ALDS preview: Breaking down Rays vs. Red Sox

There will be no surprises between these two teams.

With 19 games between them this season, the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays meet again with much higher stakes. This series marks the first time these American League East foes have played each other in the postseason since the Rays clinched their first World Series berth in 2008 by winning the AL Championship Series in seven games.

The Rays enter well-traveled after winning consecutive must-win games since Sunday – against the Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians. The Red Sox, meanwhile, clinched the AL East title Sept. 20 and the league’s best record Sept. 28.

Here’s a breakdown of this AL Division Series before Boston and Tampa Bay meet at 3:07 p.m. ET on Friday at Fenway Park.

1. Starting lineup

The Rays have enjoyed elite production from Evan Longoria at the right time. He went 1 for 4 in Wednesday’s wild-card victory over Cleveland, which extended his hitting streak to three games, a stretch that includes him hitting safely in seven of his last eight contests. He leads the Rays with 88 RBI, but James Loney (75 RBI) and Ben Zobrist (71 RBI) are threats to produce as well. Tampa Bay isn’t much of a power team — the Rays rank No. 11 in the majors in home runs with 165 — but Longoria leads his squad in homers with 32. Delmon Young hit his ninth postseason homer since 2011 on Wednesday, the most in the majors during that stretch.

The Red Sox
boast the majors’ most productive offense, scoring 853 runs, 57 more than the second-place team in the category (Detroit Tigers). David Ortiz leads Boston in homers (30) and RBI (103), and Mike Napoli has been a productive as well with 23 homers and 92 RBI; both figures rank second on the team. Ortiz leads the Red Sox with a .309 batting average, but Daniel Nava (.303) and Dustin Pedroia (.301) have been efficient. Boston leads the majors in on-base percentage at .349, so if scoring opportunities present themselves, there’s a good chance the Red Sox will capitalize.

EDGE: Red Sox

2. Rotation

The Rays will send left-handers Matt Moore and David Price to the mound in Games 1 and 2, respectively. Moore, named to his first All-Star team this season, is 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA. He made two starts against Boston this year and had success, going 2-0 with three runs and five hits allowed in 15 innings. Meanwhile, Price went the distance in the Rays’ wild-card tiebreaker victory over the Texas Rangers on Monday and is 10-8 with a 3.33 ERA. The reigning American League Cy Young Award winner is 2-2 with a 2.48 ERA in five starts against the Red Sox. Right-handers Chris Archer and Jeremy Hellickson could be available later in the series, in addition to right-hander Alex Cobb, who scattered eight hits in 6 2/3 scoreless innings of the wild-card victory at Cleveland on Wednesday.

The Red Sox will start left-hander Jon Lester and right-handers John Lackey and Clay Buchholz in Games 1 through 3, respectively. For the most part, the three have been hot lately: Lester has won his last three decisions, Lackey won two of four decisions in September and Buchholz has claimed three of his last four decisions since returning Sept. 10 from a neck strain that kept him out about three months. If the Rays win at least one game, they will see right-hander Jake Peavy in Game 4, who has lost just one of five decisions since being traded from the Chicago White Sox in July.  

EDGE: Red Sox

3. Bullpen

The Rays won’t have to worry about fatigue in the bullpen. Price and Cobb pitched a combined 15 2/3 innings Monday and Wednesday, which means only relievers Joel Peralta and Jake McGee, plus closer Fernando Rodney, received minimal use during the tiebreaker and wild-card games. All three have been shaky at times this season, but Rodney has converted his last seven save attempts. McGee, Peralta and Rodney are the heart of the Rays’ bullpen. But Alex Torres (1.71 ERA, 62 strikeouts, 58 innings) has established himself as a solid middle-relief option. Jamey Wright, an 18th-year player, provides a veteran presence.

The Red Sox have a dependable closer in Koji Uehara (1.09 ERA and 21 saves), but the bridge to reach him stands as one of their biggest questions. Craig Breslow, Brandon Workman, Junichi Tazawa and Franklin Morales have all had struggles of late. Right-hander Ryan Dempster has been moved to the bullpen as an attempt to reach Uehara easier, but there are still plenty of unknowns with this group. Likely, Tampa Bay’s hot bats will test them. Everyone in this bullpen must bend, not break.

EDGE: Rays

4. Bench

The Rays‘ two most visible bench presences are Sam Fuld and Sean Rodriguez. Fuld has hit .199 with two homers and 17 RBI this season. Meanwhile, Rodriguez has hit .246 with five homers and 23 RBI. Beyond those two, as Wednesday’s homer showed, the addition of Young has added to the Rays’ depth.

The Red Sox will go with five bench players this series. Those likely to be present include David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp, Xander Bogaerts and Quintin Berry. Gomes, in particular, has been a lift this season. The former Rays player has hit .247 with 13 homers and 52 RBI. He has hit .150 with one homer and six RBI against Tampa Bay this year.

EDGE: Red Sox

5. Intangibles

The Rays are road-tested, having flown from New York to Toronto to Texas to Cleveland and now Boston since Sept. 24. How will they handle this next obstacle? Will they be flat? Or will they still maintain an edge? They won three consecutive must-win games, dating back to Sunday in Toronto, to reach this point. Now they enter a scenario where a little more breathing room is excused against a familiar opponent. Their focus must stay sharp despite the many, many miles behind them.

The Red Sox went 12-7 against the Rays this season, so Boston knows Tampa Bay is beatable in a short series. Pitching will be key here, and Boston has to like its chances with Lester, Lackey and Buchholz scheduled to take the mound in the first three games. Boston has beaten Price this season, but a victory over Moore has eluded the Red Sox so far. They have the offense to carry them to the ALDS, so pitching must come through.

EDGE: Even

Prediction

The Red Sox gave the Rays fits much of the season. It’s hard to see the dynamic between these AL East rivals changing now, even with Tampa Bay’s hot play of late. Don’t expect a sweep, but this Boston lineup is dangerous and built to last. The first two games will be crucial for the Rays. Tampa Bay must at least earn a split at Fenway Park to have hope of advancing. If Longoria keeps swinging a hot bat, and others such as Loney, Zobrist and Wil Myers contribute, this could go five games.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.