BOSTON (CBS) — Following Game 163 on Monday night between the Rays and the Rangers, in which Tampa Bay emerged victorious, the stage is now set for Wednesday night’s wild card play-in game between the Rays and Idians.
The Red Sox won’t have their choice of opponent, but who would you like to see come into Fenway Park on Friday afternoon for Game 1 of the ALDS?
Here’s a look at the factors, with pros and cons from a Red Sox perspective.
92-70, finished 1 GB of Detroit in AL Central
The Red Sox thoroughly dominated the Indians this season, going 6-1 and outscoring Cleveland 43-30.
The Indians’ record might be slightly inflated by the fact that they went 30-8 against the White Sox and Twins, two teams that fell just shy of losing 100 games each. Cleveland went 62-62 against he rest of the league.
Cleveland’s starting pitchers posted a 3.92 ERA, sixth-best in the AL. That’s far from bad, but it’s not as good as Tampa’s 3.81 ERA from starters.
The Indians are as hot as can be right now after posting a 21-6 record in September, ending the season on a 10-game winning streak. If they win on Wednesday, that will obviously be an 11-game winning streak, which will make it tough for the idle Red Sox to hit the ground running.
Ubaldo Jimenez’s overall numbers aren’t amazing, but he finished the season going 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA in his six September starts. That included a 13-strikeout exclamation point to end the season on Sunday. He’d be able to pitch Game 1 and Game 5, if necessary, and he’d present a difficult matchup. (The Red Sox did light him up for seven runs in 1.2 innings, but that was back in April.)
There’s not accounting for this with statistics or any quantifiable measure, but the role of Terry Francona would play a factor. The Indians love Francona, who’s always been a player’s manager above all else, and they’d no doubt love the extra satisfaction of sticking it to the team that let him go just two years ago. The mere presence of Francona in the Fenway dugout itself will create a distraction as well.
Nick Swisher. The guy is just annoying. Who wants to watch him? Nobody, that’s who.
Midges. Remember midges? They come out of nowhere to destroy the Yankees’ hopes in 2007 in Cleveland. Where’d they come from? Why had we never heard of midges before that night? And most importantly, will they come back and assault Koji Uehara’s face while he’s trying to pitch? It’s true that no human being may look as tantalizing to the midges as Joba Chamberlain, but regardless, you don’t want to mess with midges.
Tampa Bay Rays
92-71, finished 5.5 GB Boston in AL East
It wasn’t quite as thorough a domination, but the Red Sox fared well against the Rays this season, going 12-7 against them and outscoring them 71-57.
The Rays’ offense is not daunting. They finished ninth in the AL in runs scored, ninth in home runs, seventh in batting average and sixth in OPS.
There’s a chance they enter Fenway Park a bit worn down from playing so many must-win games in a row. They had to win Sunday to clinch a tie for the second wild card, they had to win Monday on the road in Texas, and they will have to have won Wednesday in Cleveland just to make it to this best-of-five series. There has to be a letdown at some point after so many tense moments for a ballclub.
Pitching, man. David Price was dominant on Monday, going the distance and allowing just two earned runs on seven hits and one walk, and he’s ready to go for Game 2 on Saturday and Game 5 on Thursday if need be. Alex Cobb, he of the 11-3 record and 2.76 ERA, would be ready for Game 3 in Tampa on Monday night, and Matt Moore (17-4, 3.29 ERA) would be the man for Games 1 and 4. Nothing’s more important than pitching, especially in the playoffs, and there’s no doubt that the Rays have a staff that can win a series almost by itself.
Familiarity can level the playing field a bit, particularly in a short series. That’s why divisional opponents could never face each other in the divisional round. The fact that the Red Sox beat the Rays 12 times this year loses its importance, at least when considering the two teams played each other 19 times. Nothing is a secret between the two teams, and it doesn’t work to the Red Sox’ advantage to face a team that’s seen them so many times before.
There’s a lightning in a bottle factor that always seems to be present with the Rays. Maybe it’s because Joe Maddon is an eccentric guy (read: weirdo) who keeps a loose attitude, or maybe it’s because the Red Sox suffered that painful ALCS loss to the Rays in 2008, but there might be an uneasiness around Fenway if the Rays roll in.
Like the Indians, the Rays are hot. They’ve won nine of their last 11, and it would be 10 of 12 if they earn the right to make the trek to Boston.
Evan Longoria. He’s trouble. He showed Monday night that he can step up in a must-win situation, and though he only has a .194 postseason batting average, he still has eight homers in 25 games. Add in his game-winning homer to make the playoffs in Game 162 in 2011, his homer and 3-for-4 performance in Game 163 on Monday night, and the four homers he hit and eight runs he drove in against the Red Sox in the 2008 ALCS, and he might be the scariest batter not named Miguel in the AL right now.
No matter who the Red Sox play, it’s going to be tough. The Rays’ starting pitching staff presents perhaps the most daunting challenge, but there’s the hard-to-quantify “something special” factor going on with Cleveland. When a 65-year-old Jason Giambi is whacking walk-off bombs, that’s just a train you don’t want to step in front of.
So, who do you hope rolls into Fenway this weekend for the ALDS?