The Red Sox defeated the Yankees, 6-2, in front of an electric crowd at Fenway on Tuesday evening and jetted south for their American League Division Series matchup against the Rays, which begins Thursday.
It’s a quick turnaround, but one the Red Sox invite. They were 8-11 against Tampa Bay this year, but the postseason is a different beast, and in a five-game series anything can happen.
Here is how these two teams match up:
Game 1: Eduardo Rodriguez was named the Red Sox starter vs. the Rays’ Shane McClanahan on Thursday. The numbers in Rodriguez’s first year back after missing all of 2020 because of COVID-19/myocarditis weren’t easy on the eyes of Red Sox fans. The lefthander registered a 4.74 ERA in 32 games (31 starts).
Within those struggles came some misfortune. Rodriguez induced a lot of weak contact earlier in the year that ultimately turned into hits. Nevertheless, he still wasn’t the Rodriguez who became the linchpin to a 2019 rotation that had injury woes and underperformed. Yet there were times when you saw glimpses of Rodriguez from two seasons ago, and his last start at Tropicana Field at the end of August was arguably his best of the season. With the season, in some fashion, hanging in the balance, Rodriguez delivered six scoreless innings.
He’s drawn his highest whiff rate ever on his four-seam fastball this year, at 31.9 percent. Yet opponents also have a career-high .297 batting average against it, which tells you just how inconsistent — and, frankly, odd — this season has been for him. He’s struggled to locate down the stretch, yielding eight walks his last five games.
Rodriguez’s changeup, a pitch that was a plus for him, has been average at best, generating a .263 batting average. He’s worked on slowing it down.
The Red Sox have seen McClanahan three times this season and got the best of him Sept. 2, tagging the lefthander for four earned runs over five innings despite McClanahan racking up eight strikeouts. Like all the Rays pitchers, McClanahan features an upper-90s four-seam fastball, but hitters can get to that as indicated by its .301 opponent batting average.
Where he separates himself is with his dominant slider (.198, 39.9 pct. whiff rate) and curveball (.202, 41.9). It’s helped him put together a 2.81 ERA in those three outings against the Sox.
Game 2: The Red Sox could go Nick Pivetta or Chris Sale on Friday, but they should lean toward Sale. Pivetta has a 5.87 ERA over his last eight games (seven starts), and didn’t pitch well during his last outing at Tropicana Field on Aug. 30, yielding four runs over five innings. Sale, though, delivered six innings of two-run ball two nights later in a must-win game.
Sale has 52 strikeouts in his 42⅔ innings pitched this year. He’s accepted he has to be a different pitcher since returning from Tommy John surgery, relying more on finesse than power at times. An uncharacteristic start against the Nationals last week, in which he lasted just 2⅓ innings before Alex Cora went to his bullpen, suggested maybe Sale is beginning to reach his threshold for the year. Yet the Sox have been prudent in bringing Sale back gradually, for moments like this. Now is when they would likely unleash him.
The Sox will likely face the Rays’ top-tier prospect and rookie, Shane Baz, for the first time Friday. Baz made three starts after debuting in late September. He struck out 18 batters in 13⅓ innings, to the tune of a 2.03 ERA. He features a four-seamer which averaged 97 miles per hour, in addition to a slider, curveball, and changeup. Opponents batted just .077 against his slider.
The status and health of J.D. Martinez is still up in the air, and high-octane flamethrowers coupled with playing on turf could be an issue for Martinez’s bad ankle. Cora said that in Martinez’s absence he would be the best assistant hitting coach on the team, and the Sox should be prepared.
Certainly the Rays have quality starters, but what makes them special is their stable of relievers, all of whom seem to throw 95-plus. The Rays rely on them heavily, too. Their relievers threw 703 innings this year, the most in baseball. Is that heavy use sustainable during a series? The Rays did it last year, but that was over a 60-game season. The wear and tear is different.
The Sox hunt fastballs early and often in the count, and have guys such as Kyle Schwarber who have proved they can handle velocity. It’ll be a puzzle for the Sox to solve this bunch, but theyhave a well-balanced approach at the plate when they are on.
Consider Tuesday’s Wild Card Game. Xander Bogaerts belted a two-run homer off Gerrit Cole in the first. Then, Schwarber hit a tape-measure shot off Cole in the third. The next three runs came from Alex Verdugo, who delivered an RBI double and two-run single. When the Red Sox control the strike zone, they, too, are a tough group to beat.
The Rays’ offense strikes out a lot, their 24.8-percent strikeout rate tied for the fourth highest in baseball, but will wear an opponent down with their seventh-ranked (9.4 percent) walk rate. At the deadline they added a seasoned hitter and veteran to their lineup in Nelson Cruz, who has helped to stabilize that lineup and contribute 13 home runs to Tampa’s 222 for the season, which ranked sixth in the majors.
The Sox made 108 errors this year, the second most in baseball. The Rays made just 80. If the Red Sox want to hang with the Rays, they’ll have to limit the mistakes on both defense and the bases.
The Rays pay close attention to detail, something Cora preached to his bunch in the beginning of the year. They’ll need to take heed to those details in this series.