The Boston Red Sox aren’t supposed to beat the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Division Series.
But they will.
After all, the Red Sox weren’t supposed to be any good this season after a disastrous 2020 in which they finished in last place in the AL East. They weren’t supposed to win 90 games. They weren’t supposed to reach the postseason. And they weren’t supposed to take down the New York Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game.
Yet, here we are, with Boston still alive and facing its next playoff challenge.
Of course, the best-of-five ALDS marks the Red Sox’s toughest test of 2021 — COVID-19 outbreak notwithstanding — and the Rays are expected to take care of business, much like they did while winning 11 of the teams’ 19 head-to-head matchups during the regular season. Boston’s odds to win the series (+145 at DraftKings Sportsbook) are the steepest of any of the four LDS matchups. Tampa Bay (-170) is the heaviest favorite.
But that’s why they play the games, right? And while the Red Sox will need to be near-flawless to upset their division rivals, they absolutely have what it takes to continue this magic carpet ride.
Alas, here are four reasons why Boston will prevail and advance to the AL Championship Series to face either the Houston Astros or the Chicago White Sox.
1. The Red Sox’s rotation is set up well.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora announced Wednesday that Eduardo Rodriguez will start Game 1 on Thursday at Tropicana Field, with Chris Sale likely to take the ball in Game 2. Nathan Eovaldi, who was excellent in the Red Sox’s wild-card win over the Yankees, presumably will start Game 3 when the series shifts to Fenway Park.
Eovaldi has been Boston’s most consistent starter this season, so you’d obviously like to have him on the mound as much as possible. Hope hardly is lost with the current rotation alignment, however, which actually might benefit the Red Sox.
Rodriguez made four starts against the Rays this season — two at Fenway Park and two at Tropicana Field — and he fared better on the road, highlighted by six scoreless innings with six strikeouts in St. Petersburg on Sept. 2.
Sale, meanwhile, has had plenty of success at Tropicana Field over the years. His 2.09 ERA in 12 career appearances (11 starts; 77 2/3 innings) at The Trop is third-best among the 18 ballparks in which he’s pitched at least 10 innings. His 0.84 WHIP is tops.
On the flip side, it’s worth noting Eovaldi, like Rodriguez, made four starts against the Rays this season. He tripped up in his lone outing in Tampa Bay but was dominant in Boston, twirling three seven-inning performances against the Rays at Fenway Park. He went 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA and 0.71 WHIP in those three starts, during which he allowed just two runs on nine hits with 25 strikeouts over 21 innings.
2. The Red Sox’s offense is equipped for the challenge.
J.D. Martinez’s ankle injury stings. He’s obviously an integral piece of Boston’s lineup. But a logjam existed with everyone healthy, and the Red Sox therefore are positioned to withstand the potential loss of one of their best hitters. Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts are two fixtures who’ve been here with the Red Sox before. Kyle Schwarber and Kiké Hernández have showed out on the big stage with the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers, respectively. And all signs point toward Alex Verdugo being a clutch performer.
Looking for a little more nuance? Consider this: Rays pitchers have thrown sliders at the second-highest clip in Major League Baseball (27.2%), with their relievers being especially slider-happy and throwing the pitch at an MLB-high rate (35.2%). This has been an issue for the Red Sox at times, but Boston’s first-half vs. second-half splits suggest a necessary adjustment was made somewhere along the line.
The Red Sox ranked 25th in hard-hit rate against sliders (31.1%) before the All-Star break, per radar360. Since then, they rank fourth (36.4%).
Overall, against any type of pitch, the Red Sox rank first in hard-hit rate (43.6%) — defined by radar360 as the percentage of batted balls in play with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher — in the second half.
3. The Red Sox have cracked the Rays’ bullpen.
Kevin Cash’s pitcher usage is well documented. The Rays lean heavily on their bullpen — especially after trading Blake Snell over the offseason and subsequently losing ace Tyler Glasnow to Tommy John surgery — and the formula works. Tampa Bay’s ‘pen is among the best in baseball, ranking first in fWAR (7.9), first in FIP (3.59) and third in ERA (3.24).
But it’s not infallible, which the Red Sox know almost as much as anyone. Tampa Bay’s bullpen ERA against Boston this season is 4.39, its fifth-highest mark against any opponent. Rays relievers own a 1.42 WHIP against the Red Sox in 2021, their third-highest mark against any opponent.
Red Sox hitters have produced a 38.4% hard-hit rate against Rays relievers, per radar360. Only the Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins — two National League teams — own higher marks, and they’re obviously dealing with a much smaller sample size than Boston, which has faced Tampa Bay 19 times.
4. The Red Sox seem to embrace the underdog role.
It sure feels like this Red Sox team performs better as the hunter, rather than the hunted, and that’s exactly the situation they now find themselves in against a team that finished eight games above them in the standings.
The 2021 Red Sox overcame a season-opening sweep to the lowly Baltimore Orioles to eventually spend 85 days in first place. They overcame a coronavirus outbreak, which threatened to derail their season, as well as some rough patches that might have been related to that unfortunate health situation. It’s probably foolish to doubt them at this point, even when they seem overmatched.