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2008 ALCS Preview
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2008 ALCS Preview
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
October 8, 2008

As anyone who has talked to me in the last nine months knows, I am pulling hard for the Tampa Bay Rays to win it all. This is the team I said could easily make the playoffs when no one else did (though, to be fair, I said they had a shot at the wild card).

My father-in-law, on the other hand, is enamored with the Boston Red Sox. To that end, the following is an email I received from him following my prediction that the Angels would beat the Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs:

“Asher,

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Did Kelly tell you about my request, or did you pick the Angels on your own?

Chuck”

It turns out that Chuck asked my wife, his daughter, to have me predict that the Angels would win, on the theory that given my track record when it come to predicting the playoffs, whomever I pick is destined to lose.

Following the Angels demise, he sent me the following email:

“Asher,

Thanks for all your help. The next round will be tougher, as the Rays seemed to have the Sox' number this season.

Chuck”

I kind of got the impression that Chuck was goading me into picking the Rays. This impression was confirmed by a subsequent email:

“[The Rays] very successfully held off the Red Sox at the end of the season. The Sox had several attempts at closing the gap, but couldn't catch up. I suggest you pick the Rays.

See what I did?”

Ah, what to do, what to do. I know my track record as well as my father-in-law does. I know it so well, in fact, that I can almost convince myself to bet against myself. On the one hand, I know that I want the Rays to win. On the other hand, given their home-field advantage and the way the season series went against the Red Sox in 2008, I am also inclined to think that they actually have a chance of winning.

So, I can go with my gut prediction, that the Rays will win, and basically kill any chance of the Rays making it into the World Series, or I can play the odds and make the case for the Red Sox, which is not a hard case to make anyway, and virtually ensure that the Rays will go the Fall Classic.

Let’s just see how it turns out:

The American League Eastern division has long been considered the class of Major League Baseball, if for no other reason than the fact that baseball’s two wealthiest teams and America’s most storied sports rivalry resides there. For the last fifteen years, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have battled for divisional dominance, and in those fifteen years alone, that rivalry has produced repeated breathless moments, future Hall of Famers too numerous to count, eight trips to the World Series, and six World Series titles.

So dominant were the Yankees and Red Sox for the last 15 years, that when baseball decided to move the NL East tenant Montreal Expos to within an hour of Baltimore, the Orioles' front office suggested that they would waive any antitrust-exempt protests if they would be allowed to swap leagues and divisions with the Expos. Yikes.

But 2008 marked a down year, if not the end, of that rivalry in its current incarnation. Most of the familiar faces from the last 15 years have either moved on or retired, and for the first time in over a decade, we had a September that New York Yankees fans hope not to remember. Out of the ashes of the Yankees/Red Sox decade of high-powered and high-priced dominance rose the Tampa Bay Rays, for years the laughing stock of baseball and the doormat of the AL East. The Rays succeeded by building a team wholly different from their divisional counterparts – not only with a fraction of what the Red Sox and Yankees spent, but also with youth, pitching, and defense. In 2008, the Rays went from a fledgling franchise to an over-achieving bunch of youngsters to a legitimately unbeatable team.

The Red Sox and Rays tangled eighteen times this season, and through the first twelve of those games the home team won every game. The division, it appeared, would belong to whichever team didn’t blink first. Then, on September 9th, the Red Sox blinked. Trailing the Rays by 1.5 games going into a three game set in Boston, the Red Sox looked set to finally make their move and take their place atop the division. Three days later, the Sox had lost two of three to the Rays. The following week, after the Yankees took two of three from the Rays, the Sox beat Tampa in game one of a three game set in Florida to tie the Rays atop the division, but it didn’t hold, as the Rays took two of the next three.

In the month of September, the Rays were in the race of their life to defeat the mighty Red Sox and make a play to win the division after never having previously finished better than fourth. They could have folded, conceding the division to the Red Sox and being pleased to go to the playoffs as the Wild Card. But like Ted Williams on the final day of the 1941 season, the Rays refused to sit, refused to be pleased with making the playoffs on a technicality. They showed up in September and took four of six from one of the best teams in baseball.

The Rays are finally legit. But lots of legit teams fail to make the World Series.

Obviously, home field advantage will be enormous in this series, as each team has fared very well against the other on its own home turf. Fortunately for the Rays, they have that advantage.

For the Red Sox, the key to winning this series could simply fall to knowing where to pitch which pitcher. The Red Sox have two pitchers in Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett, who were significantly better on the road this season, and two pitchers in Jon Lester and Tim Wakefield who were significantly better at home. If the Red Sox line up their pitching staff with Dice-K and Beckett pitching games one and two in Tampa, this would give them four pitchers who whose ERA was 3.10 or lower in their home/road environment in which they would be facing Tampa in the series.

The Rays will likely put up Scott Kazmir and James Shields in games one and two. The Red Sox have blown these two guys up this season, to the tune of ERAs of 9.00 and 5.85, respectively. The good news for the Rays is that Shields’ numbers are aligned pretty solildly around whether he was facing the Sox at home or on the road, but the bad news is that the lone Red Sox win in Tampa this season came against Kazmir, whom they lit up for nine earned runs in three innings at the end of the year. This shouldn’t be too surprising – the Red Sox lineup is loaded with very talented right handed hitters who aren’t prone to striking out much. This pretty much eliminates Kazmir’s advantages as a hard throwing left-handed pitcher.

The remaining Rays starters, Andy Sonnastine and Matt Garza, are question marks. The enormous factor in this series (as with any playoff series but especially here) will be whether one of these teams can steal a game on the road. Sonnanstine, who was completely unpredictable in his second year in the majors, shows no preference for pitching at home or on the road and just clinched the ALDS on the road in Chicago. Garza is noticeably better at home and got torched by the Sox in Boston this season.

There is a chance that we could see seven excellent pitching matchups in this series.

If you believe playoff experience to be an important factor in the post-season, then you probably believe this series isn’t even worth playing. The Red Sox have engineered some of the great clutch moments in baseball history in the last few years, from coming back from down 3-0 to the Yankees in 2004, to coming back from down 3-1 to the Indians last season. The Red Sox can never be left for dead. Plus, David Ortiz is Mr. Clutch Homerun.

If you don’t believe in the importance of playoff experience, you probably think the Rays are a team of destiny, a worst-to-first, made-for-Disney miracle team of fate, and that their ascendancy to baseball's biggest stage is a foregone conclusion.

In the end, though, I think my father-in-law is right to root for the Red Sox. Too much talent, too much money, and too much experience add up to too much of an advantage for the boys from Boston. This is a team that had to bite and scratch to get into the playoffs and narrowly missed winning the division by not taking advantage of the opportunities they had in September to overtake the Rays. This is not the type of team that such a thing would be lost on.

Further, this is an expectations game. In truth, the Rays have already enjoyed their miracle season, and go home with heads held high no matter what happens. But baseball fans in Boston these days get angry when the Sox cede even one game in a playoff series. Because the expectation is so much higher in Boston, and because the sense of satisfaction and contentment has already been clinched for the Rays, Boston has the advantage.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Red Sox are headed for a second consecutive World Series. This team is too good not to.

See what I did there, Chuck?




Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at asher@baseballevolution.com.

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