Friday, October 10, 2008

The Pennant Race - 10/10

ALCS Preview

The Rays and Red Sox are just about set to begin game one of their best of seven ALCS series. The Rays are trying to keep their amazing ride going after making the post-season for the first time in their history. The Red Sox are looking to build a mini-dynasty, which arguably could happen should they win a third World Series title in five years.

The Rays played hard-nosed baseball right from the start of the season (see Francisco Cervelli). They've got a manager in Joe Maddon who does a good job of balancing a team of younger players, sprinkled with a handful of key veterans. He hasn't been afraid to show who's boss, benching star player B.J. Upton during the stretch drive due to a lack of hustle.

His counterpart on the Red Sox, Terry Francona, has come a long way in his five years in Boston. He was ostensibly hired to mollify Curt Schilling. Francona was shredded by fans and the media part way through his first season in 2004, but soon he was at the helm of the greatest comeback in playoff history and was lauded as the man who had broken the "Curse of the Bambino". He's now attained hero worship status not only because of winning a title last year, but also the way he conducts his business.

The Red Sox have physically had a rough year. Injuries to Schilling, David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, J.D. Drew, Julio Lugo had a major impact on the team. There was the whole Manny Ramirez mess, a disappointing year by Clay Buchholz, and like many teams, difficulty in building a steady bullpen.

But outstanding years by Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester, and the steady performance of Josh Beckett led the rotation. Jason Bay stepped in big time for Ramirez, and Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis had outstanding seasons. Bottom line: Boston is still a very dangerous team.

The Rays have a balanced line up, mixing speed and power. They have a shooting superstar in rookie Evan Longoria and a solid veteran core in Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and Cliff Floyd. But the key to the Rays' amazing turnaround has been their pitching staff. A starting rotation of Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, and Edwin Jackson combined to go 64-45.

The big blow to this team is the loss of Troy Percival, who recorded 28 saves before myriad leg problems caused him to miss time, including the ALCS. The removal of Percival has made the pen weaker, because there's one less setup man to build the bridge to the ninth. Dan Wheeler has stepped up with 13 saves, but he doesn't exactly give you a great feeling of confidence. Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell, and Chad Bradford will need to continue to step up if the Rays are to stand a chance.

The Rays won the season series 10-8, but the Red Sox have to be considered the favorite here.

Probable Pitchers

Game 1 (10/10) - Dice-K vs. James Shields
Game 2 (10/11) - Josh Beckett vs. Scott Kazmir
Game 3 (10/13) - Matt Garza vs. Jon Lester
Game 4 (10/14) - Andy Sonnanstine vs. Tim Wakefield
Game 5 (10/16) - James Shields vs. Dice-K
Game 6 (10/18) - Josh Beckett vs. Scott Kazmir
Game 7 (10/19) - Jon Lester vs. Matt Garza

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