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October 3, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Matchup: White Sox (89-74) at Rays (97-65), 6:07 p.m. ET, TBS
Probable Starters: Mark Buehrle (218 2/3 IP, 4.36 RA, 1.34 WHIP, 140 K) vs. Scott Kazmir (152 1/3, 3.60, 1.27, 166)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 89-74 (811 RS, 729 RA); Tampa Bay, 92-70 (774 RS, 671 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #10; Tampa Bay, #3
Series Favorite: Rays, 69.2%
Prospectus: The Rays got the win in their first-ever playoff game yesterday, in large part thanks to a pair of homers from their first-year third baseman. Evan Longoria added to his burgeoning rookie ledger by becoming the second player to homer in his first two post-season at-bats, joining another third baseman, Gary Gaetti, who did so for the Twins in 1987. Longoria also picked up an RBI single, making him the fourth player to collect at least nine total bases and three RBI in his post-season debut, along with Ted Kluszewski, Ken Griffey Jr., and Todd Walker. Longoria also stole a bag, and the Rays will likely stay active on the basepaths against a Chicago team inept at holding runners.

Now Longoria and his mates will try to take control of the series in this Game Two battle between left-handers. As Nate Silver pointed out in yesterday's series preview, Tampa Bay's one real weakness is an inability to hit southpaws. The Rays' offense is worse against left-handers than any of the other playoff offenses, with a 726 OPS that ranked 22nd in the majors this year, and that was in evidence yesterday: after the Rays jumped all over Javier Vazquez early on, Chicago rookie lefty Clayton Richard came out of the pen to hold Tampa Bay scoreless for 3 1/3. The Rays' diminished capacity against southpaws has been mitigated somewhat by the return of Rocco Baldelli, who will be in the lineup tonight, either at designated hitter or right field, with both Cliff Floyd and Gabe Gross going to the bench. Joe Maddon has a pair of switch-hitting options in Ben Zobrist and Fernando Perez for his outfield, and he could also sit down left fielder Carl Crawford to give his lineup four right-handed bats across the outfield/DH positions, although Crawford may get the nod based upon his lifetime numbers against Buehrle (10-for-21). Baldelli has also had success against Buehrle, as he homered and doubled in his one start against the lefty this season in late August. And, in point of fact, the Rays actually hit Buehrle well this year, scoring 13 runs off of him in 19 2/3 innings across three starts.

The White Sox lineup will likely also take a different look this evening. Nick Swisher appears to have buried himself in the nether regions of Ozzie Guillen's doghouse, for he has not had a plate appearance in the past four games, having been relegated to the bench against all right-handers. However, with Kazmir on the mound, Guillen will dust off his underachieving switch-hitter tonight to replace the lefty-swinging Dewayne Wise in left field, and Guillen will likely also tap the right-handed Brian Anderson to play center in place of Griffey. This was the alignment Guillen favored the last two times Chicago faced a southpaw. Swisher's better side of the plate is the right side, where he has hit for a bit less power over the course of his career but been much more patient; Anderson has eight home runs in 85 plate appearances versus lefties this season, while showing almost no ability to get on base via any other means (he has more than twice as many extra-base hits on the season, 21, as walks, 10). Playing Swisher and Anderson has the added benefit of upgrading Chicago's outfield defense, which is shaky when Griffey is in center.

Swisher's presence in the lineup also serves to give Chicago a greater chance to work the pitch count against Kazmir, who has not gone longer than six innings in any of his last 12 starts. The one thing that Swisher excelled at in a down season was tiring pitchers out, as he saw a major league-leading 4.51 pitches per plate appearance. Kazmir threw an average of 4.30 pitches per batter faced, tops among all hurlers with 150 or more innings this season, and was third with 18.1 pitches per inning. Even with an injection of discipline to go with seven righty bats in the lineup, the Sox will have a tough task in getting to Kazmir, who gave up just three runs over 13 innings in his two starts versus Chicago this year.

Matchup: Red Sox (95-67) at Angels (100-62), 6:37 p.m. PT, TBS
Probable Starters: Daisuke Matsuzaka (167 2/3 IP, 3.11 RA, 1.32 WHIP, 154 K) vs. Ervin Santana (219, 3.66, 1.12, 214)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 95-67 (845 RS, 694 RA); Los Angeles, 88-74 (765 RS, 697 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #1; Los Angeles, #8
Series Favorite: Red Sox, 72.7%
Prospectus: With their 4-1 loss in Wednesday night's series opener, the Angels have now dropped eight straight post-season games and 10 in a row against the Red Sox. That latter streak started in the 1986 ALCS, what may well have been the most heart-wrenching series loss for any franchise in baseball history. California was ahead 3-1 in the series and 5-2 in Game Five at home heading into the top of the ninth, before the Red Sox came back to score four times, and then went on to win the next two games as well, keeping the Angels from attending their first World Series. The Angels were then swept by the Sox in 2004, and again last year. If the Red Sox win again tonight, it would set a record for most consecutive wins by one franchise against another in post-season play; the Oakland Athletics also won 10 straight against Boston from 1988 to 2003. Los Angeles took eight out of nine regular-season games against the Sox this year, outscoring Boston 61-33, but in-season domination is certainly no guarantee of October success-take the 1988 Mets for example, who were 10-1 versus the Dodgers and then lost in seven games to LA in the NLCS-and the faces of Angels fans during the latter innings of Wednesday's defeat certainly indicated that they were thinking "here we go again." Even the vaunted Rally Monkey has proven useless in the postseason against Jonathan Papelbon, who has held the Angels playoff roster to two singles in 42 career at-bats.

The Angels will look to break their slide against Matsuzaka, who has faced Los Angeles just once this season. That was back on July 28, when he turned in his second-worst start of the year, giving up six runs in five innings on a pair of home runs. The Angels are not a patient bunch, ranking last in the American League in pitches per plate appearance and third from the bottom in walks, and therefore one would expect them to be a poor match for Matsuzaka, who relies on throwing a ton of hard-to-hit pitches outside the strike zone. But the Angels are also stacked with hitters adept at smacking those pitches outside the zone around the field-Vladimir Guerrero, Howie Kendrick, and Garret Anderson are all excellent bad-ball hitters-and they forced Dice-K to toss 91 pitches in that outing. The only other time Matsuzaka pitched against the Angels of Anaheim was in Game Three of last year's playoffs, when he was knocked out in the fifth inning after three runs and 96 pitches, but later taken off the hook. The Angels are aware of the need to work the count against Matsuzaka, as the free-swinging Kendrick said "He has to throw you a strike, and being patient and letting him work a little bit is going to be huge for us."

If Matsuzaka pitches a typical game, then the Red Sox bullpen will be a huge factor tonight. As Joe Sheehan discussed in the series preview, Los Angeles has just one left-handed hitter on its roster (Anderson) to go with five switch hitters, so for Boston the late innings will hinge upon the performance of its right-handed middle relievers, like the side-arming Justin Masterson. Sheehan wrote that Masterson "will be more important than [Manny Delcarmen], and maybe more important than [Hideki] Okajima" in the series, and that held true in the first game, as Terry Francona brought in his rookie right-hander to start the eighth inning with the score 2-1 Boston. Francona's confidence in Masterson has risen steadily since he was first moved into the Sox pen at midseason, and Wednesday's game was the second time that the manager brought him in for the eighth inning with a one-run lead. Right-handers hit only .196 with a 572 OPS in 187 regular-season plate appearances versus Masterson this year, so he will likely be called on to attack the Guerrero/Hunter/Kendrick corridor of LA's lineup again before the series is out.

Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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