Rays, Red Sox take different roads to Division Series
Tampa Bay steps up in must-win games to face refreshed AL East champions
Right around the time the Red Sox wrapped up the American League East championship two weeks ago, the Rays became a desperate team. To say these two teams took different paths to the AL Division Series would be a huge understatement.
"We thought it was slipping away," pitcher Alex Cobb said.
The Rays began playing every single game as if their season depended on it. Because it did. And they saved their season, winning 15 of 20 and 10 of 12.
And they roll into the Division Series against the Red Sox only after winning three straight must-win games, all of them on the road, against the Blue Jays, Rangers and Indians. If confidence, momentum and adrenaline count for anything, the Rays are in a very good place for Game 1 on Friday (3 p.m. ET on TBS).
Baseball people love to debate these things. Is it better to have a rested team or one that has had to sweat out every pitch of every inning for a couple of weeks?
The Red Sox clinched the AL East on Sept. 20 in their 155th game of the season. They wrapped up home-field advantage last Saturday. So Game 1 on Friday at Fenway Park will be their first meaningful game in six days.
The Rays are going to need every last bit of mojo they can muster to win the best-of-five series. By almost any measuring stick, the Red Sox deserve to be favorites. These sorts of things mean nothing to the Rays.
"We pay no attention to it," David Price said.
His point was that the Rays get tired of hearing about their shortcomings, how they're going to have to overcome a small payroll, poor home attendance and a roster built around a lot of young guys and bargain free agents.
The Rays simply don't want to hear it. Manager Joe Maddon says that when his team steps on the field for a game, he never thinks about who is spending what. When the game starts, it's just about the competition.
Still, the Red Sox are the AL's deepest and most balanced team. They were brilliantly remade during the offseason by general manager Ben Cherington. He hired a manager, John Farrell, universally respected by his players.
He then signed a bunch of consummate professionals -- Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes and Stephen Drew.
The Red Sox became Dustin Pedroia's team, and they've taken on some of his personality in the way they compete and fight and never give in. Even some of us who loved the work Cherington did never guessed his team would improve by 28 games from a year ago.
That improvement happened because of all those smart acquisitions and because the starting rotation went from being one of baseball's worst in 2012 (5.19 ERA) to one of its best in 2013 (3.84 ERA).
Both Game 1 starter Jon Lester and Game 2 starter John Lackey re-established themselves as tough, durable pitchers. Also, 25-year-old left-hander Felix Doubront took a huge step forward.
And now the Red Sox have Clay Buchholz back from the disabled list after a 12-1 regular season and Jake Peavy, who was acquired before the non-waiver Trade Deadline. No team in these playoffs -- not the Dodgers, not the Rays -- has a deeper or more gifted rotation than these Red Sox.
If Lester, Lackey and Co. are at the top of their game, it will be difficult for any team to get past them. The Red Sox won 12 of 19 against the Rays in the regular season, and even though they had trouble scoring runs, their pitching was so good it didn't matter.
On the other hand, the Rays are feeling virtually unbeatable after getting out of Toronto, Arlington and Cleveland with victories. Game 1 starter Matt Moore went 10-1 on the road this season.
No team plays better defense than the Rays, and with Evan Longoria having a great couple of weeks, the Rays have the potential to be scary good.
But the Red Sox have answered every challenge this season, and there's no reason to think they won't answer this one. Lester and Lackey began the season believing they had something to prove, and both of them have done that.
In Boston, though, the gold standard are those 2004 and 2007 World Series championship teams. There aren't many things in the world better than an October baseball game in Fenway Park, and the Red Sox simply couldn't be in a better place.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.