Red Sox-Rays ALDS Preview: David Price, Matt Moore Have Potential to Make Life Difficult for Boston

John Farrell, Joe MaddonSorry, Tito. But it just wasn’t meant to be.

Joe Maddon’s Rays toppled Terry Francona’s Indians in the American League wild-card game Wednesday to earn an ALDS date with John Farrell’s Red Sox. The Rays and Red Sox will kick off their ALDS matchup on Friday at Fenway Park, and in some ways, it makes sense that it’s these two teams going to battle rather than Boston and Cleveland.

A Red Sox-Indians series would have centered on Francona, who won two World Series titles during his very successful career in Boston. But a Red Sox-Rays series brings together two teams that have established a rivalry within the ultra-competitive AL East.

The Red Sox went 12-7 versus the Rays in 2013, but Tampa Bay controlled the head-to-head meetings from 2008-12. The Red Sox were just 39-49 against the Rays during that five-year stretch, with Boston’s last winning a season series in 2007, when Tampa Bay still had “Devil” attached to its name.

Obviously, things have been different in Boston this season. The Red Sox, who finished tied with the Cardinals for the best record in the majors, hold the American League’s top seed, and are considered by many to be the favorites to reach the World Series out of the AL.

Don’t tell that to the Rays, though. The Rays have already won two elimination games this season, and they’ve won 10 of their last 12 games overall. If Tampa Bay knocks off Boston, it would be an upset, but it wouldn’t be the most shocking thing ever, as these two teams are more evenly matched than their regular-season records indicate.

Let’s dive into the deep end, and see how the Red Sox and Rays stack up heading into their best-of-five ALDS.

Starting rotation

Here’s a look at the probable pitching matchups.

Game 1 at Boston: Jon Lester, LHP vs. Matt Moore, LHP

Game 2 at Boston: John Lackey, RHP vs. David Price, LHP

Game 3 at Tampa Bay: Clay Buchholz, RHP vs. Alex Cobb, RHP

Game 4 at Tampa Bay (if necessary): Jake Peavy, RHP vs. Chris Archer, RHP

Game 5 at Boston (if necessary): Lester vs. Moore/Price

The starting rotation is the Rays’ bread and butter. The offense actually kept Tampa Bay afloat at one point this season, but this is a team built on pitching, and we’ve already seen two big-time pitching performances from David Price and Alex Cobb in the Rays’ elimination games. The threat is there for the Rays to make life difficult for Boston, especially given their ability to roll out two left-handers in Games 1 and 2.

Red Sox fans don’t have to look far to see how dangerous the 1-2 punch of Price and Matt Moore can be. Price shut down the Red Sox twice in a five-game span at the end of July. He allowed one run on five hits in a complete-game effort on July 24, and then gave up one run on just two hits while tossing 7 1/3 innings on July 29. Moore pitched a complete-game, two-hit shutout in Boston on July 22, and also defeated the Red Sox at Tropicana Field back on May 14. The common denominator in those performances was each southpaw’s ability to pound the strike zone against the Red Sox’ patient lineup.

If Price or Moore can steal a game in Boston, it’ll put the Rays into a good position. Cobb, who went 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA overall, is unbeaten (7-0 with, 2.81 ERA) in 13 home starts this season, and Chris Archer is slightly better at home than on the road.

The Red Sox’ rotation is also strong despite some hiccups throughout the course of the year. Jon Lester is in a good place, John Lackey will have the luxury of pitching Game 2 at Fenway (where he’s been solid this season), Clay Buchholz is finally back healthy and has had success pitching in Tampa Bay in his career (4-3, 2.26 ERA in nine starts), and Jake Peavy is a veteran with something to prove.

That being said, the Rays hold a slight edge when it comes to rotation arms. Price is an ace, and Moore could be tough on the Sox, too.

Advantage: Rays

Bullpen

Here’s a look at each team’s projected bullpen.

Red Sox: Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, Brandon Workman, Ryan Dempster, Franklin Morales, Felix Doubront/Matt Thornton

Rays: Fernando Rodney, Joel Peralta, Jamey Wright, Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Torres, Jake McGee, Wesley Wright

The Red Sox have the best reliever on either side in Koji Uehara, and he’s much more reliable than Rays closer Fernando Rodney. The problem is that the Rays’ bridge to Rodney looks more stable than the Red Sox’ bridge to Uehara right now.

The Rays’ bullpen has some tough lefties in Alex Torres, Jake McGee and Wesley Wright. That could allow for some matchup advantages in favor of Tampa Bay.

Craig Breslow has been reliable, and we should expect more of the same. But the Red Sox absolutely need Junichi Tazawa to return to his early-season form, and Brandon Workman will need to show the poise that Farrell is always quick to point out when talking about the rookie.

Advantage: Rays

Offense

This series will ultimately boil down to the Rays’ ability or inability to tame the Red Sox’ offense.

Price and Moore are among the few who have shut down Boston’s offensive attack this season, and they’ve done so through aggressively pounding the strike zone. The Red Sox’ offense, of course, is built on a patient approach and generating baserunners, and it’s hard to be patient or generate too many baserunners when the opposing pitcher is consistently getting ahead in the count.

The Red Sox will still be patient at the plate, but they’ll also need to adapt to the opposing pitcher. If they can adapt appropriately, the Red Sox’ offense could neutralize the Rays’ starting pitching and get into the bullpen earlier than Tampa Bay would like.

The Red Sox were first in runs (863), on-base percentage (.349) and slugging percentage (.446), and second in average (.277). The Rays were 11th in runs (700), fourth in on-base percentage (.328), 10th in slugging percentage (.408) and 12th in average (.257).

Advantage: Red Sox

Bench

The Red Sox have arguably the best bench in baseball. The unit has been productive, consistent and clutch. Farrell loves to use all of his position players, and this series will be no different.

No disrespect to the Rays’ bench, but the Red Sox have the clear advantage in this area despite Maddon’s willingness to deploy all of his position players as well.

Advantage: Red Sox

Defense

This series is going to be a chess match in terms of defensive alignments, as both teams are more than willing to employ drastic shifts. The metrics say, however, that the Rays are the stronger defensive team, mainly because of their infield, which is spearheaded by Gold Glove third baseman Evan Longoria. The Red Sox’ outfield defense is better, but keep in mind the health statuses of both Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino.

For what it’s worth, the Rays finished second in the American League with a .990 fielding percentage (59 errors in 163 games). The Red Sox finished sixth in the AL with a .987 fielding percentage (80 errors in 162 games).

Advantage: Rays

Manager

Both skippers have done a tremendous job this season. Joe Maddon is the more proven manager, but John Farrell has his team focused and primed for postseason success.

For now, Maddon gets the nod, simply because there are still some questions regarding Farrell’s in-game managing, which could become an issue in a series heavily based on matchups.

Advantage: Rays

Prediction

Red Sox in five.

The Rays have the right formula to pull off an upset, which is exactly why the Indians would have been a more favorable matchup for Boston. At the end of the day, though, the Red Sox have proven this season that it’s downright stupid to bet against them. So I won’t.

Have a question for Ricky Doyle? Send it to him via Twitter at @TheRickyDoyle or send it here.

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