Alex Speier was the captain of the Harvard debate team (no kidding), but Rob Bradford has gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Glen Ordway and Michael Felger on the airwaves of WEEI. You be the judge which is better prepared to present their argument as to who will win the upcoming American League Championship Series, with Bradford picking the Red Sox, and Speier going with the Rays. Let the banter begin ...
Why the Red Sox Will Win
I remember walking into Tropicana Field in late June, bombarded by the constant strains of “This is the biggest thing ever to happen here!” It was June. It was a regular season three-game series. It was a nice novelty.
It didn’t matter that most of us still viewed the Rays as a nice, little mid-season distraction at that time, a fun team to watch in between collecting free cowbells, t-shirts, and even Carl Crawford action figures. The 12,000 Tampa Bay fans at Tropicana Field seemed excited, which made the humidity (the entire city isn’t under a dome, you know) at least a tad more palatable.
But now reality has hit the tilted dome known to some as the 2,345,001st Wonder of the World. This is all about baseball, which is bad news for the feel-good Rays.
On its face, the Rays’ starting pitching would seem to be on par, or at least close, to what the Red Sox present. But there have been some warning signs for Tampa Bay’s starters.
In the final month of the season the ERA of Tampa Bay’s starting pitching jumped up to 4.58, its worse of any similar span throughout the season. Why do I mention this? Because there have been signs, the likes of which many have been ignoring thanks to the blue and gray giddiness that has leaked out of St. Petersburg.
The last time Scott Kazmir faced the Red Sox, on Sept. 15, the lefty gave up nine runs in three innings. But it was more than just the results which should be analyzed. Sox hitters came away believing there might be something wrong with the Rays’ ace, with his velocity not at where it usually was, his other stuff appearing flat, and some excessive shaking of a pitching arm that always seems to be under a watchful eye.
Two starts later Kazmir had another rough outing, and he was far from dominant in his first playoff outing, giving up eight hits and two runs over 5.1 innings, throwing his fastball at 91 mph. Point being? Couple this with the diminished velocity of another Tampa Bay ace, James Shields (who can get by thanks to a lethal change-up) and none of the Rays’ starting options present the kind of potential to dominate like the Sox possess in Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and even Daisuke Matsuzaka.
The Rays are the East Coast version of the team the Red Sox just played, the Angels. Under the guidance of the East Coast version of Mike Scioscia, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, the American League East champs like to put the heat on with the running game, bunting game, and overall get-under-your-skin game.
In the regular season, this can work very well, even against the most prepared teams. When you’re going from series to series, and team to team, sometimes such an approach can flummox a club like the Red Sox to the point where it leads to a regular season upper-hand.
But if there is anything that should be taken out of the Sox’ recent series against the Angels is that the Red Sox have mastered the art of post-season micro-management. They took their scouting report against Los Angeles and turned it against the Angels, jumping all over ill-advised extra-base attempts, shutting down the running game, and pouncing on each and every bunt attempt.
Forget playoff experience in terms of nerves and the like. What you should understand leans heavily in the Red Sox favor is an ability to out-scout and out-prepare their playoff opponents, which has been a constant throughout this post-season run of theirs.
In this dept., the Rays will find out that this is a bit different from dealing with the team they just left behind.
Ellsbury, Ellsbury, and more Ellsbury
I don’t known if you’ve figured this out yet, but the Red Sox lineup takes on an entirely different look when Jacoby Ellsbury is doing his thing.
The Sox leadoff hitter is hitting .349 with a .417 on-base percentage in 15 post-season games and is coming off a series in which he hit .333 with three stolen bases (it would have been four if he didn’t execute an ill-advised pop-up slide).
Ellsbury has identified Tropicana Field as one of his favorite surfaces to run on, which has translated to a .316 average at the Trop this season. His six stolen bases against the Rays are also the second-most he has accumulated against any team.
Ellsbury was a difference-maker in last season’s post-season, and its trending that way once again.
A Different Kind of Closer
Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon has admitted that he was worn down around the time he last faced the Rays, a Sept. 9 outing in which he lost a Sox lead by giving up two runs on three hits.
Papelbon has had his rough outings in Tropicana Field, having given up more runs there (5) than any other visiting ball park.
But, after managing his workload in the tail-end of Sept. the closer has gotten his giddy-up back. The trademark last five-feet of his fastball has returned, making the 97 mph post-season fastballs he was chucking against the Angels translate into the look of an 101 mph blur.
The Rays’ bullpen is more than solid, but there is a dividing line if the Papelbon’s American League Division Series game translates over to the ALCS.
It would seem that Baseball gods would rather have an “automatic win of the game bulls-eye” than have a World Series decided on a ball knocked down because of a catwalk used to unscrew light bulbs. Some things just aren’t meant to be.
Rob Bradford is the Site Editor of WEEI.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The "Rebuttal" from Mr. Speier:
Why the Rays Will Win
The Rays are baseball’s ultimate underdog story. They were a last-place team in nine of the first 10 years of their existence. Their opening day payroll was less than third of what the Red Sox were playing, and roughly one-fifth of what the Yankees were spending.
Money and tradition, however, mean little in a short series. The Rays look like a team with a legitimate shot at a World Series berth, ready to dispatch the Red Sox after already having done the same to their paler counterparts.
Pitching and Defense
If pitching and defense rule the postseason, it’s not difficult to conclude that Tampa Bay enjoys an advantage over Boston.
The Rays allowed 4.14 runs per nine innings during the regular season, second lowest in the American League (the Red Sox finished third at 4.28). Tampa also converted 71.0 percent of balls in play into outs, the best rate in the majors; the Sox finished fifth in defensive efficiency with a 69.9 percent rate.
Though the Rays have had to shuffle and reshuffle their late-inning bullpen lineup on several occasions, their advantage in the bullpen this year, somewhat surprisingly, has been pronounced. The Rays had a stellar 3.55 bullpen ERA, while the Sox had a 4.00 mark.
In head-to-head competition, the Red Sox bullpen allowed Rays hitters to hit .246 with a .357 OBP, .369 slugging mark and .726 OPS. Rays relievers were even better, permitting a line of .227/.350/.349/.699.
The Sox bullpen went 0-5 with three saves and two blown saves against Tampa this year. Rays relievers, conversely, went 7-0 with six saves in eight chances against Boston.
In the Division Series round, Tampa’s relievers looked overpowering in producing a 0.77 ERA. Sox relievers produced a solid but less impressive mark of 2.40. The late-inning crew of J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, Chad Bradford and Dan Wheeler was more impressive in their first-round series than even the Sox crew of Manny Delcarmen, Justin Masterson, Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon.
It’s easy to talk about the significance of experience in the postseason. Yeah, sure, the Sox roster has played a combined 353 postseason games, compared to 105 for the Rays (almost all achieved in 2008).
Conventional wisdom suggests that teams need to learn how to win big games. But it would be nice if such claims were supported by evidence. The Yankees probably felt like the “experience” argument rang hollow when they got smoked in the 2002 Division Series by the Angels and again when the 2003 Marlins, led by the likes of Josh Beckett and Miguel Cabrera, broke their spirit in the World Series.
A compelling case can be made that October is ruled not by those with experience, but instead by those who are young and fresh in the season’s seventh month.
The Rays rotation of James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson was 24.6 years old, the ninth youngest starting group of all time to reach the postseason. Here’s how the eight younger rotations fared in the playoffs:
1966 Orioles, 22.8 years old, Won World Series
1916 Red Sox, 23.5 years old, Won World Series
1950 Phillies, 23.5 years old, Lost World Series
1912 Red Sox, 23.5 years old, Won World Series
1970 Reds, 23.8 years old, Lost World Series
1986 Mets, 24.2 years old, Won World Series
1985 Royals, 24.2 years old, Won World Series
1959 Dodgers, 24.3 years old, Won World Series
Those teams won 10 of the 11 postseason series in which they pitched. The Rays had little difficulty dispatching the White Sox in four games in the Division Series, and clearly hope to continue the trend of World Series-bound rotations.
In 1987 and 1991, the Minnesota Twins enjoyed such a pronounced home-field advantage in the Metrodome that they won World Series in two different years in which they couldn’t claim a single road victory. If the 2008 regular season is any indication, the Rays—who are 2-0 in their home park in the postseason—may prove capable of exploiting a similar phenomenon.
The Red Sox had a 5-15 record this year indoors, getting their lunch handed to them (certainly an odd expression to suggest failure—why is it bad to receive lunch?) in Tokyo, Toronto, Tampa and Tinnesota. (It seemed convenient to sustain the alliterative theme.)
The Rays, meanwhile, enjoyed an enormous home-field advantage this year. Their 57-24 regular season home record was the best in baseball. They’ve inspired a suddenly interested fan base to show up with cowbells in hand, a daunting weapon to be sure.
Party favors have helped to propel teams to championships before. Though the Sox overcame the Rally Monkey and ThunderStix in the first round against the Angels, those were pale imitations of the amplified power of the cowbell in an indoor setting, a fact the Sox discovered in 2008.
The Rays are 8-1 against the Sox in the Tropicana Dome this year, and Tampa took four of six September games from the Sox, winning two of three in both the Trop and Fenway.
Those victories in the final month proved the margin of difference between the two teams in the American League East this year, with Tampa finishing two games ahead of Boston. As a result, the Rays enjoy home-field advantage, a potentially significant development based on this season’s precedent.
The Red Sox will be without Mike Lowell in the ALCS. Josh Beckett’s ability to replicate his postseason excellence of years past is an open question, given the fact that he requires painkilling chemistry to make it through his starts.
The Rays, meanwhile, have welcomed back Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford to their lineup since they took four of six September contests from Boston. While the Rays are operating with their full roster, even the Sox admit that they are surprised at their ability to withstand their inflated injury list.
“We’ve been dealing with a lot of injuries, a lot of regular players going down. I believe that if we win the World Series this year,” mused David Ortiz after his team knocked off the Angels in the Division Series, “you’d have to say, ‘We don’t know how we made it, but we made it.’”
The Battle for the Quaker State
Only two candidates earned a second interview for the vacant Red Sox managerial opening following the 2003 season: Terry Francona and Joe Maddon. Maddon, a native of Hazelton, Pa., was bypassed in favor of cross-state colleague Francona, who hails from Beaver County, Pa.
Maddon has scoffed for years that Francona hails from the land of bituminous coal, a far inferior commodity than the anthracite coal that is produced in the Tampa skipper’s Eastern Pennsylvania base.
That may not sound like much a slight in New England, but in Pennsylvania, thems is fightin’ words. Though Maddon is committed to renewable energy sources and typically bikes around the Tampa Bay area, his commitment to the power of anthracite is not to be underestimated. He is a man on a playoff mission.