The ALCS begins tonight. With the Red Sox and Rays getting ready to face off, the MLB FanHouse crew took some time to discuss the important issues of the series. Are the Rays too inexperienced? Does it matter that they don't have a closer? Do they stand a chance against the defending world champs?
Matt Snyder: Yes, there's potential for that ... but the Rays have shown on several different occasions this season that they are not intimidated by the Red Sox (or Yankees, for that matter). This is like the young guy with a chip on shoulder against the grizzled vet. The young guy is really, really sick of the "old guy" (in his mind) getting all the glory. The Rays won't back down. They do have some veteran leadership as well, with Cliff Floyd and Troy Percival.
I like B.J. Upton to stay hot and Carl Crawford to get it going.
On the flip-side, Jon Lester is going to be unhittable again. This postseason is his coming out party as a bonafide ace.
It's going down the wire, but I don't see the Rays backing down. They are sick of this basement crap, as they have shown all season long.
Craig Calcaterra: To elaborate on Matt's point, let us recall that back in early September, the Rays hit a rough patch which whittled their lead down to 1.5 games -- the lowest it had been in a over a month -- and had to go to Fenway to face the Red Sox. Many predicted that the party was finally over for the Rays, but they won two of three. They then dropped two of three to the Yankees, and had to face the Red Sox again. Once again, everyone figured the World Champions would finally restore order in the AL East. Except the Rays once again won two of three.
I agree with Matt that they won't be intimidated and, in fact, I think they'll win this series.
Andrew Johnson: I'll echo the sentiment that I don't believe the Rays will be intimidated by the Red Sox at all.
Mullet: And not only did the Rays go 10-8 against the defending World Champs, they did it in nine games at Fenway, and nine games in what would probably be described as neutral site games with all the Red Sox fans that flock to those games at the Trop. In the playoffs, you would think that they will finally have at least some semblance of a significant home field advantage. And as you probably know, the Rays are 21-2 when their attendance is over 30,000.
Pat Lackey: Well, the Trop might be a neutral site in terms of fan participation, but that goofy box gives them an on-field advantage that's different than what any other team has in these playoffs. Kind of like how the Twins were always supposed to have an advantage in the Metrodome every time they made the playoffs earlier this decade only the Rays are, you know, good.
Fornelli: Adding to the homefield advantage aspect of this, the Rays were 8-1 against the Sawx at the Trop, and 2-7 against them at Fenway. So, obviously, the Rays having four of the seven games at home will be a huge advantage for them.
The one thing I do worry about with Tampa will be how their pitching staff holds up against Boston in this series. Sure, they were phenomenal against the White Sox in the LDS, but the White Sox offense is not the Red Sox offense. They can actually hit singles and doubles and maybe even a triple or two instead of just going deep all the time.
So while the Rays looked really good in the first round, I do worry that their level of competition had something to do with it.
I'm not sure which way this series is going to go, but I am pretty sure that whoever wins Game 1 is going to take it down. If Tampa wins, the confidence they built taking out Chicago will only grow, and they could easily cruise to take this series. If Boston wins, well, then Tampa starts doubting themselves a bit and the Red Sox could take this thing in five games. We still don't know how this team will react to being down in a playoff series.
Josh Alper: I think Game 1 is big for the Rays, much more so than the Sox. I don't think they are intimidated by playing Boston nor do I think they have any reason to be but a loss might take some wind out of their sails and create a little more tightness than we've seen from them thus far. As Tom noted, they are 2-7 at Fenway this season and they've never been inside the place in October.
Andrew Johnson: I really believe much of this series is going to come down to Josh Beckett. He clearly wasn't right in Game 3, but the question to me is why. Was he still hurt? Maybe so, but the Red Sox are extra cautious with their pitchers generally speaking and they still have Beckett signed through next season with an option after that, so it's hard to see this being a CC Sabathia situation. Was his ALDS start more of a tuneup? I tend to think so. He made a lot of mental mistakes, like forgetting to cover first base (TWICE!) and just couldn't command his fastball.
Boston clearly has enough confidence to start him in Game 2, which should tell us a lot. If vintage Josh Beckett is back, the Red Sox's chances are a lot better.
The scary thing about the Rays, though, is that even with a fully healthy and finely tuned Beckett and Jon Lester dealing, they could still beat Boston.
Matt Snyder: I agree that Beckett's a huge swing factor in this series, as is Jason Bay. He never had a big at-bat all those years dabbling in obscurity in Pittsburgh. He's passed every test to this point, but every test from here on out gets bigger. With Big Papi being a shadow of his '04-'06 self currently, Bay's in a real RBI position behind Youkilis and Drew. This becomes especially important should Dustin Pedroia struggle as he did through the first three games of the ALDS.
Mullet: Dan Wheeler Grant Balfour Scott Kazmir James Shields
Pat Lackey: I don't think closer by committee hurts the Rays at all. The Phillies saved Lidge for the bottom of the order in the ninth last night when the Dodgers had runners on base in the eighth inning of a one-run game. It worked out for them in the end, but it's just stupid.
Jacob Wheatley-Schaller: The closer by committee usually ends up looking stupid, but that's only because not having a closer usually means you don't have any relievers that are particularly good. That's certainly not true for the Rays. Balfour has been one of the best relievers in the league, and Howell is murder on lefties. When Chad Bradford and David Price are your fourth and fifth best relievers, you're in good shape.
I find the Red Sox choice of Tim Wakefield to start Game 4 a bit curious. Obviously it's subject to change if they need him earlier but that figures to be a major swing game in this series and I'd be concerned with how much Tampa will run against his knuckler. That said, Beckett's got the biggest start in this series. If he isn't right, the Sox will see a rotation advantage turn into a push, at best.
Andrew Johnson: I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Wakefield is pretty useless out of the bullpen since they would have to replace not only the pitcher, but also the catcher if they brought him in for long relief. Paul Byrd and Wakefield are essentially equal in my view, but the catcher issue, along with Tim's ceiling as a starter -- which is higher than Byrd's in my opinion -- make him an easy choice for Game 4.
Craig Calcaterra: Which really touches on one of my pet peeves, Andrew. After all of these years, you'd think the Captain could suck it up and catch a knuckleball, right? I don't follow the Sox as closely as you do. Has he ever done that? How many roster moves has Theo Epstein had to make to accomodate Jason Varitek's refusal and/or inability to handle Wakefield?
Kevin Cash Doug Mirabelli
Pat Lackey: Predictions, everyone? I said Rays in seven before the playoffs started and I'm sticking with it.
Craig Calcaterra: I'll buy that. I like the Rays in 7 as well.
Fornelli: Rays in six.
Andrew Johnson: Rays in six. They don't want this one to go seven.
Will Brinson: Red Sox in seven. I too am pulling for the Rays, but if the Dodgers win I really want to get to hear everyone talk about Red Sox - Dodgers crap for two weeks.
Matt Snyder: Red Sox in seven ... but I'd really love to see the Rays there. If for no other reason than because Rick Reilly thinks they are bad for baseball. Young team rallying around each other with a small payroll? Yeah, screw that. EVIL!
Josh Alper: I think the Rays have to get this done in six games or they will lose. Jon Lester's the pitcher i'd least like to face in baseball right now and that's just who they'd draw in Game 7. I don't think they'll be able to sweep the first two in Tampa, though, and don't think they'll win two in Boston which means that's the only route open to them.