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Time Out For Sports Talk: The Road Through Sox-tober (Magic Number = 11)

Todd: Everyone got their playoff beards on?

Then I guess we’re ready to enjoy the fun of postseason baseball, which as Mike alluded to last week, has not seen around these parts in four long years.  It’s been an even longer five whole years since we’ve witnessed the Red Sox winning a playoff series.

Speaking of that drought, the team shipping up to Boston to begin tomorrow’s American League Division Series at Fenway Park is none other than the team that began Boston’s postseason winless drought back in the 2008 ALCS, those pesky Tampa Bay Rays.  Just when Red Sox fans thought the Rays were comfortably in the rear-view mirror, it has once again been proven that objects in that mirror are closer than they appear.

What a week it has been for the Rays, winning three consecutive elimination games in three different cities.  In fact, what an absolute roller coaster ride these final six weeks have been for the boys of Joe Maddon.

It is worth noting that today is only the third off day the Rays have had since August 22 (two of those off days coming this week for travel purposes) and they are about to visit their 10th different locale during that time (which doesn’t even include their home digs in St. Pete).  The Rays began this stretch losing 13 of 19 games and falling completely out of the AL East race.  But just when it appeared they were completely down for the count to even make the postseason, Tampa Bay has risen from the mat to win 15 of their last 20 games (four by one run, five by shutout), including the impressive road trip this week.

These Rays are currently playing their best ball right now, and are a club with as much tenacity and as deep a starting rotation as the Red Sox.  This was clearly evident in the head-to-head games played between these two division rivals.  Boston may have won twelve of the nineteen meetings, but it’s the first time the Sox won the season series from the Rays since 2007 (hopefully that’s a good sign) and of those dozen wins, six of them came in the ninth inning or later, including three walk-off wins at Fenway.

Also noteworthy is that the Sox as a team hit only .209 against the Rays this year, scoring an average of less than four runs per game.  That trend seems unlikely to change with Tampa Bay’s talented southpaws Matt Moore (17-4 and 2-0 against the Sox this year with a 1.80 ERA) and David Price (2-0 in three starts at Fenway this year with a 1.21 ERA) drawing the starts in Games 1 and 2 at Fenway.  Maddon will also have the option of going back to either of these guys in a potential fifth game.

Sox manager John Farrell will counter with Jon Lester and John Lackey in the first two games of this series.  Lester enters October pitching his best ball of the season (5-2 with a 2.19 ERA in his last ten starts), while Lackey drew the Game 2 starting assignment based on his success at Fenway this year (2.41 ERA at home vs. 4.48 on the road).

Bottom line is that this best-of-five ALDS is going to come down to pitching.  Runs will be at a premium.  Starters will need to consistently pitch deep into these games.  Someone other than the amazing Koji Uehara has to step up in the Sox bullpen and record key outs when asked.

These games will likely be decided by late-inning heroics, like Jonny Gomes’ game-winning blast against Joel Peralta back in June (leading to his first helmet punt of the season) or Mike Carp’s pinch-hit grand slam at the Trop three weeks ago.  The Rays also have a clutch bat they can turn to in Delmon Young, who was reacquired for next to nothing in late August.  All Delmon has done the last three seasons is hit nine home runs in 23 playoff games, including what proved to be the game-winner in Cleveland last night.

In what I think will be an instant classic of a series, I can’t see how these two won’t need the full five games to decide a winner.  I’m taking the Sox by the slimmest of margins to advance to the ALCS because they will have that all-important last at-bat, and something tells me they are going to need it.

For my other LDS predictions, I’m taking Detroit’s pitching to edge out Oakland in five tough games, the Dodgers to beat Atlanta in four games and in my upset special, Pittsburgh to stun St. Louis in five games.

Mike: I am really looking forward to this postseason. I have a strong feeling that the Sox are entering this fall with a very good shot at making it to the World Series, something that would have been unimaginable even as this season started.

Before I get into my predictions, I do want to touch on the current MLB playoff format. As fun as elimination games are, I really don’t think it’s fair to have a team’s season come down to one game. In football, that’s fine – the teams play once a week, and each game has a lot more meaning because there are so few of them. But baseball is all about a series of games, during the regular season, the teams square off in a series of games, never just one standalone game, and to change that for the playoffs is just strange.

I really do think baseball is moving from the single-game wild card to a best-of-three series between the two wild card teams. I think that MLB wanted people to get used to the extra wild card team, and thought the best way to do that was by limiting it to a single game. But there’s simply too much money to be made to not expand the playoffs with a couple more games. This way, each team would have the chance to get a home game (play it in a 1-1-1 format) and that would mean more revenue for the teams and the league. It makes too much sense not to do it.

As for this season, I think the Red Sox are on a roll, and will benefit by facing a familiar foe in Tampa Bay. I’ll take them to win in four.

In the other series, I see Detroit taking Oakland in 5, St. Louis over Pittsburgh in 4 and the Braves over the Dodgers in 5.

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