Why the Red Sox will beat the Rays

These two teams are very evenly matched. They were near each other in the standings all season, with the Rays ultimately finishing two games ahead. They played 18 games against each other and Tampa Bay won the series 10-8. And they’re both among the top four at run prevention in the American League.

The biggest difference between them is on offense, where the Red Sox ranked second with 845 runs scored and the Rays were ninth with 775. That difference is the main reason the Red Sox should pull out a victory in the ALCS. Of course, we can look a lot more in depth than that, starting with the pitching matchups.

Games 1 and 5 will feature Daisuke Matsuzaka (2.90 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 1.6 K/BB) for Boston against James Shields (3.56 ERA, 6.7 K/9, 4.0 K/BB) for Tampa Bay. Games 2 and 6 will be Boston’s Josh Beckett (4.03 ERA, 8.9 K/9, 5.1 K/BB) against Tampa Bay’s Scott Kazmir (3.49 ERA, 9.8 K/9, 2.4 K/BB). Games 3 and 7 will pit Boston’s Jon Lester (3.21 ERA, 6.5 K/9, 2.3 K/BB) against Tampa Bay’s Matt Garza (3.70 ERA, 6.2 K/9, 2.2 K/BB). And Game 4 will be Tim Wakefield (4.13 ERA, 5.8 K/9, 2.0 K/BB) for Boston against Andy Sonnanstine (4.38 ERA, 5.8 K/9, 3.4 K/BB) for Tampa Bay.

Shields probably has been less irritating than Matsuzaka this season, but Matsuzaka has done a better job of preventing runs despite issuing so many walks. The problem is that Matsuzaka’s walks have prevented him from pitching as deep into games on a consistent basis as Shields does. Overall, this match-up is probably even.

Beckett vs. Kazmir normally would be a classic power match-up, with Beckett getting a slight edge because of his longer record. However, Kazmir was the better pitcher this season and Beckett’s still dealing with an oblique injury. He didn’t pitch well against the Angels in the first round and it looked like the injury was bothering him. If he hasn’t improved since Sunday, Kazmir probably will have a big advantage in this match-up. As is, you probably have to give Kazmir a slight edge going in.

Lester has been the most consistently good pitcher for the Red Sox this season, and he was flat-out dominant in his two ALDS starts. Garza had a good season, but it wasn’t quite as good as Lester’s and he got tagged for five runs in six innings against the White Sox. This is Boston’s biggest advantage on the mound.

Wakefield quietly had a very good season, although you never know what you’re going to get from him in any given game. He was significantly better at home (3.10 ERA) this season, and he’ll pitch there in Game 4, but he wasn’t at all good against the Rays (5.87 ERA in three starts). Sonnanstine had a solid season and didn’t allow a run in two starts against the Red Sox. Given the unpredictability of Wakefield and the inexperience of Sonnanstine, this one’s probably a toss-up.

The bullpen is a little bit of a strange match-up; the Red Sox have a set closer while the Rays go somewhat by committee, but both teams have several good relievers.

Jonathan Papelbon posted a 2.34 ERA in the regular season and then pitched five scoreless innings in the ALDS as Boston’s closer. He’s backed up by Justin Masterson (2.36 ERA), Hideki Okajima (2.61 ERA), Manny Delcarmen (3.27 ERA) and Javier Lopez (2.43 ERA).

Grant Balfour has been Tampa Bay’s best reliever, posting a 1.54 ERA and a ridiculous 12.7 K/9 rate during the regular season. The Rays also have J.P. Howell (2.22 ERA), Dan Wheeler (3.12 ERA, picked up the one save in the ALDS) and Chad Bradford (2.12 ERA, although that 17/15 K/BB ratio is terrible).

The Red Sox probably have the edge in bullpens just because of Papelbon, who has a longer record of being an excellent reliever than anybody on either team. If the Rays add Troy Percival to the ALCS roster, it helps the Red Sox no matter what role he’s used in. Similarly, the Red Sox would be helping Rays if they add Mike Timlin.

Offensively, the Red Sox led the league with a .358 on-base percentage and were third with a .447 slugging percentage, while the Rays were tied for fifth with a .340 OBP and eighth with a .422 SLG.

The Red Sox will suffer some from not having Mike Lowell available, but they still have five very good hitters in Kevin Youkilis, Jason Bay, J.D. Drew, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia (people were worried about him after a terrible ALDS last season too, and then he went 15-for-47 with two homers and four doubles in the ALCS and World Series). And Jacoby Ellsbury posted only a .729 OPS during the regular season, but he was on fire late in the year and carried that momentum through the ALDS.

Tampa Bay’s offense relies heavily on Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena to produce runs, and both were excellent in the ALDS. But Dioner Navarro, B.J. Upton and Akinori Iwamura also stepped up with monster performances in the series, and Tampa Bay probably will need another two or three players to step up and help Pena and Longoria this series.

One of the biggest problems for Tampa Bay’s offense may be just putting the ball in play. The Rays were second in the league with 1,224 strikeouts this season, while Boston’s pitchers led the league with 1,185 strikeouts. And the Red Sox allowed a .390 SLG that was second-best in the league, which will make things hard on a Tampa Bay team that was mediocre at hitting for power in the regular season.

Prediction: Red Sox in seven.

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