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October 16, 2008

Prospectus Preview

ALCS Game Five

by Caleb Peiffer

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Matchup: Rays (97-65) at Red Sox (95-67), 8:07 p.m. ET, TBS
Probable Starters: Scott Kazmir (152 1/3 IP, 3.60 RA, 1.27 WHIP, 166 K) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (167 2/3, 3.11, 1.32, 154)
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
Series Favorite: Rays, 87.6% (Up 3-1)
Prospectus: Is Tampa Bay getting ready to put the finishing touches on perhaps the most remarkable turnaround in major league history, or are the Red Sox getting ready to strike from behind yet again? On Terry Francona's watch Boston is 7-0 in ALCS elimination games; in each of its last two times playing for the pennant Boston has rallied to overcome being down 3-1. Including their 1986 ALCS comeback against the Angels, the Sox have been on the long end in three of the 11 series where a 3-1 deficit was reversed. Against the Indians last year, Boston also won the first game before dropping the next three, then outscored the Tribe 30-5 in games five, six, and seven. That Sox team had a full assortment of healthy players, however. This October's edition is missing Mike Lowell-forcing the weak bat of Mark Kotsay into the lineup-as well as the power stroke of David Ortiz, who is 5-for-31 without a home run this postseason, results that are hard to not connect with his May wrist injury. J.D. Drew might not be healthy enough to reprise his grand slam heroics from last October, either; since returning from a herniated disk in his back at the end of the regular season he has hit .226/.294/.355 in 34 plate appearances.

A comeback is hard to envision at this point given how well the Rays' offense is performing. On just one occasion during the regular season did Tampa Bay total more runs in a three-game stretch than they have in outscoring the Red Sox by 31-13: August 29-31, when the Rays dropped 34 runs on Baltimore in a home sweep (they also scored 31 on the road in late June). The Rays have been plating runners with plenty of fireworks, launching balls over the Green Monster and even out of the old ballpark entirely. Tampa Bay has 10 home runs during its current winning streak; in the regular season the team's high for any three-game stretch was nine. Boston, meanwhile, had not allowed more than seven home runs over three games this year before running into the Rays. With two more long balls, Tampa Bay would tie the American League record for most homers in a playoff series, set at 12 by Boston against the Yankees in the 2003 ALCS; the major league record is 14, set by Carlos Beltran and the Astros against the Cardinals in the 2004 NLCS (oddly enough, both of those efforts came in a losing cause). The Rays hit six homers in the first round, and have a decent shot at reaching the 24 home runs that the Angels hit in 2002 to set an AL team postseason record (those '04 Astros again hold the major league mark, as they remarkably hit 25 while splitting 12 games).

The Rays will likely find it difficult to continue their home-run barrage against Matsuzaka, who has given up just 12 long balls in 179 2/3 innings this season, and only one in 22 frames against the Rays, including his seven shutout innings in Game One. Matsuzaka held the Rays hitless in five at-bats with runners in scoring position during that game, continuing his remarkable work under pressure from the regular season, when he limited opponents to a .164 batting average with a 576 OPS in 179 plate appearances with RISP. The Red Sox can take further comfort in the fact that they will be going up against Kazmir and not the originally scheduled starter James Shields, as Boston has pummeled the lefty each of the last two times it has seen him, for nine runs on four homers in three innings at the end of the regular season, and then for five runs on three homers in 4 1/3 in Game Two. Dustin Pedroia hit two home runs off of Kazmir in that game, and is now 16-for-28 with four walks against him lifetime.

While Kazmir has struggled recently against Boston, moving him up to start Game Five instead of Shields makes sense on several fronts. There are several statistical reasons backing up the switch, as first broken down by Christina Kahrl in the series preview and then John Perrotto yesterday in Unfiltered. There is also the fact that the team has an off-day after today's game (but not after Game Six), which could be needed to rest up the relief corps given that Kazmir has not pitched more than six innings since the 21st of July, 14 starts ago. The other consideration likely driving the switch is that Derryl Cousins will be the plate umpire for Game Six. Cousins was behind the plate for Kazmir's start on June 11 in Anaheim, and made several calls on close pitches that seriously angered the young starter; after the game, which saw Joe Maddon ejected for arguing balls and strikes, Kazmir called Cousins' performance "unbelievable" and "ridiculous." That start against the Angels proved to be a turning point for Kazmir's season, coincidentally or not: he entered with six straight quality starts and a 1.60 RA in 45 innings, but after losing his cool collected only six quality starts in 19 tries over the rest of the regular season, while posting an RA of 4.47 in 100 2/3 frames.

A matchup between Kazmir and Matsuzaka, especially in the postseason, has the potential of lasting into the wee hours of the Boston night. Each pitcher specializes in creating and then escaping from his own trouble-Matsuzaka led the AL with 5.05 BB/9, while Kazmir was third at 4.14; Kazmir led the majors (minimum 150 innings) in pitches per plate appearances at 4.30, while Matsuzaka was fourth at 4.06. The duo hooked up three times during the regular season, and all three games lasted well over three hours. On July 2, a 7-6 Rays win at Tropicana Field took 3:55 to complete; Tampa Bay's 5-4 victory on September 9 at Fenway lasted 3:40; and Boston's 13-5 blowout at the Trop on September 15 was over in 3:20. The Rays won't care if the game lasts longer than the five hours and 27 minutes it took to play Game Two if it means they can wrest the flag from the defending champs, while Boston will be desperately fighting to keep the new juggernaut from opening up bubbly in the visitor's clubhouse.

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

Related Content:  Tampa Bay Rays,  Tampa Bay

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