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October 18, 2008

Prospectus Preview

ALCS Game Six

by Caleb Peiffer

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Matchup: Red Sox (95-67) at Rays (97-65), 8:07 p.m. ET, TBS
Probable Starters: Josh Beckett (174 1/3 IP, 4.13 RA, 1.19 WHIP, 172 K) vs. James Shields (215, 3.93, 1.15, 160)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 95-67 (845 RS, 694 RA); Tampa Bay, 92-70 (774 RS, 671 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #1; Tampa Bay, #3
Series Favorite: Rays, 72.5% (Up 3-2)
Prospectus: J.D. Drew's game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth on Thursday night flew over the head of right fielder Gabe Gross at 12:16 AM Friday morning-five years to the very minute after Aaron Boone crushed Red Sox Nation with his walk-off home run to win Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS. Since that loss, the Sox have won two World Series titles, rallying from 3-1 down to take the pennant each time, and they have put themselves in position to do the same thing this year thanks to their mind-boggling comeback in Game Five. Heading into the bottom of the seventh down 7-0, Boston's odds of winning the game had shrunk to 1.16 percent, per the 2008 win expectancy matrix, and after Jason Varitek and Mark Kotsay flied out on the heels of Jed Lowrie's leadoff double, that number had fallen to 0.75 percent; adjust for Tampa Bay's quality of run prevention, and the chance drops to 0.56 percent. But seven hits and eight runs later, Boston had made the greatest post-season comeback since the Philadelphia A's turned around an 8-0 deficit with 10 seventh-inning runs to beat the Cubs in Game Four of the 1929 World Series.

Besides Drew's ninth-inning walk-off, the two biggest plays by win expectancy added were Coco Crisp's game-tying single in the eighth-which came on the 10th pitch of an at-bat that manager Terry Francona called probably Crisp's best as a Red Sox-and the double-play grounder that Justin Masterson induced from Carlos Pena to end the top of the ninth. While a bit overshadowed by the offensive show staged by Boston's bats, that double play was enormously important, in no small part because it was also somewhat unlikely. Masterson is an extreme sinkerballer who has gotten 18 double-play grounders in less than 100 innings of work this year, but he has struggled against left-handed hitters, who produced an OPS over 200 points higher against him than righties did during the regular season. At the same time, Pena is one of the most extreme fly-ball hitters in the majors: among the 148 batting-title qualifiers this season, he had the fourth-lowest ground-ball/fly-ball ratio (0.63), above only Alfonso Soriano (0.62), Kevin Millar (0.59), and Ryan Ludwick (0.58). Entering Game Five, Pena had grounded into just six double plays in 637 plate appearances, less than Tampa Bay speedsters B.J. Upton (13), Carl Crawford (10), and Jason Bartlett (10).

While Game Five is in the past, the major question it raised has followed the Rays to Tampa Bay: Can the young squad overcome such a traumatic defeat, or is this a case where concepts like chemistry and momentum perhaps enter into the equation? The sparse past playoff results following losses of approximately similar magnitude do not bode well for the AL East Champs. In that '29 Fall Classic, Chicago took a 2-0 lead to the bottom of the ninth in Game Five, but there the Cubs suffered agony once again, because with one out Max Bishop singled and Mule Haas homered to tie it up, before doubles from Al Simmons and Bing Miller plated the series winner for the A's. The Cubs were faced with even greater heartbreak in Game Six of the 2003 NLCS, and again took the lead in the next contest, this time a 5-3 advantage heading into the fifth, before the Marlins stormed back to capture the flag. Moving to Red Sox history, the year 1986 inevitably surfaces. After losing a 5-2 ninth-inning lead and the chance to take the pennant in ALCS Game Five, the Angels struck twice in the first inning of Game Six, but were outscored 18-3 from that point until the end of Game Seven. And in Game Seven of the '86 Series, the Sox actually led 3-0 heading to the bottom of the sixth before the Mets came back once more for an 8-5 win.

Three of those four teams were playing on the road in the game(s) following their wrenching loss, however (the 2003 Cubs being the exception), while the Rays get to do battle in the comfort of their domed home, where Tampa Bay is a combined 60-25 this season, a .706 winning percentage. Perhaps the Rays can also draw confidence from the experience of their sister expansion franchise, the Diamondbacks. In both Game Four and Game Five of the 2001 World Series, Arizona held a two-run lead over New York heading to the bottom of the ninth at Yankee Stadium, with the D'backs' win expectancy having reached 95 percent in each scenario, but Byung-Hyun Kim allowed two game-tying home runs-to Tino Martinez the first time, and Scott Brosius the second-that led to extra-inning losses. It's hard to think of a more momentum-shifting, morale-busting set of back-to-back defeats, yet the Snakes returned home and famously trumped "mystique and aura" by taking the last two games behind the pitching of co-aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.

While Shields is not quite a Johnson or a Schilling, he is the Rays' top starter this season, and therefore Tampa Bay is certainly hoping tonight that momentum is indeed only as good as the next game's starter. The Sox, conversely, have little idea how good their starter is at this moment. Beckett has given up 12 runs in 9 1/3 innings over his two post-season starts, including five home runs, a dramatic reversal of his past post-season work and likely a result of the oblique strain and/or elbow trouble he has suffered over the past two months. The radar gun could prove to be a key indicator of how the game will go early on, for Beckett's normally crisp velocity has been down several ticks this October: according to Inside Edge scouting, he averaged 93.9 mph on the fastball this regular season, and 95.3 in last year's playoffs, but just 91.7 in his previous two outings. Beckett's biggest challenge will likely be Evan Longoria, who with six home runs this postseason is one away from the AL record (along with Upton), and who is 6-for-15 with a pair of long balls against Beckett on the year.

Thanks to William Burke and Clay Davenport for research assistance.

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

Related Content:  Tampa Bay Rays,  The Who,  Tampa Bay

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