It would have made for great theater. Imagine Terry Francona coming back to Fenway in a playoff series with the chance to end the season of the Boston Red Sox. It's no secret the bad blood that exists between Francona and Red Sox ownership. There is nothing Francona would have enjoyed more.
But the Tampa Bay Rays had different plans. They aren't the baseball romantics the rest of us are. They don't care what others think or wish for. Maybe playing in front of fewer than 10,000 fans on a nightly basis in your home park creates a sense of this loner mentality.
Red Sox fans should have been rooting hard for Francona to win, but not for the great storylines it would have brought. Red Sox fans should have been rooting hard for Francona because, quite simply, the Cleveland Indians would have been a far easier matchup for Boston than Tampa.
For all the theatrics, I would have very easily predicted the Red Sox to sweep the Indians. As is, I have a hard time picking the Red Sox to advance past the Rays.
Forget the Yankees. Tampa is Boston's new archenemy. Joe Maddon is Billy Martin. David Price is Ron Guidry. Evan Longoria is Reggie Jackson.
The optimistic Red Sox fan will point to Boston's 12-7 record against Tampa this season. Sorry, that means zilch right now. Playoffs, in any sport, are all about momentum. What you did in the first month of the season is not nearly as important as what you did in the last month, or even last week. Tampa has won ten of their last twelve games and have been in playoff mode for nearly a month. The Red Sox haven't played a must-win game yet this year. They haven't even played a game since Sunday. They had to play an intrasquad game on Wednesday to try and stay sharp.
The biggest thing that brings me pause is the Red Sox struggles this season against tough lefty starters. The Rays have two of the best-- Matt Moore and David Price. Overall, the Red Sox batted almost twenty points lower against lefties than righties and had an OPS nearly seventy points lower.
Matt Moore faced Boston twice this season, recording a 1.80 ERA while giving up only 5 hits in 15 innings. David Price started five games against Boston this year recording a 2.48 ERA while allowing only 19 hits in 32.2 innings. Quick math tells me that is 24 hits allowed in almost 48 innings. If this series goes five games, the Red Sox will face these guys three times. That leaves a very small margin of error for the Red Sox.
The Red Sox game one and two starters have struggled against the Rays. Jon Lester has given up five home runs in 25 innings against Tampa this year while posting a 4.50 ERA. John Lackey has an even worse 8.10 ERA in two starts, giving up 19 hits in only 10 innings. Lackey has also struggled to the tune of a 4.98 ERA in September. Lackey faces Price in the second game of the series. This, essentially, makes Game One on Friday afternoon a must-win for Lester and the Red Sox.
Another factor which concerns me is John Farrell. Farrell is nearly assured of winning Manager of the Year honors in the American League. He has turned around a team that won only 69 games last season. This year the Red Sox finished with the best record in baseball, finishing with 97 wins. But this is Farrell's first time managing in the playoffs. The heat gets turned up. The lights shine brighter. Decisions become magnified.
There have been some decisions in September that have me concerned about Farrell's decision making. He has left some starting pitchers in too long. I've second-guessed more than one or two of his pinch-hitting decisions this past month. The same goes for some of his pitching changes. Base-running has been an issue all season. Weaknesses become magnified in the playoffs against good teams.
Obviously, I'm not saying the Rays are going to steamroll past the Red Sox. Tampa doesn't have the offensive firepower for that. The games will all be contentious and entertaining. Little things like leaving a pitcher in too long or going to certain relievers (ahem, Uehara) too early will be huge. Pinch-hitting decisions (should Mike Carp hit for Mike Napoli with the game on the line in the ninth against Fernando Rodney?) will draw instant critiques. Little things like being too aggressive on the basepaths and getting caught trying to double steal with two outs could be pivotal. In a tight five-game series, one play, one decision could make all the difference. Ask Grady Little.
I got the Rays winning in five games. Why couldn't Tito and the Indians have won? (Hey, that sounds like a cool, albeit politically incorrect, band name)
My picks for the other series: Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and St. Louis Cardinals.