10/07/08 1:34 AM ET
ALCS breakdown: Red Sox vs. Rays
Boston's arms could have trouble with opportunistic Tampa Bay
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
Rays at bat: Tampa Bay plays offense a lot like Boston, finishing second to the Sox in walks and hitting more home runs. The Rays don't hit for a high average, and they're not likely to get a lot of easy hits against a Boston team that also plays quality defense. One advantage for the AL East champs comes in the running game. Tampa Bay stole 142 bases at a pretty good success rate this year, while Boston did not do a good job of stopping would-be thieves. The Rays struggled badly against left-handers, and Boston has only one in Jon Lester -- though he's absolutely outstanding.
Key late-game matchups:
1. Dan Wheeler vs. Jason Bay: These two have seen plenty of each other from when both were in the National League Central, and Wheeler has quite an edge. Bay is 2-for-20 against the man serving as the Rays' closer. That's a big advantage, because Bay has emerged as a major piece of Boston's offense. It's worth noting, though, that both of Bay's hits off of Wheeler are home runs.
2. Justin Masterson vs. Evan Longoria: Masterson has taken a huge role in the Boston bullpen lately, which means he'll be very likely to see Longoria in the late innings. And though it's a small sample, Tampa Bay's best hitter has struggled against the groundballing Red Sox righty. Longoria is 0-for-7 against Masterson.
Achilles' Heel: As good as the Red Sox's rotation was last October, it's not hard to see it being exposed in this series. Lester is pitching brilliantly, though his start in the ALDS finale pushes him back to at least Game 2. But beyond Lester and Matsuzaka, there are some questions. Josh Beckett, who was slowed by a strained oblique, didn't look like himself in Game 3 against the Angels. And neither Paul Byrd nor Tim Wakefield sends chills down the other side's spine. Wakefield has pitched well in St. Petersburg, but bumping him up to Game 1 or 2 because of that is likely asking for trouble.
The Red Sox will win if... they go more than two deep in the rotation. They need Beckett to be healthy and effective, which would give them the starting pitching advantage in at least four of the seven games. Alternately, getting a big start or two from Tim Wakefield would be a huge lift. And once again, Boston also needs to control the middle innings, getting quality relief work from the pitchers in front of Jonathan Papelbon.
The Rays will win if... they make the most of their base hits. That means hitting homers, that means drawing walks, it means stealing bases and it means getting big hits when they get runners on base. Conversely, the Rays absolutely must keep the ball in the park and throw quality strikes, minimizing the damage that the dangerous Boston lineup can do against a pitching staff that is not often overpowering.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.