Matchup: Red Sox (95-67) at Rays (97-65), 8:07 p.m. ET, TBS
Probable Starters: Josh Beckett (174
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: Red Sox, 72.0%
Prospectus: During the regular season, Tampa Bay was 8-0 against Boston in games decided by one or two runs, and the home team in the series won 15 of the 18 games. The Red Sox bucked both of those trends in yesterday’s 2-0 decision under the catwalks, starting off this ALCS battle between the two best teams in baseball (per third-order winning percentage) with a tense and well-pitched victory.
Daisuke Matsuzaka took a no-hitter into the seventh, then gave way to countryman Hideki Okajima with two on and none out in the eighth. Okajima promptly ran the count to 3-0 on Carlos Pena, but the turning point of the game came when Pena was given a green light to swing away. Tampa Bay’s leading slugger put a 3-0 pitch in play on just two occasions during the regular season, leaving the yard on one of them, but it didn’t work out this time, as he flied out to shallow right. Okajima didn’t put out many fires early this year, letting 12 out of 15 inherited runners score in the first three months of the season, and even suggested (perhaps with tongue in cheek) that he was not comfortable pitching with runners on base-this after stranding 24 out of 28 in 2007. The lefty allowed just one of 10 inherited runners to come around from July onward, however, and will be relied upon to continue that strong work against a Rays team that struggles to hit lefties, as Christina Kahrl pointed out in the series preview. After Okajima retired his man, Justin Masterson did the same by using his sinking two-seamer to get a key double-play grounder from Evan Longoria, the 17th twin killing that Masterson has generated in only 93 innings this year, and Jonathan Papelbon then closed things out with a clean ninth inning. Papelbon has made like Mariano Rivera in the playoffs, for he has yet to allow a run in 20
Tampa Bay sports the ninth-youngest rotation in playoff history, and the youngest member of that four-man crew is the 24-year-old Kazmir, who is already extremely familiar with the Red Sox, having faced them far more often than any other team over the course of his five-year major league career (21 starts; his most against any other team is 13 versus Baltimore). Before this season, that familiarity led to recurring nightmares for Boston bats, as the flame-throwing lefty killed the Red Sox from his rookie campaign through 2007, with a 3.11 RA and 118 strikeouts in just over 100 innings. This year, however, Kazmir gave up 19 runs in 18 innings over his four starts against the Sox, capped off by a three-inning, nine-run debacle at the Trop on September 15, which by Game Score (9) was the worst performance of his career.
Kazmir allowed four home runs in that outing, including one to David Ortiz, which was the first and only homer hit by a left-handed batter off of Kazmir all season. Lefties, in fact, hit just .198 with a 514 OPS in 140 plate appearances off him this year, numbers that are not far under his career rates. That means that the switch-hitting Coco Crisp, who was at the center of the imbroglio between these two clubs earlier in the year, will likely get a turn in center field in place of Jacoby Ellsbury; either that or Terry Francona will opt to give J.D. Drew‘s back a rest. The Sox are stuck with a left-handed hitter at first base-either Mark Kotsay or Sean Casey-as the right-handed bats left on the bench are the backup catchers Kevin Cash and David Ross, neither of whom has ever played first base in the majors. As mentioned in the preview, the bench is a considerable area of advantage for Tampa Bay, which boasts a bona fide starter in Rocco Baldelli and three switch hitters, including stealth weapon Ben Zobrist, who has yet to be deployed this October.
Entering that September 15 start against the Sox, Kazmir had never given up more than three homers in an outing, but he then allowed four in two of three starts to close the regular season, getting pounded by the Tigers as well. He rebounded to keep the homer-happy White Sox grounded in winning Game Two of the ALDS, though his line from that game was not particularly impressive. Tonight Kazmir will be going up against a fellow Texan from the Houston area and fellow first-round draft pick in Beckett, who also comes into this start with some recent ineffectiveness to overcome. Beckett was very shaky in his ALDS start, giving up four runs on four walks and a pair of homers in five innings versus the Angels. That was Beckett’s first start since suffering an oblique strain while getting ready for the postseason, and his first start in 13 days, so some rust may have also played a part in the performance. Beckett did dominate the Rays during the regular season, throwing 35 innings of 2.31 RA ball against them, with a phenomenal 37/5 K/BB ratio.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.