Red Sox vs Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays and Red Sox are the two best teams in baseball.

Yes, the Angels won 100 games, and John Lackey thinks they were the better team. They weren’t. Yes, it’s very possible that the Phillies or Dodgers will win the World Series, but that doesn’t mean they’re the better team.

The Red Sox and Rays had more third-order wins than any other team in the AL. In fact, the Yankees were third, a full five wins behind the Rays. Both teams are unique in that they are built to succeed over 162 games (thanks to excellent depth, especially on the pitching side), as well as over a short series (thanks to fantastic top-of-the-rotation pitching and a few lights-out relievers).

This series is a Secret Sauce bonanza, featuring two teams with strikeout pitchers, great bullpens (well, at least a few great relievers), and fantastic defense. For all the talk of the Rays’ excellent defense – and it was indeed excellent – the Red Sox actually had the highest park-adjusted defense in the American League (the Rays were fourth).

This series is full of storylines – the Old Guard against the Up-And-Comer; James Shields vs Coco Crisp (I’m surprised the Rays didn’t add Jonny Gomes to the roster as an Enforcer), progressive front office against…progressive front office. This series contains the two best teams in baseball, who are both built for the postseason. With that in mind, here are some things to watch:

Scott Kazmir’s command. Kazmir has been sporadic with his command this season, leading to effective-but-short outings due to high pitch counts. The Red Sox are a notoriously patient team – if they exercise their patience against Kazmir, he could have a tough time getting through five innings.

Tim Wakefield’s knuckler. Wakefield had three starts against the Rays this season – one was quite good, and another was quite bad. This is indicative of Wakefield’s season: feast or famine. If the knuckler isn’t knuckling, I’d expect to see Paul Byrd very quickly.

Grant Balfour’s fastball. Everyone knows it’s coming, but no one can hit it. Balfour has struck out 12.65 batters per nine innings, despite throwing his fastball 91% of the time. Remind you of anyone?

Jonathan Papelbon’s usage. One of Terry Francona’s strengths in previous postseasons has been his willingness to use Jonathan Papelbon for 4- and 5-out saves when the situation calls for it. This begs the question: why was Papelbon not in the game in the eighth inning of game four against the Angels? If Francona is concerned about over-extending Papelbon, the Red Sox’s bullpen is going to suffer.

Carl Crawford’s lineup spot. Yes, lineup order doesn’t matter too much, but really, when is Joe Maddon going to drop Crawford to the bottom? He has shown very little since returning from injury, and the Rays cannot afford to have such an easy out in the middle of their lineup.

JD Drew’s back. The Red Sox’s lineup looks a whole lot different when pitchers have to face Pedroia, Ortiz, Youkilis, Drew, and Bay in succession. Even if a pitcher somehow escapes unscathed, he’s probably thrown a ton of pitches in the process. JD’s presence in the lineup matters a lot to a team that is not the offensive juggernaut of years past.
The Rays plate discipline. If the Red Sox have a weakness, it’s middle relief, as Papelbon and Okajima rarely work multiple innings, and Masterson may need to be saved for late-game situations. While scoring runs off of the Red Sox’s starters is a daunting task, if the Rays can force high pitch counts and get into the Red Sox’s bullpen in the 6th inning (or earlier), they will get to face the weakest aspect of the Red Sox’s team.

Joe Maddon’s bullpen usage. The Rays have a bullpen full of pieces that complement each other nearly perfectly. They have a good long-man in David Price (who also happens to be a lefty); two strikeout machines – one lefty (JP Howell) and one righty (Grant Balfour) – both of whom are capable of working more than one inning; a righty specialist capable of inducing grounders (Chad Bradford), and a guy perfectly suited to get three outs if brought in at the beginning of an inning (Dan Wheeler). The Rays bullpen can be extremely effective…if Joe Maddon deploys it effectively.

Home field advantage. James Shields had a 2.59 ERA at home and a 4.82 ERA on the road, thanks to a homer rate that was twice as high on the road. Meanwhile, Tim Wakefield had a 3.10 ERA at home and a 5.14 ERA on the road (also thanks to a homer rate that was twice as high on the road). Both men will pitch in their respective home parks this series. Both teams are built well for their individual home park, and both teams thrived at home this year (in fact, they won more home games than any other team in baseball). While it is often overrated, home field is likely to play a large role in this series. If the Rays win the first two games, they have merely held serve. Meanwhile, if the Red Sox sneak one (or perhaps both), they will have a significant advantage coming back to Fenway.

Prediction: This series can truly go either way. The only thing that would surprise me is if it doesn’t last at least six games. Red Sox in seven.