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October 14, 2008

Prospectus Preview

ALCS Game Four

by Caleb Peiffer

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Matchup: Rays (97-65) at Red Sox (95-67), 8:07 p.m. ET, TBS
Probable Starters: Andy Sonnanstine (193 1/3 IP, 4.89 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 124 K) vs. Tim Wakefield (181, 4.43, 1.18, 117)
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, 68.0% (Up 2-1)
Prospectus: B.J. Upton has chosen a dramatic time to bust out with the greatest stretch of power hitting in his career. After seeing his home-run total fall from 24 last season to nine this year in nearly 100 more plate appearances, Upton has now launched five in Tampa Bay's seven playoff games, the latest a mammoth three-run job off Jon Lester yesterday that shot right over the Green Monster, out of the park, and down onto Lansdowne Street. The blast gave the Rays a 4-0 lead in the third inning and essentially ended the game-Tampa Bay, thanks mostly to its remarkable bullpen turnaround (from worst to first in WXRL), did not lose a game in which it had an advantage of four or more runs in any game all season long, one of just two teams (along with the Dodgers) to be so stingy.

With at least three games remaining for the Rays (and possibly as many as 11), Upton has a shot at the record for home runs in a single postseason, set at eight by both Barry Bonds in 2002 and Carlos Beltran in 2004. Eleven players in all have hit six or more long balls in one October. Among American Leaguers, Upton trails only Troy Glaus (seven for the 2002 Angels), Jim Thome (six for the 1998 Indians), Bernie Williams (six for the 1996 Yankees), and Ken Griffey Jr. (six for the 1995 Mariners). Upton and his mates have hit seven home runs in the last two games, a greater total than they tallied during all but one pair of back-to-back games during the entire regular season, and one more than the Red Sox allowed in any two consecutive games all year.

Edwin Jackson tied for the Rays' lead in victories this season with 14, yet he was the least effective of Tampa Bay's five starters, and consequently was left off of the team's ALDS roster. Jackson was added to the fold as a seventh reliever for the longer League Championship Series, and got his first post-season action last night, throwing a one-two-three ninth inning. In a recent chat, BP's Kevin Goldstein postulated that Jackson could be the Rays' closer of the future, and it was not hard to see why during yesterday's outing: Jackson threw 14 pitches, all of them fastballs, and all of them between 95 and 99 mph, according to MLB.com's Gameday, with an average speed of 97. As a starter this season, Jackson averaged 94 mph on the heater, so without having to conserve bullets for later innings, he was clearly able to open up the throttle in yesterday's short outing, showcasing the ability that could turn him into a dominant late-game pitcher.

Jackson was passed over in the playoff rotation for today's starter, Sonnanstine, perhaps because of how each pitcher fared against the Red Sox this season. While Jackson could not stymie Boston's deadly offense, Sonnanstine held Boston without an earned run in 13 innings across two starts. Both of his outings against Boston came last month, including a seven-inning, four-hit, no-walk, seven-strikeout performance at Fenway on September 10. One shouldn't read too much into a pair of games, especially since Sonnanstine was hammered for 20 runs in 20 1/3 innings by the Sox in 2007. With a 2-1 series lead, however, the Rays can afford to gamble that their soft-tossing right-hander will continue to hold the Sox at bay, rather than make another gamble to bring back ace James Shields on short rest for the first time in his career. Even should they lose tonight, the Rays will have their best three pitchers set to go in a best-of-three situation.

The Red Sox meanwhile turn to their own soft-tossing right-hander in order to keep from putting themselves in the same difficult position they were in during last year's ALCS. Wakefield was perhaps the most capable hunter of the Devil Ray, and Boston's ancient mariner helped push the sluggish fish to near-extinction, but the poor creature's evolution has created a new breed of Rays not as susceptible to the wiles of his well-honed craft. From 1998-2007, the resident knuckleballer of the Sox was 19-3 with a 3.12 ERA versus Tampa Bay, more victories than he has against any other squad. The wave of talented young players wearing the new uniform of the Rays has hung two losses on Wakefield this year, however, scoring 12 runs against him in 15 1/3 innings over three starts. Two of the team's young switch-hitters, 25-year-olds Willy Aybar and Fernando Perez, homered off Wakefield in their only career at-bat against him in a game on September 17. Wakefield will be looking to move beyond some poor October performances in recent years; in Boston's last three postseasons, he has allowed 21 runs in 21 innings.

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

Related Content:  Tampa Bay Rays,  Tampa Bay

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