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October 10, 2008

Preview: The American League Championship Series

October is here, also known as the time of year you can’t help but feel bad for Cubs fans. It almost seemed unfair to them that this team was burdened with top notch starting pitching, a strong middle of the lineup, depth in the bullpen, a rabid, hungry fan base and history on their side. I mean they can’t lose forever, right? Statistically, they were due! And this was the best team they’ve had in decades! Yet, it’s like they didn’t even show up to play in Chicago or Los Angeles. What was I thinking predicting them WS champs? They haven’t won a playoff game in five years!

Compound this with my bitterness with the results of the Yankees season and the very real possibility that Boston is the best team in baseball again and it’s been a rough year. Luckily the Rays and Red Sox will meet in what should go down as one of the most fascinating ALCS series of recent memory. The Phillies, despite weak starting pitching rivaling that of a T-Ball team (think about it), and a shaky bottom of the order, takes on Manny Ramirez, who I theorize is an idiot savant, and whoever else plays on the Dodgers. Not nearly as much pizzazz there so we'll just stick to the mouth-watering ALCS.

But before I do that, I'd like to get something out of the way. I've lived in Burlington now for four years as an unapologetic Yankee fan. I try to ignore arguing with the Boston fans as much as possible. It's useless. To have a reasonable, fact-filled discussion or debate is often an insurmountable challenge to them. And don't get me wrong, Yankee fans are often no better. Throwing D Batteries at opposing teams and fans is a sure-fire way to make yourself look like an asshole. So let's get to the crux of it — arguments like "Yankees Suck," "Yankees F***ing Suck," and my favorite, "F***ing Yankees Yahh Suck," are hard to take.

Let's be objective. Each team, and each team's fan base, have their flaws. Red Sox Nation, which comprises of many bandwagon fans, faces the same problems as the Evil Empire's. Neither team sucks. Boston has been the class of baseball this decade and the Yankees the decade before that. They spend tons of money, bring in loads of revenue, have some of baseball's best and most marketable players, strong farm systems, teams in the playoffs every (almost every, I concede) year, have storied histories and die-hard fan bases. With that said, let's be civil.

Here is my preview of the ALCS:

Boston Red Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Good news for the Rays — they’re playing at home where starting pitcher James Shields is 9-2 with an ERA at 2.59. He hasn’t pitched as well against Boston, where he has a 5.80 ERA. On the plus, he’s more of a workhorse than Dice-K, who matches up with him in Game 1. If he can go deep into the game, pitching well, the Rays should be able to knock around DelCarmen, Lopez, Timlin and Masterson in middle relief. Matsuzaka threw a lot of pitches and didn’t go deep into games. He’s been injured a lot recently, as well, a troubling sign for Sox fans, who I continue to hate listening to.

Game 2 is a classic matchup of power pitchers with Scott Kazmir pitching for the Rays and Josh Beckett for the Sox. Kazmir is one of the best pitchers in baseball and can throw fastballs right through the swings of the Sox. With Beckett recovering from injury, this is one of the better matchups for the Rays.

The Rays also have the advantage of understanding the dimensions of Tropicana Field, possibly the strangest and ugliest stadium in the game. They field extremely well there, are unbelievably athletic, and have tremendous confidence under manager Joe Madden, who still denies he is a member of Good Charlotte. Their speed plays well to the turf and they can play small ball with the best of them, despite not hitting for great average. Timely hitting late in the game and an improved bullpen should make this a pretty even matchup against the Sox. Evan Longoria, BJ Upton, Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford are all capable of changing the game with a wide range of skills.

Bad news for the Rays — they’re playing Boston and Dice-K. Matsuzaka has pitched brilliantly this year, though he didn’t look spectacular against the Angels. Beckett didn’t either. But Dice-K pitched well against the Rays with an ERA of 3.00, a real cause for concern. Tampa Bay strikes out a lot and Dice-K is very capable of notching K’s and Beckett is widely regarded as a fantastic strikeout pitcher, even at 90%. Boston’s offense is much more powerful from top to bottom, and more consistent, as well. If Boston’s starting pitching goes deep into the game and hands it off to Papelbon, it’s over.

The only shot the rays have is knocking the starting pitching early and getting to the vulnerable middle relief of the Sox. The bullpen of the Rays, though improved, does not exactly terrify opposing teams. They need great starting pitching and timely hitting. They can’t outslug the Sox if Ortitz, Bay, Pedroia and Youkilis show up, so if they get into a hole early, small-ball just won’t do it. They can’t fall behind.

Don’t make the mistake — The Rays are a talented young team that should be contending in the rigorous AL East for a long time. It’s no fluke. They’re good, play with energy, and have nothing to lose since no one expected them to be even near the Sox and Yankees. In the years to come this team should be incredibly talented as their farm system talent and young MLB talent develops but right now, the Sox have better starting pitching, a better closer, more power, more experience and a more consistent lineup. Their defense isn’t great and they’ve been really hurt with injuries. If Beckett isn’t sharp or recovered, Dice-K gets knocked around and exits early, it could get ugly very quickly. Spare Crisp and Ellsbury, they’re pretty slow and they’re vulnerable in the bullpen so this will be a very exiting beginning to the series.

There are tons of variables that could determine the outcome of the series and the first two games should really set the tone of what’s to come. One to look out for: Don’t underestimate the impact of the Red Sox loss of Manny Ramirez. Yes, Jason Bay has played very well. He is NOT Manny Ramirez, both a blessing and a curse. How could you not enjoy Manny? Picture this: another brawl breaks out between the two teams. Who wins it? Manny, as unpredictable as they come, might be reading Buddhist philosophy at the time or he may be trying to suffocate members of the Rays under the Tarmac rain cover. People are scared of the unknown and Manny represents that better than anyone. Advantage-Rays. You can catch Friday’s game at 8:30 P.M. and Saturday’s at 8 P.M.

Prediction: Red Sox win Game 1
                 Rays win Game 2


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