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October 13, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Matchup: Rays (97-65) at Red Sox (95-67), 4:37 p.m. ET, TBS
Probable Starters: Matt Garza (184 2/3 IP, 4.05 RA, 1.24 WHIP, 128 K) vs. Jon Lester (210 1/3, 3.34, 1.27, 152)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 92-70 (774 RS, 671 RA); Boston, 95-67 (845 RS, 694 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Boston, #1
Prospectus: After a terrific Game Two that lasted five hours and 27 minutes-Boston's second five-hour game this postseason-the series now shifts back to Fenway Park tied at one game apiece for today's matinee. Left-handed pitchers are supposed to struggle at Fenway, saddled with a platoon disadvantage against right-handed batters who can pepper their offerings off of the Green Monster in left, but Jon Lester is putting the lie to that piece of conventional wisdom, as he has made the unforgiving old venue the prime witness to his domination this season. Lester finished the year 11-1 with a 2.49 RA in 115 2/3 innings at home, and kept rolling with seven shutout innings in the Game-Four ALDS clincher against Anaheim. The 24-year-old southpaw lost his first start of the season at Fenway, and the Red Sox dropped two of his first three outings there, but since April 29 Boston is 15-0 in home starts made by their new ace, thanks to Lester's 1.78 RA over that period. Three of those outings were against Tampa Bay, and Lester earned the win over the Rays each time, allowing just two runs in 20 innings. That 3-0 record matches his career mark in the postseason; Lester has not allowed an earned run in his last 19 2/3 post-season frames dating back to last year, and carries a 0.77 October ERA overall. Between the regular season and playoffs, Lester has compiled a 30-8 mark, which is a greater winning percentage than any other pitcher with at least 25 decisions since the beginning of the 20th century.

The Rays sport by far the worst offense remaining in the playoffs against lefties, posting a 726 OPS against them during the regular season. They are somewhat better equipped to handle southpaws now with the late-season return of Rocco Baldelli, although Baldelli did strike out three times in three at-bats against Lester in his first and only time facing him on September 10. Left-handed batters hit just .217 with a 571 OPS off of Lester this year, and Joe Maddon has already indicated that he will start Baldelli in right field and Willy Aybar at DH. If he chooses to be particularly aggressive and substitute offense for defense, he could also deploy the switch-hitting Zobrist to spell Carl Crawford in left.

Rookie left-hander David Price picked up his first major league victory in the biggest game in Rays franchise history, coming on to notch the last two outs of the 11th inning on Saturday night. Many speculated that Price could have an impact on this year's postseason similar to Francisco Rodriguez's in 2002, when the rookie right-handed reliever made Anaheim's playoff roster on the strength of a brief September cup of coffee, and then proceeded to steal the October stage, fanning 28 while giving up just four runs in 18 2/3 innings of the Angels' championship run, compiling a 5-1 record in the process. Price has not been used by Maddon that aggressively, but he has already linked his name with Rodriguez's, becoming the first pitcher since K-Rod to earn his first big-league win in the playoffs rather than the regular season. [Ed. note: The last pitcher to win a postseason game before a regular season game was actually Josh Kinney, for the 2006 Cardinals.]

Matchup: Phillies (92-70) at Dodgers (84-78), 5:22 p.m. PT, FOX
Probable Starters: Joe Blanton (197 2/3 IP, 5.01 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 111 K) vs. Derek Lowe (211, 3.58, 1.13, 147)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 93-69 (799 RS, 680 RA); Los Angeles, 87-75 (700 RS, 648 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #5; Los Angeles, #11
Prospectus: The white towels waved by the enormous crowd at Dodger Stadium last night did not signal surrender, but rather the reinvigoration of an NLCS that most expected to be a classic battle. Game Three was witnessed live by 56,800 fans, the largest crowd ever at Chavez Ravine, and those patrons watched as their hometown team backed away from the abyss with a 7-2 victory. They also saw a few beanballs and a couple more near-misses, including a shot by starter Hiroki Kuroda across the bow of Shane Victorino that emptied both benches and nearly led to a brawl involving an incensed Manny Ramirez. In the end, the only player left with bruises was catcher Russell Martin, who was drilled twice by Phillies pitchers, and nearly hit a third time on an up-and-in fastball, so the hostilities between these two squads may not yet be over. Whatever else it may have proven, Sunday night's extra-curricular excitement clearly showed that these two teams aren't particularly fond of one another, and further increased the intensity for the remainder of what should be a fantastic series.

Instead of turning to rookie Clayton Kershaw, who worked 1 2/3 innings in Friday's Game Two, or Greg Maddux, who threw an inning of relief on Thursday, Joe Torre has elected to give Game One starter Derek Lowe the ball on three days' rest. The move sets up Lowe to start a potential Game Seven on regular rest, while leaving Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda to come back in Games Five and Six. The traditional thinking is that a sinkerballer will be more effective than the average pitcher on short rest, given that a tired arm could lead to even more droop in his offerings and consequently even more ground balls. Part of Torre's decision was undoubtedly based upon the 2004 ALCS, when he watched from the New York dugout as Lowe came back on two days' rest after starting Game Four and threw six innings of one-hit, one-run ball against the Yankees in Game Seven, completing Boston's unprecedented comeback from being down 0-3. Lowe was knocked around by the Angels for seven runs on 10 hits over five innings in his lone start on short rest this year, May 18 in Anaheim, but both of the two prior regular-season starts he made with three days off resulted in quality starts and victories, one in 2006, and one in 2003.

Jeff Kent has not started a game this postseason, and he started just twice at second base after coming back at the end of September from knee surgery. The irascible old infielder testily pronounced himself fit to play the field at the end of the regular season, however, and was double-switched in to play second during the third inning of Game Two. Based upon the numbers, Torre will likely give strong consideration to starting Kent at the keystone tonight, while shifting Blake DeWitt back to his natural position of third base in place of Casey Blake. The sample size is tiny, but Kent smacked five singles in six at-bats against Joe Blanton this year in his first action against him. Meanwhile, Blake was 0-for-10 off of Blanton, running his career numbers versus the former Athletics righty to 1-for-21 with three walks and seven strikeouts. While Kent could prove to be a difficult out, Blanton's biggest challenge will not surprisingly be trying to retire LA's dreadlocked third-place hitter. If Manny Ramirez owned yesterday's starter Jamie Moyer (10 career homers), he's practically got a leash around Blanton's neck: Ramirez has 14 hits in 25 career at-bats against him, including 6-for-13 with a home run this year, and a 1320 career OPS; the highest against Blanton among hitters with at least 20 plate appearances.

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

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