In April, the Red Sox were swept in a three-game nailbiter series in Tampa Bay, losing 5-4 (in the 11th), 2-1, and 3-0. But nary a week later, when the Rays came to Boston, the Red Sox turned the tables by sweeping a second three-game series—only this one wasn’t even close: 7-3, 12-4, 7-3. In June, the Sox swept the Rays in Fenway again, by a combined score of 19-6 over three games. But—you guessed it—at the end of the month, the Rays swept Boston in the Trop in three more close games.
It wasn’t until September that this pattern—Rays sweep at home, Sox sweep at home—broke. Tampa took two of three at Fenway early in the month, but again their wins came by a margin of just one or two runs, including another win in extra innings. The Red Sox finally won a game in Tampa towards month’s end, but the Rays not only won the series, they notched a symbolic victory as well, finally winning a game by a margin of greater than two runs, when they shellacked the BoSox in the rubber game 10-3.
So here’s what the Rays have to do to beat Boston in the ALCS: keep it close, and don’t be afraid to stay late. Boston’s bullpen, which seemed invincible last year (with the notable exception of midseason acquisition Eric Gagne), is just mortal this year.
The Rays did a good job of this during the regular season, beating Boston twice in extras. Tampa has had a great bullpen, so in a war of attrition, they have an advantage. Allowing a run here or there won’t hurt them as much as allowing the Sox to have a big inning. This year Tampa only won two games in which the Sox scored at least five runs.
Tampa has had great pitching this year, but for a good staff, they’ve given up their fair share of homers — 166, the worst of any AL team to make the playoffs. So say, for instance, that one of Tampa’s starters gets into a jam—runners at the corners with nobody out. One of Boston’s heavy hitters strides to the plate. The Ray on the mound should swallow his pride and go for a groundball, accepting that the runner on third will score, but going for the DP. (Tampa’s defense is younger and quicker than Boston’s, too.)
The Rays staff put together a surprising 4.44 ERA this year against Boston (it was 3.82 against everyone else). They need a more conservative approach. Containment must be Tampa’s watchword. Bend, but don’t break.