Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Beasts of the East

Prior to the 2000 season, I didn't believe in the term "championship pedigree". I felt as though previous playoff success didn't play a huge part in October. After the Yankees almost blew the division down the stretch that year, it seemed as though they were a team that would fold quickly against the A's in the opening round. You know the story, they went on to win their fourth title in five years. An impressive feat and one that caused me to think twice about counting out teams that hadn't played their best during the regular season but had won titles in previous years.

What's interesting about this match up between the Red Sox and Devil Rays is that one team proves that experience does matter while the other is defying all of the old baseball adages about being battle-tested and "having been there before". I'll let you figure out who fits into each category.

I'm not comparing this version of the Sox to those Yankees; they are different teams in terms of age as the Yankees were at the end of their run while I feel like the Sox are just beginning theirs (although they are similar in that they can manufacture runs with the best of them). I'm just comparing the concept of drawing upon previous success at this time of year. The core Red Sox players aren't much older than the Devil Rays but I firmly believe last year's championship run paid dividends in this most recent snuffing of the Angels and will continue to as the post season continues. We know the obvious ones: Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and John "Get on my Back" Lester. The results from others participating in last year's playoffs have been a bit more subtle.

Case and point: last night in the ninth inning. Manny Delcarmen quietly had a great second half (1.82 ERA, .161 batting avg against and 33 K's in 34 innings). He was a part of the 2007 playoff bullpen and didn't pitch all that well in a limited role as he gave up 4 runs in a total of 3 innings. While watching Josh Beckett dominate with a great mix of offspeed stuff and his great fastball, as well as his own struggles, he started to learn the difference between a thrower and a pitcher. He gradually improved after a slow start in 2008. It wasn't as though a light turned on at once but I do think it was right around that point that he began his transition to being a reliable reliever and, more importantly, one that can handle the pressure of having a runner on third with less than two outs in a tie game. Delcarmen backed Erick Aybar off the plate with a pair of 95-mph fastballs and threw a perfect 96-mph fastball low and inside that would've been tough for Aybar to bunt fair even if he made contact with it. Location, Location, Location. It may not be obvious but last year's playoffs were a starting point for him.

For those who just saw the box scores, the Sox 3-1 series win over the Angels may not look all that tiring. But, the people who actually watched every inning of these games will tell you it was the case of two teams imposing their wills on the other. Gone are the days of the home run-hitting Sox. They still have some pop but their calling card is hitting with runners on and two outs and a great defense. When you have two teams as good as the Sox and Angels, obviously a play here or mistake there makes the difference. In tight situations (ex: game 1 when Youkilis threw Vlad out), the Sox consistently were better than the Angels. Again, don't think their success last October didn't play a part in these games. They knew they've been in these situations before and have come up big again and again.

The AL East Champion Rays, on the other hand, had never won more than 70 games before this year and have answered every challenge thrown at them. It's clear the playoffs don't phase them and this should have been evident in August and September when they didn't fold after their roster looked like a M.A.S.H. unit. Back in June I thought this team had the makings of the '99 A's, who went down to the wire with the Red Sox but fell just short at the end. Lack of experience obviously had no impact on this team and I don't think it will make a difference in this series.

The Rays took a game longer than I expected to clear out the White Sox. They won the series with quality pitching (not that the Pale Hose hitters put up that much of a fight), timely hitting and an extremely underrated defense. James Shields (6.1 IP, 3 ER) and Scott Kazmir (5.1 IP, 2 ER), as anticipated, pitched well but if I were Joe Maddon, the only legitimate concern I would have between them would be Kazmir's ability to go deep into games. He had a total of 1 start of 7 innings past May 31st (four total). In the regular season and even in a short series, this isn't a huge concern. In a potential seven game series, eating up the bullpen becomes more problematic (example: Mr. Matsuzaka).

How Matt Garza (Game 3 loser) and Andy Sonnanstine (Red Sox killer with 2 ER in 13 IP this year) perform will also be crucial to the Rays' success. Garza is a guy who can shut down the Sox one night and give up a few bloop hits, lose his composure and unravel the next night. Sonnanstine will test my opinion on soft throwers in the post season. He's owned the Sox in 2008 with pin-point location and a good breaking ball. The question is can it continue?

I'm going to wait until both teams have their rotations set to do a full-out preview but feel free to comment on what I've said thus far.

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