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October 19, 2008

Prospectus Preview

ALCS Game Seven

by Caleb Peiffer

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Matchup: Red Sox (95-67) at Rays (97-65), 8:07 p.m. ET, TBS
Probable Starters: Jon Lester (210 1/3 IP, 3.34 RA, 1.27 WHIP, 152 K) vs. Matt Garza (184 2/3, 4.05, 1.24, 128)
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: Boston, 55.6% (Tied 3-3)
Prospectus: With two outs and a seven-run deficit in the bottom of the seventh inning Thursday night, the odds that Boston would go on to win the series were around two-tenths of one percent, or one in 500, according to Clay Davenport's calculation (0.7 percent chance to win the game times a 27.5 percent chance to win both of the next two). Now, after the huge comeback in Game Five and last night's 4-2 victory, those chances are actually better than one in two, with an essentially toss-up Game Seven to decide whether the upstart Rays will knock off the resident bully and complete their fantastic breakthrough season with a pennant, or Boston will advance to its third World Series in five seasons. With the victory in Game Six, the Red Sox improved to 9-0 in ALCS elimination games under Terry Francona, and 26-11 in elimination games all-time.

The Rays, if history is any guide, are now living on a thin line. There have been 14 teams to force a Game Seven after falling behind 3-1 throughout major league post-season history. Eleven of those 14 teams won the deciding game, including six out of the seven that had to play a Game Seven on the road: the Yankees over the Braves at County Stadium in '58, Tigers over Cardinals at Busch Stadium in '68, Pirates over Orioles at Memorial Stadium in '79, Royals over Blue Jays at Exhibition Stadium in '85, Marlins over Cubs at Wrigley Field in '03, and Red Sox over Yankees at Yankee Stadium in '04. The one road team to lose a Game Seven after taking the previous two was the 1992 Pirates, who entered the bottom of the ninth inning at Fulton County Stadium up 2-0, only to be victimized by a three-run Braves outburst, the last two coming on Francisco Cabrera's two-run pinch-hit single that scored Sid Bream with the game-winner ahead of Barry Bonds' throw from left.

While their recent history of storming back in the ALCS is daunting, the Red Sox have seen one of their post-season comebacks from down 3-1 fall short: that was in 1967, when the "Impossible Dream" team dropped the final game of the Series to Bob Gibson and the Cardinals at Fenway Park. (The other comeback bid that was not converted in Game Seven was that of the 1972 Reds, who fell 3-2 at home to Catfish Hunter and the A's. There is also the asterisked 1912 Fall Classic-Game Two between the Red Sox and Giants ended in a 6-6 tie, and after New York came back from down three games to one to take the next two, the series had to be extended beyond the usual seven-game format; back then, apparently, the two most magical words in the sports lexicon were "Game Eight," which the Sox won at Fenway 3-2 when Joe Wood out-dueled Christy Mathewson.) Besides the 1986 and 2007 Red Sox, the other teams to complete comebacks in Game Seven while at home were the 1925 Pirates (over the Senators), 1985 Royals (over the Cardinals), and 1996 Braves (also over the Cardinals).

With the Rays now in a do-or-die situation, they need all the help they can get from their blue-mohawked, cowbell-ringing faithful, and they made a wise decision in finally removing the tarps that covered the upper-deck seats at Tropicana Field. Those tarps was originally added prior to the 2007 season, reducing the Trop's capacity from 43,700 to 36,048. That obviously was a measure intended to address the weak demand for tickets to see the perennial 90-game losers play in their gloomy dome. But with this year's amazing run to the pennant, the good folks of St. Pete are out to support their young squad. With the tarps still in place, the Rays drew upwards of 34,900 in each of their first four home playoff games, over 12,000 more than the team's regular-season average. Tampa Bay originally announced that it would not remove the tarps for the playoffs, with a team official stating that "the building operates well at the current capacity... the seats beneath the tarps don't provide the experience we expect to deliver to our fans." The team relented in preparation for yesterday's game, however, putting 5,762 more seats in play, and the Rays packed in 40,947 to watch Game Six, the largest crowd since the home opener in 2006. A similarly numerous group should be on hand tonight, making enough noise to help the Trop live up to its former name.

Jon Lester won't have experienced pitching in front of such a large crowd in Tampa Bay before, for his only two career starts at Tropicana Field came last season, when the Devil Rays were averaging 17,131 fans per game, worst in the American League. Lester was roughed up by the Rays in Game Three at Fenway Park, giving up five runs on eight hits in 5 2/3 innings, a result that was surprising given the Rays' regular-season struggles against left-handed pitching and Lester's burgeoning résumé of playoff dominance. Now he will get another shot at matching up against Garza, who pitched six shutout innings to beat him on Monday, and pitching to B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria, both of whom crushed home runs over the Green Monster against him in Tampa Bay's 9-1 win. With one more homer, Upton would set a new American League record for the postseason, which he currently shares with Troy Glaus of the 2002 Angels, and would tie the overall record of eight set by Barry Bonds in '02 and Carlos Beltran in '04. Another long ball would also allow Upton to break the mark for most RBI in the ALCS, as yesterday he matched the 11 that David Ortiz knocked in during Boston's 2004 win over the Yankees.

Thanks to 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

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