After a year where playoff baseball was played at neutral sites with limited capacities, playoff baseball is back. The Wild Card round provided us with a small dosage of a month full of passionate baseball ahead. In the American League Division Series the best team in the American League, Tampa Bay Rays will host the No. 4 seeded Boston Red Sox, who defeated the Yankees 6-2 in the Wild Card. The last time these two teams faced off in October was during the 2013 ALDS, where a Red Sox team bested the Rays three games to one en route to a World Series Championship.

But this year is different…

Boston Red Sox (92-70) vs. Tampa Bay Rays (100-62)

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The Rays

The Tampa Bay Rays are coming off their first 100-win season in franchise history, while having the 5th lowest payroll in the majors. The team cruised to the top seed in the AL, even after losing their three best starting pitchers from last year’s AL pennant team.Post-All Star break, the Rays were undoubtedly the best team in the toughest division in baseball, finishing an outstanding 51-25 against divisional opponents.

Tampa Bay is without Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, and Charlie Morton this time around, who started 14 out of the 18 playoff games from last year’s playoff run. Yet somehow, it appears pitching remains their strength. The arsenal of arms on the Tampa Bay pitching staff attributed to the lowest ERA in the AL, with 8 different pitchers tallying at least 10 starts. The bullpen also set an MLB record with 14 different players recording a save during the regular season.

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On the other hand, the Rays lineup is where concerns start to a rise. After the trade deadline acquisition of Nelson Cruz and the emergence of rookie prospect Wander Franco, the lineup appears much more formidable on paper than the 2020 roster that saw only one batter hit over .300 in the postseason. But the question is, can they be consistent enough for a deep postseason run?

A year after setting the record for most home runs in a single postseason, Randy Arozarena will have plenty of expectations for his second postseason trip. The Rays rookie outfielder had an underwhelming season but still is looking like the favorite to take home the Rookie of the Year in the AL. If Arozarena can come close to his performance during last year’s postseason run, the Rays could have a villainous top of the lineup.

The Sox

The Boston Red Sox came in to the year with low expectations. After a forgettable 2020 season, the Sox brought back manager Alex Cora and took off right out of the gate. The off season additions of Kike Hernandez and Hunter Renfroe became cornerstones of the lineup and, by midseason, the Sox were surprisingly the first team to reach 50 wins. Boston quickly proved themselves as a contender for the World Series, leading the division at the All Star break.

It was during this break where the Sox reached a little turmoil. I’m still trying to figure out what happened to Matt Barnes up in Colorado during the All Star break. He was a lights out closer for the first part of the year, earned himself a new $9 million contract extension, and then forgot how to pitch! Barnes entered August with a 2.25 ERA and got his last save of the year on August 4th. He finished the month with a 13.50 ERA across 10 appearances. Including blowing two straight saves and his role as closer with the Boston Red Sox. After being left off the ALDS roster, Matt Barnes’ future in Boston certainly comes with a lot of uncertainty.

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But Matt Barnes was just the beginning of the question marks in this Boston bullpen. 12 Red Sox pitchers made over 15 appearances out of the pen during the regular season, and only one had under a 3.00 ERA. The bullpen is the most undervalued aspect of playoff baseball. A game can get flipped around in a minute if the wrong pitcher goes out there, but Alex Cora has always seemed to a be a great late game manager. During the 2018 World Series run he went to one of his starters out of the pen 16 times, demonstrating Cora is willing to do whatever is required to get those late inning outs.

Similar to the Rays, the Sox lineup is all about consistency. Both the talent and potential from this lineup is clear, with 6 players on the roster logging at least 20 HRs and 60 RBIs this season. During the Sox’s in-season slumps on the offensive end, it oftentimes felt the bats were nowhere to be found. If the Red Sox lineup can come alive here at Tropicana Field, the Rays better look out, and their best regular season in franchise history could easily come to a crashing stop.

The matchups

  • Game 1: Thursday, Oct. 7 – Red Sox at Rays, 8:07 p.m.
  • Game 2: Friday, Oct. 8 – Red Sox at Rays, 7:02 p.m.
  • Game 3: Sunday, Oct. 10 – Rays at Red Sox, 4:07 p.m.
  • Game 4 (if necessary): Monday, Oct. 11 – Rays at Red Sox, TBD
  • Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday, Oct. 13 – Red Sox at Rays, TBD

The series opens up tonight at the questionable Tropicana Field. For years now the team has faced backlash from fans due to the location of their ballpark. We saw how wild it was in Fenway Park on Tuesday night, so it’s interesting to see what kind of environment will the faithful Rays fans create inside a sold out ballpark.

It will be Shane McClanahan taking on Eduardo Rodriguez in Game 1 on Thursday night. These two same starters faced off at Tropicana back on September 2nd, with each throwing for six innings, and E-Rod pitching a shutout. The Sox went on to win the game 4-0, providing them with their third win on ten attempts at Tropicana during the regular season.

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Shane McClanahan is 24-year-old rookie making his first ever postseason start. Although, McClanahan appeared in 4 games during the 2020 postseason giving up four earned runs in 4.1 innings of work. McClanahan was the 31st pick out of the University of South Florida in the 2018 MLB draft. He is set to become the first pitcher from his draft class to start a playoff game. McClanahan has given up 5 earned runs in 16 innings against the Red Sox this season. I doubt we’ll see McClanahan past the fourth inning as Rays manager Kevin Cash is not afraid to go to his bullpen early.

While Eduardo Rodriguez has been one of the few Red Sox who came on strong down the stretch. Rodriguez went 7-3 with a 3.71 ERA after the all-star break, including a much better record on the road then compared to when he is at Fenway Park. The Rays are a much better hitting team against left handers. While E-Rod hasn’t managed too hot against the Tampa Bay squad, with a 4.71 ERA in 21 innings pitched.

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In Game 2 we’ll see top prospect Shane Baz make his first major league postseason appearance against Red Sox ace Chris Sale. Baz has looked very sharp in his first three starts but will be in a completely different environment on Friday night. While Chris Sale will be back in the postseason for the first time since his World Series clinching strikeout against Manny Machado in 2018.

The game three and four starters have yet to be named, but most likely will Nick Pivetta vs Drew Rasmussen and Nate Eovaldi vs Luis Patino back at a rowdy Fenway Park.

My pick

These two teams are so similar it’s tough to just go with one side. The Red Sox have the advantage with the bats. Yet, at the same time the Rays pitching could be lights out in this series and never even give the Red Sox a glimpse of hope.

Boston needs one game in Tampa to have a chance, but this series is destined for five games. In a win or go home matchup, the playoff experience on the Red Sox roster will come through to upset the top seeded Rays in their own building and get them thinking about moving to a new ballpark inside the city.