I love the Rays. Joe Maddon is a delight, in addition to bring the game’s best current tactician. Evan Longoria is maybe the most underrated player in baseball, and one of these years, Joe Sheehan’s annual Longoria-for-MVP prediction will come true. The Rays’ offense is as deep and balanced as any in baseball, and it runs more than nine guys down. They’re fun to watch. They’re just plain fun, actually.
So I’m writing this urgent message to them, because although I think the Sox are going to beat them anyway, the Rays have no chance whatsoever to win this series unless they fix this in their minds:
Beware the beards.
Don’t fear them. That’s what the Red Sox want. Don’t fear the beards, because that’s falling into their trap. Beware them.
The beards are a misdirect. They’re a red herring. The Sox would love for their opponents to see the beards as emblematic of their entire philosophy, their mentality. They want you to think it betrays a certain overzealousness, a triumph of folly over focus. The beards have become the team’s image, and it’s an image of unathletic white guys, ham-fisted hackery, a wannabe biker gang.
And it’s all a lie. The Sox run the bases as well as any team in baseball. They saw more pitches per plate appearances than any team in baseball, save the Twins.
And the truth is, the Red Sox are a team fueled by a deep sense of solemn purpose, a hunger. This is the team that rose from the ashes of the Bobby Valentine nightmare, and the one that made itself an active, ardent, slightly profane part of the healing process after the Boston Marathon bombing. The intensity around this team isn’t wavering or faltering.
When the Rays are at bat…
It was a good year for teams lining guys up to succeed in October. Boston eased Clay Buchholz back into the rotation at the end of the year, and upon doing so, moved Ryan Dempster to the short-relief role he will fill throughout the playoffs. They line up well, although their dearth of strong left-handed relief might make it tough to get out the likes of David DeJesus, James Loney and Matt Joyce, to name a few. The tough break for the Rays, of course, is that their very best hitters are right-handed anyway, and that neither of the parks in which this series will be played favor lefty offense.
Boston lacks any single starter who I think can shut down the Rays altogether. Their rotation is solid but flat (because no, I’m not buying Buchholz’s video-game numbers; his peripherals don’t back up a sub-2.00 ERA). Boston will depend on getting a bunch of good six-inning outings, then turning things over to the bullpen.
The Rays will have something to say about that. Although their offense relies on getting on base, which can be tough to sustain against top-flight pitching, they’re very good at it. They led the league in walk rate, and adding DeJesus to the mix only made them better at working counts.
When the Red Sox are at bat…
This is where the Rays are trapped in a nightmare matchup. Matt Moore and David Price are going to start Games One and Two. That’s two lefties at Fenway Park. Not great.
It’s not just that a lefty in Boston has a hard time keeping the ball off the Green Monster. It’s that a lefty facing this version of the Sox, in this park, is in special danger. Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia, Jonny Gomes and Jarrod Saltalamacchia just mash lefties. If you can get a good righty in against Napoli, Gomes and Saltalamacchia, the strikeout rate will turn your way, but the Rays are stuck. They’re stuck. They need to have at least Chris Archer, and perhaps Jeremy Hellickson, ready for tandem starter work in the first two contests, at the very least.
Jose Molina should see plenty of action in this series. He’s among the handful of guys who might be able to control the Red Sox’s running game. The Rays’ defense is, of course, very good, so that helps. Still, it’s the lefties in Boston that spell trouble for Tampa, and they just don’t have a great way around it.
I don’t want to make it sound like Tampa is just unable to match up. To be clear, the Sox offense is a juggernaut, either the best or second-best in baseball, and while some of them have certain vulnerabilities, this collection of hitters and skill sets is formidable.
I could see the series coming back to Boston. I’m not sure it will, but I could see it. In the end, though, my money is on the beards, and everything behind them, and everything they do for the Sox. Boston in five.Next post: How the Best Manager in Baseball Put His Own Team on the Brink of Elimination
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