Boston Red Sox (97-65) vs. Tampa Bay Rays (92-71)
Keys for the Red Sox: Score a lot of runs; don’t rely on their starting pitching; get the Rays’ starters pitch counts up and get into the bullpen; don’t let Farrell’s mistakes burn them.
The Red Sox led the American League in on-base percentage and runs scored. Much has been made of their “top-to-bottom” lineup, but a lot of their success was based on circumstance. Yes, they have guys who hit the ball out of the park and work the count in David Ortiz, Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino. Yes, they have grinders and fiery players like Dustin Pedroia, Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp. Yes, Jarrod Saltalamacchia had a big power year.
That said, the Red Sox took great advantage of teams with bad pitching. When they ran into teams with good pitching – teams that weren’t going to walk them and give up homers – they had trouble. The Rays aren’t going to walk them and give up homers.
The Red Sox starting pitching has been serviceable, but not superior. They have a starting rotation of a lot of impressive names who have also benefited from the Red Sox run-scoring lineup and solid defense.
The Rays’ starters have a tendency to run up high pitch counts. Manager Joe Maddon showed that he was willing to push his starters in the post-season with David Price’s complete game in the wild card tiebreaker. The Rays bullpen has been shaky and I certainly don’t trust Fernando Rodney. If the Red Sox can have a lead or keep the game close late, they’ll score on the Rays’ bullpen.
Farrell deserves immense credit for the Red Sox turnaround. It can’t be forgotten, though, that everything worked out right for them this year. Farrell still has his strategic missteps and in the post-season, they’re magnified.
Keys for the Rays: Get depth from their starters; keep the Red Sox off the bases and in the park; rely on Evan Longoria.
Maddon is deft at handling his bullpen, but it’s always better to not have to put the game in the hands of Rodney, Joel Peralta and the rest of the mix-and-match crew he has out there. Price pitched a complete game dancing through the proverbial raindrops against the Rangers. Matt Moore racks up high pitch counts by the middle-innings. Maddon will push them, but he won’t abuse them. If he has to remove them, then a bullpen-based game is to his disadvantage.
The Red Sox look for walks and pitches they can hit out of the park. If you don’t walk them and get the breaking ball over, they’re not going to be able to hit their homers with runners on base.
Longoria lives for the spotlight. He wants people to be talking about him on social media and over coffee the next morning. If he hits and the Rays pitch, they’re tough to beat.
What will happen:
As incredible as Koji Uehara has been as the Red Sox closer, his longball tendency concerns me. He’s never faced this kind of pressure before and all the strikeouts in the world aren’t going to help him if the home run ball bites him at an inopportune moment.
I don’t trust the Red Sox bullpen; I don’t trust their starting pitchers; and I don’t think they’re going to hit with the authority they did during the regular season, nor are they going to have the runners on base to put up crooked numbers.
The Rays are playing with a freewheeling abandon that comes from the top. Maddon is a superior strategic manager to Farrell and has greater experience in post-season games. Farrell will make a game-costing gaffe at some point in this series.
There’s a strange love-fest going on with the Red Sox outside their fanbase and I’m not sure why. There’s an idea that because they had a collapse in 2011 and a rotten year in 2012, that they’ve “earned” this season and it’s going to end in a championship.
The playoffs have a tendency to provide an electroshock rude awakening. Sort of like a sting from a ray.
PREDICTION: RAYS IN FIVE