After the Boston Red Sox defeated the New York Yankees 6-2 in the AL Wild Card game at Fenway Park, we now have the stage set for the ALDS and a matchup between division rivals and the continuation of a battle that lasted the entire 2021 season.
#1 Tampa Bay Rays vs. #4 Boston Red Sox
Game 1: Thursday, October 7th, 8:07 ET, FS1 – Shane McClanahan vs. Eduardo Rodriguez
Game 2: Friday, October 8th, 7:02 ET, FS1 – Shane Baz vs. TBD
Game 3: Sunday, October 10th, 4:07 ET, FS1 – TBD
Game 4 (if necessary): Monday, October 11th, TBD, FS1 – TBD
Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday, October 13th, TBD, FS1 – TBD
With a convincing win over the New York Yankees in the Wild Card Game, the Red Sox have earned their way to a matchup with the Rays in the ALDS. The Rays took the season series against the Red Sox 11-8 and outscored them 106-104. All year, these two teams played close and competitive games, with 12 of the 19 being decided by 4 runs or less. Some of those games were admittedly blowouts (like Boston’s 20-8 win on August 11th) but for the most part, these were hard-fought games, which bodes well for this upcoming series.
The Rays and the Red Sox have met just twice in the postseason since the Rays became a team in 1998, with the Rays winning the 2008 ALCS over the Red Sox 4-3, and the 2013 Red Sox beating the Rays 3-1 in the ALDS before going on to win the World Series. So obviously whichever team wins this series has history suggesting they will win the American League pennant.
Tampa Bay Rays (100-62)
The fun part about projecting the Rays lineup is that it is IMPOSSIBLE. The Rays like to play the matchups and trot out the exact right guys for the exact right situation. And because of that, manager Kevin Cash sent out 158 different batting orders this season, or more simply put, practically a new lineup every game. In game one, the Red Sox will trot out Eduardo Rodriguez, who had a 3.19 ERA and 35 strikeouts in his last 31 innings to close the season. I expect their lineup will probably look something like this:
So it looks like the Rays are going to be only using three starting pitchers, Shane McClanahan and Shane Baz have been announced for the first two games, and it’s probably safe to assume Drew Rasmussen will get a start too. Still, Luis Patino and his electric fastball have already been used out of the ‘pen to close the season, and Josh Fleming will likely be used in a lefty-specialist role and in situations where a ground ball is best. Collin McHugh and Michael Wacha are options but for the division series, three starters should get the job done.
McClanahan has postseason experience from the Rays 2020 run, and Rasmussen is a vet who has been around for a while. The x-factor here is Baz, whose game 2 start in Tampa will be the fourth major league start of his career. Obviously, the Rays feel he is up to the challenge, and he has put up very good numbers in his first three starts. Besides, you don’t become the top-rated pitcher in the Tampa Bay farm system by chance.
Boston Red Sox (92-70)
The Red Sox finished fourth in the American League in scoring this season with 829 runs, and the bulk of that damage came from the 2021 All-Star trio of Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and J.D. Martinez. But with the absence of Martinez from Tuesday’s Wild Card game, the impact of Kyle Schwarber was felt with his gigantic blast over the visitor’s bullpen in right field off Yankees ace Gerrit Cole. As previously mentioned in the AL Wild Card preview, Schwarber’s elite plate discipline has had a profound effect on the rest of the team, walking more and strikeout out fewer times as a collective unit since his arrival at the Trade Deadline.
Kiké Hernández, who was moved to the second spot in Tuesday’s lineup to split up the lefties in Schwarber and Devers, walked in the bottom of the seventh, eventually scoring on Alex Verdugo’s single that put the game away. As a team, the Red Sox were able to walk seven times with four of those scoring—a key for Boston going forward if they want to try and upset Tampa Bay.
With Nathan Eovaldi likely to pitch Game 3 after Tuesday’s outing, manager Alex Cora tabbed Eduardo Rodriguez to start the series opener. On the surface, Rodriguez’s 4.77 ERA seems like a huge letdown—especially in a free agent walk year—but the underlying 3.34 FIP and 3.55 xERA show that he did a lot of good this season. The southpaw can get whiffs with his four-seamer (15.4% SwStr; 39.9% Usage) and changeup (16.2% SwStr; 23.1% Usage) while generating weak contact with the cutter (.304 xwOBA) and sinker (.240 xwOBA), making him a daunting pitcher for opponents when he’s on.
Following Rodriguez in Game 2 will likely be Chris Sale, who managed to make nine starts in his return from Tommy John surgery. The left-hander can still strike out many hitters, as shown by his 28.4% K rate, but he hasn’t been quite at his best as he’s ramped up for the postseason. This was on display in Boston’s regular-season finale in Washington, relinquishing two earned runs by walking three men and giving up four hits but registering all seven of his outs via the strikeout. The ineffectiveness largely stems from a lackluster changeup (.475 wOBA; .357 xwOBA) that’s been a disaster against right-handed hitters (.490 wOBA; .355 xwOBA), which also explains his drastic platoon splits on the year (.346 OPS v LHB; .824 OPS v RHB). Considering that Tampa Bay has enough bench depth to put together a quality right-handed heavy lineup, it was not surprising that Sale gave up 16 hits in nine and two-thirds innings in his two starts against the Rays. But despite the number of hits allowed, the southpaw pitched to a 2.79 ERA in those outings, though didn’t go particularly deep (3.2 IP on Sept. 6) in his second start—more on that later.
If Boston can somehow win one of the first two games, it’ll give Nathan Eovaldi a chance to give them a series lead—one that Red Sox fans should feel good about, given his postseason track record (1.63 ERA in 27.2 IP). Furthermore, the right-hander has been better at home (3.47 ERA at home, 4.21 ERA on the road) and pitched well in four starts (26.1 IP) against Tampa Bay, going 2-1 with a pristine 2.69 ERA.
Nick Pivetta should get the ball in a potential Game 4, and he’s also pitched well against Tampa Bay this season with a 2.95 ERA in four starts (21.1 IP). While he’s generally pitched better on the road (3.75 ERA) than at home (5.40 ERA), Pivetta was effective against the Rays at Fenway on April 5th with five scoreless innings for the win.
Tuesday’s Wild Card win over the Yankees gave us some insight into how manager Alex Cora will use his bullpen this postseason. Ryan Brasier got the first call to relieve Eovaldi in a high leverage spot, a two-run game in the sixth inning with Aaron Judge on first and the red-hot Giancarlo Stanton representing the tying run at the plate. Brasier was lucky Stanton did not hit a home run in that plate appearance, where the Green Monster kept it to a hard single with an out recorded on a great relay to get Judge out at home. After came Tanner Houck, who looked dominant in his inning of work, striking out two men, before Boston two more runs in the bottom of the seventh that likely curtailed his outing—look for the right-hander’s appearances to be multiple innings in the ALDS (likewise with Garrett Richards). Hansel Robles pitched the eighth, recording his 16th straight scoreless appearance, spanning 14.2 innings pitched. Boston’s best reliever, Garrett Whitlock, got the ninth inning in his second outing since coming back from the IL with a right pectoral strain on Sunday, giving up a solo homer to the aforementioned Stanton in his lone inning.
A wild card from this bullpen is left-hander Josh Taylor, who made the Wild Card roster after being on the IL with a back strain—his last appearance was a scoreless inning on September 22nd against the Mets. Taylor’s been a lefty specialist (.381 OPS v LHB; .884 OPS v RHB) this season, so I’d imagine he’ll find his way late into games with Brandon Lowe at the plate. With that same idea in mind, the Red Sox are adding southpaw Martín Pérez was included on the roster in place of Matt Barnes, presumably as another option with Tampa Bay’s left-handed hitters.
How They Got Here
The season series could’ve swung even closer if a couple of games had gone Boston’s way. The first that comes to mind was on June 24th, with the Rays winning 1-0 on a walk-off wild pitch from Matt Barnes. The second loss was on Labor Day, losing 11-10 in extra-innings after initially leading 7-1 through three innings with Chris Sale on the mound. The reason the Red Sox lost this game is what has plagued them all season—ineffective pitching with atrocious defense. In this case, it was the latter, with Alex Verdugo being the primary culprit.
First, there’s the sun-aided “Little League grand slam” in the fourth inning off the bat of Nelson Cruz, which tightened up the game very quickly.
Again, there’s not much you can do about the sun, but you can also see that second baseman Taylor Motter air mails Devers at third and allows Cruz to score as it lands out of play. Sloppy, to say the least.
But then there’s the Austin Meadows‘ inside-the-park home run that highlights the uniqueness of Fenway Park and why this Red Sox team was so poor defensively.
Firstly, this ball was not particularly close to being caught, so the attempt to do so by Verdugo was not the best idea. But then notice who eventually fields the ball here—second baseman José Iglesias. Fenway Park has its quirks, and the home team can gain a huge advantage over the opponent in playing the outfield correctly, particularly with backing up. Since the Monster faces towards right-field, the balls off the wall should have the center-fielder—and even the right-fielder, if he can—backing up the left-fielder. But even with Meadows’ flyball, look at how that part of the wall also faces right-field, meaning that right-fielder Hunter Renfroe should have been sprinting to that spot to prevent the two extra bases that ended up being taken on that play.
These are mistakes that can not happen against a great Tampa Bay team, but Tuesday’s game offered a glimmer of hope going forward—more on that later.
Potential Breakout Star of the Series
Tampa Bay decided to designated Hunter Renfroe for assignment at the end of last season, which gave Boston the opportunity to swoop in and sign him to a one-year, $3 million contract. This gave Renfroe 18 revenge games this season against his former employer, and he made them count, slashing .338/.359/.649 while hitting four long balls. And in arguably his best game as a member of the Red Sox, the right-fielder hit a clutch home run over the Monster that gave Boston a 2-1 lead in the eighth inning. Then, in the ninth, Joey Wendle blooped a ball in front of a diving Danny Santana in center field. But Renfroe, who was backing up, was able to grab the ball and make the perfect throw to Devers at third base to end the game—almost from the warning track!
WHAT A THROW TO END IT! #SeptemberBaseball pic.twitter.com/444DUELB2C
— MLB (@MLB) September 9, 2021
Renfroe will need to continue to put together performances like that to get his team to advance, and he’s certainly capable of it.
If the Red Sox win, it’s because…
They play fundamental defense—yes, I gave the same answer as in the Wild Card prediction. The Red Sox were last in outs above average (-38 OAA) but 19th-best in defensive runs saved (2 DRS). Obviously, given the team’s struggles highlighted above and a second-worst 108 errors (only Miami had more with 122), I tend to believe in the former stat as the better evaluator here. Nevertheless, there is a sign of improvement, as shown in the Wild Card game.
WHAT A THROW! pic.twitter.com/cmkl6nRJOQ
— Ben Brown (@BenBrownPL) October 6, 2021
This ball is a bullet off the wall, and Verdugo made a hash of it on the ricochet. Luckily, Hernández was able to back up and made a quick one-hopper to Bogaerts, who in turn made a great relay throw to Kevin Plawecki to cut the run down at home. This play here was critical in Boston’s win, denying the Yankees a run and any momentum in their comeback attempt. Sound defense is what is going to make the Red Sox pitching better and the offense more potent as a result.
While J.D. Martinez being on the ALDS roster is a big boost for the Red Sox, they will still need to gain confidence early in the series by splitting the first two games at Tropicana Field—which I think they will. Boston’s best opportunity looks to be in Game 3 with Eovaldi likely starting, but Tampa Bay should be able to win Game 4 over Nick Pivetta. This leaves us with a Game 5, in which I would expect Chris Sale to get the ball where he inevitably falls short. Rays in 5.
– Jai Correa
Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)
It was glorious to see a rookie pitcher with 13 career IP that had no business starting game 1 and a complete scrub in Wacha throw the game away for TB. If TB had any integrity Wacha would not be on that roster. Clearly the children that made the decision to bring in Wacha this offseason are committed to giving him every opportunity to provide some value but it has been nothing but a liability to the team all year long. This is the same reason that Joe Kelly gets unlimited opportunities in LA. The children that don’t understand anything about how the game works don’t have the ability to see that they made a mistake. Sure Sale didn’t fare well himself but at least he earned his way there. Letting scrubs lose games is unforgivable to everyone who has to watch and play the games. The baseball illiterates looking at the game feed don’t know the difference though. JD Martinez hitting 6th is stupidity along with being evidence that even the baseball blind understand lineup protection. It is cool for the guys in front of him in the lineup, but it is not cool late in the game when your best hitter is left standing in the on deck circle. I think the Schwarbers of the world (BB based OPS guys) should hit at the back of the lineup. Kike is also a bench player at best and should hit 9th – he did it well in LA. Kike is another example of a bad signing getting prominent opportunities to make the idiots who thought he was a quality starter look better. You want guys that can provide a consistently reliable AB getting the ABs. Every single low BA OPS guy like Schwarber is a laydown most of the time and simply gets all of their production over a few hot stretches. Those are not guys that you want getting the bulk of your ABs. Boston is lucky that TB decided not to use any arms today. The game is increasingly about the decisions of the baseball illiterate as opposed to letting the best players in the world do what they do best. It is hard to watch and I honestly don’t think that many people do anymore – not people that would know the general rules of the game anyways.