Initial Thoughts: I’m going to start this off by heaping more praise upon these feisty Rays. In late August/early September the Red Sox were charging hard and looked to take a stranglehold on the AL East. They had Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett coming back as well as David Ortiz rounding into form while the Rays were without Carl Crawford and (for the most part) Troy Percival. The way they not only hung in there in September but managed to add to their lead. The events of September lead me to believe this team very well could be in line with the 2001 Patriots or ’69 Mets as a team of pure destiny. The White Sox had to use their ace in John Danks to sneak in to the playoffs with a 1-0 win last night over the Twins. They’re going into this series with Javier Vasquez (4.67 ERA) as their opening game starter. When you’re as big of an underdog as the White Sox are, game 1 is crucial and Vasquez’s maddening inconsistency doesn’t bode well for their chances in this series.
White Sox Strengths:
One area the White Sox trump the Rays is at the end of the game. Having a healthy Bobby Jenks to close games is a major asset….Post season experience will help too; Mark Buehrle pitched very well in those tight September games and has gone through this before.
Jim Thome in the post season is always scary because of his ability to draw walks and, oh yeah, hit some prodigious homeruns. The amount of production he and Jermaine Dye give the South Siders will help decide how long this series will go.
Ozzie Guillen: The man can obviously coach but the way he motivates players is his calling card. If he can get this team to the ALCS, it’ll be his greatest triumph yet.
Tiring starters. Unlike ’05 when their pitching was rested and ready to run through the playoffs, their pitching is tired from trying to hold off the Twins down the stretch. Gavin Floyd was great all year (unlike Freddy Garcia) but this was his first full major league season. He wore out in September to a degree and Chicago won’t have Danks going until game 3 at the earliest.
(They’ll Always Be Devil to Me) Rays Strengths:
Destiny: As I said before, this team also reminds me of the ’99 Red Sox in that the whole team is greater than the sum of its parts. There is no rhyme or reason as to why they won this division. Curt Schilling’s favorite night club dancer might be on the Rays’ side this post season.
A healthy Carl Crawford will make this team even better. He fielding, energy and what he can do on the base paths will make things easier for the rest of the lineup.
Kazmir, Shields and Garza. I’m not as high on Garza as I am the other two but having three quality, hard-throwing starters at this time of year is huge. Past those three, they have Andy Sonnanstine, a soft thrower who somehow baffles the Red Sox every time he faces them. The once pitching-depleted Rays now have a rotation that is talented, young and not going away.
I know Carlos Pena didn’t quite have the year he did last season but he’s locked in for a big series. Mark it down.
Closing games out. The Rays had Dan Wheeler as their closer at the end of the year due to Troy Percival’s health concerns. To go back to my earlier point about Jenks, having an established closer is important and the Rays don’t have a healthy, reliable reliever to finish off games right now.
X-Factors: Eighth inning guys can be as important as closer sometimes. Grant Balfour has had an amazing year but his name doesn’t pop up too often on ESPN; it will after this post season because everyone outside of Tampa will now see how filthy his stuff is…The White Sox really need a contribution from Griffey to have a shot at this series. He doesn’t need to hit 5 home runs and act as though it’s 1995 but they definitely need him to be productive.
Who Will Win: Shields throws a gem in game 1 while Kazmir and Garza pitch well enough to hold early leads .Rays have an easy time with this veteran, tired White Sox team and sweep them as Ozzie Guillen blows a gasket and starts throwing bats at reporters.