Friday, October 10, 2008

Red Sox and Rays Ready for AL Championship

National League Championship: Boston Red Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays Boston Red Sox Recent History: Boston finished the regular season with a 16-10 record for September, but they could not catch the Rays and settled for the wild card. Continuing a decades-long mastery of the NL West champion LA Angels, the Red Sox grabbed 3 of 4 games (winning both contests in LA) to advance to the ALCS. Strengths: Booming bats. The Red Sox finished second in the AL (behind Texas) with a .280 team batting average and were also second in RBI and runs. Some of that production came from Manny Ramirez, who was traded at the end of July, but Jason bay picked up the slack, knocking in 37 in 49 games. Kevin Youkilis led the team with 115 ribbies, followed by David Ortiz (89) and Dustin Pedroia (83). Top two. The 1 and 2 batters in the Red Sox lineup really set the table for the sluggers. Leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury batted .280, stole 50 bases and scored 98 runs. Pedroia, normally batting second, just missed winning the AL batting title with a .326 average. His 213 hits and 118 runs led the team. Starters. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Time Wakefield comprise what could be considered the best starting four in the majors. Matsuzaka went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA; Lester was 16-6, with a 3.21 ERA. Beckett fanned 172 batter in 174.1 innings and has big game experience. Weaknesses: Knuckle under. The #4 starter, Tim Wakefield, is a knuckleballer who is sometimes inconsistent. He was just 10-11 with a 4.14 ERA, and if the flutterball isn't working it puts pressure on the bullpen. Middle men. Mid-game relievers, Javier Lopez and Hideki Okajima can hold their own, but after them, there isn't much there. Fans cringe whenever Manny Delcarmen takes over and Mike Timlin had a bad year, with a 5.66 ERA. Players to Watch Kevin Youkilis (R) One of the most intense players to ever set foot on a baseball diamond, Youkilis brings emotion and tremendous hitting skills to the plate. Coming off his best season (.312, 29 HR, 115 RBI), Youkilis is this season's go-to guy. David Ortiz Pig Papi, as he is known throughout the majors, didn't have one of his better seasons, though his post-season resume is filled with clutch performances. In the series with the Angels, Ortiz was only 4-for-18, with no homers and only 1 RBI. If he doesn't produce, the Sox may be sunk. Jason Bay After coming over from Pittsburgh in a three-way deal which sent Manny Ramirez to LA, Bay provided enough offense to help the Sox to the wild card, and had a number of big games and big hits, fitting in nicely to the overall chemistry. A threat with power, Bay is one of the keys to offensive success for Boston. Josh Beckett Though he suffered through an of year (for him), Beckett is still the #1 guy in the rotation. He's won playoff and World Series games and deals well with pressure, but he may not be at the top of his game right now. Jon Lester The Game one starter, Lester didn't allow an earned run in 14 innings in the ALDS, getting an opening night win and a no decision in the Red Sox's 3-2 clincher. He's been tough as nails all season and that doesn't seem about to change. Jonathan Papelbon Emotional and a bit crazy, Papelbon can finish with the best of them. His 2.34 ERA was the best on the team, and he stuck out 77 in 69 innings. If the bullpen can get him the ball with a lead, he's capable of slamming the door, though he might get more 8th inning calls than he would like. Tampa Bay Rays Recent History: Tampa finished up the season by capturing the AL East title by 2 games over the Red Sox, and then took out the Chicago White Sox, the AL Central champions, 3 games to 1. They didn't distinguish themselves in the stretch run to the pennant, going 12-9 from Sept. 9 to the end of the regular season, but the lead they'd built earlier held up. The Rays barely won the season series from the Red Sox 10-8, but took 4 of 6 in a pair of crucial home-and-home series in the closing weeks. Strengths: Team spirit. Tampa Bay is one of the youngest teams in the majors, but the kids have a strong team attitude, picking each other up and playing with passion and determination. Strong starters. Scott Kazmir, James Shields (Game 1 starter), Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine make up a solid rotation though nobody won more than 14 games. Kazmir and Shields are the two most reliable, with ERAs of 3.49 and 3.56, respectively, though the other two aren't far behind. Steady in the middle. Short relievers Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell have been game-changers for the Rays with a combined record of 12-3 and an ERA of 1.96. Speed: Tampa led the AL with 142 steals. B.J. Upton led the team with 44. Carl Crawford had 25 in 109 games and Jason Bartlett swiped 20. Weaknesses: Fanball. Four starters - Longoria, B.J. Upton, Akinori Iwamura and Pena - struck out more than 100 times each. Against Boston's aggressive rotation, that's not a good sign. Defense. Iwamura and Jason Bartlett aren't the greatest middle infielders, but they are steady. However, little things get amplified in the playoffs. Youth. The inexperience of this squad is prescient. Their leader, in many aspects, Evan Longoria, is a rookie, and this is the Rays' first-ever appearance on the post-season stage, so there's not much exposure to pressure upon which to draw. Closing comment. Troy Percival, who was the Rays' regular closer much of the season is off the roster for the ALCS, replaced by Dan Wheeler, who's been shaky, but he's the best they Rays have. Players to Watch Evan Longoria (R) A sure-fire choice for Rookie of the Year honors, Longoria hit 27 home runs and drove in 85 runs in just 122 games, both good for second on the team. He's the heart of the Rays' youth movement. Carl Crawford Though he played in only 109 games due to a late-season injury, Crawford is a key element in the Rays' attack. Possessing both speed and power, if Crawford hits, the Rays go, period. He can be a one-man wrecking crew. Carlos Pena Speaking of wrecking, Carlos Pena has done serious damage to the psyche and records of many AL pitchers. His 31 HR and 102 RBI led the Rays, and he can't be pitched around because there are too many other weapons in the lineup. Pena has extraordinary power. He's hit 77 homers the past two seasons. B.J. Upton In just his third year, Upton has significant upside. Like Crawford, he can hit for power and has speed to burn. In 2007, he hit 24 homers. In 2008, he stole 44 bases. In the playoff series against the White Sox hit three homers and drove in 4 runs. Though one may not know what to expect from Upton, he's sure to provide some thrills. J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour As middle relievers go, these two are probably the best tandem in the majors. Tampa Bay's young starters sometimes need to get out of jams and these are the go-to guys who really produced all season. Without them, the Rays literally would not have won the AL East. Prediction: While the Red Sox have been here before and their starters have an edge over the Rays, there are some concerns. David Ortiz has not been his usual self and there's plenty of pressure on Youkilis and Jason Bay to provide the big guns. Youkilis should deal with it, but how Bay fares is anyone's guess. Also Josh Beckett hasn't been right since mid-season and there's a big hole in middle relief. The Rays have home field, loads of talent and lots of enthusiasm which should get them to their first World Series. Tampa Bay in 7 games. Series Schedule: Game 1: Fri, Oct 10 8:37 pm EDT at Tampa Bay Game 2: Sat, Oct 11 8:07 pm EDT at Tampa Bay Game 3: Mon, Oct 13 4:37 pm EDT at Boston Game 4: Tue, Oct 14 8:07 pm EDT at Boston if necessary Game 5: Thu, Oct 16 8:07 pm EDT at Boston Game 6: Sat, Oct 18 4:37 pm EDT at Tampa Bay Game 7: Sun, Oct 19 8:07 pm EDT at Tampa Bay

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