This just doesn’t happen. Teams just don’t go from 96 losses one year to 97 wins the next. One of the worst defenses in baseball history doesn’t become one of the five best in the league over one offseasons. Teams that were 200-1 to win the pennant before the year begins really aren’t supposed to be playing in the ALCS seven months later.
But for one ridiculous summer, all of those things did happen. The Rays are four games away from the AL title, and, thanks to home-field advantage and outstanding run prevention, they’ve actually got a pretty good chance of winning the damn thing.
Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. These are the Rays we’re talking about here. And though they’re much improved, they’re still vulnerable. Here are three ways the Red Sox can win:
- Avoid the big hit. Despite having an above average OPS of .762, the Rays were last in the AL in BA with runners in scoring position. Performing worse in those situations than you do overall isn’t thought to be sustainable; this, and the fact that everybody is finally healthy, means that Tampa’s offense has the potential to be significantly better in the ALCS than they have been thus far this year. But if the Red Sox can find a way to keep the Rays from finding the clutch they’ll be in good shape.
- Get to Kazmir early. The 24-year old lefty got off to a rocky start in his playoff debut, loading the bases with nobody out in Game 2 of the ALDS against Chicago. He ended up allowing two runs in that inning, and none the rest of the way. There’s no doubt that Kazmir has the potential to be dominant; in his career, he’s averaged over a strikeout per inning. But he’s going to have to get off to a good start against an excellent Red Sox lineup, and get the ball over the plate so he can pitch as deep into the game as possible.
- Make the right choice in Game 4. Admittedly, I don’t even know the answer to this one. But because of the absurd number of off days, each remaining team has the option of bringing their ace back on short rest in the fourth game, and then having him available on full rest in Game 7. If the Sox are down, Francona is going to have a tough decision on his hands; Dice-K is obviously better than Wakefield, the other option in that game, and he does have legendary stamina. Wakefield, on the other hand, gave up 7 runs, 0 runs, 6 runs and 4 runs in his last four starts of the season, and you just never know if that knuckler is going to be knuckling.
This post was written by Jacob Wheatley-Schaller, who writes the blog Vegas Watch and recently began contributing to Fan House. He’s actually an Indians fan, but has been following the Rays this season for the best possible reason — he bet on them to win.