After 162 games – 163 for an energized Tampa Bay squad – one game in Cleveland this evening will determine which 92-win squad will travel to Boston for an opportunity to extend its season.
The Red Sox tied the Cardinals for Major League Baseball’s best record this year at 97-65, comfortably winning their season-series against both the Rays (12-7) and Indians (6-1). The Sox should beat either team in a best-of-five series, and I believe they will. However, neither matchup will be easy, begging the question, which is more favorable?
Talking with reporters on Tuesday, Red Sox manager John Farrell was asked to discuss the success of the Tribe under fellow manager of the year contender and long-time Sox skipper, Terry Francona. Adding a wrinkle to the story, Farrell was selected by Cleveland in the second round of the 1984 draft, and he went on to spend five of his eight big league seasons calling Ohio home.
Farrell waxed poetic about the team’s Red Sox-like turnaround after a lousy 68-win campaign in 2012 and acknowledged such a meeting would feature a number of story lines. Then, the simplest of phrases…
“Hopefully we’ve got a chance to meet up.”
While it’s possible, even likely, that the Boston boss was suggesting nothing more than, “This would be a treat for me, fun for Tito, and make all of your jobs simple,” to the media, he was also revealing a glimpse into his team’s reality.
For the Red Sox to advance to the league championship round, the Indians offer the preferred road.
At this stage, pitching is paramount. Starting pitching often reigns supreme.
While the Sox are mighty deep in their rotation, from Jon Lester – arguably the game’s best pitcher in the second-half – to John Lackey and his Fenway dominance, to Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy, few clubs can boast such a foursome.
The Rays, winners of 9 of 11, are one of those teams.
Shutdown lefties Matt Moore and David Price along with young studs Alex Cobb and Chris Archer combined to go 47-22 with a 3.16 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 99 starts this year. Tampa’s team ERA among its starting staff ranked 10th in baseball at 3.81 but the men responsible for that elevation, like Jeremy Hellickson or Roberto “Fausto Carmona” Hernandez, are no longer part of the equation.
By comparison, the Indians are led by Ubaldo Jimenez, the reincarnated Scott Kazmir, Zach McAllister, and Danny Salazar; they of a combined 34-21 mark with a 3.62 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in 95 trips to the mound. The numbers aren’t bad and Jimenez has been virtually unhittable of late with a 4-0 record and 1.09 ERA in six September starts, but not one of those names strikes fear in the way that Moore and Price do.
It should at least be acknowledged, though, that Cleveland’s ERA among starters was 2.83 in September, a big reason why it has been the hottest team in baseball with wins in 10 straight and 21 of 27.
Against the Red Sox, it’s another story entirely.
Moore and Price were largely in control when facing Boston in the regular season, which is why mixing in the struggles of Cobb and Archer still produced a 3.42 ERA and a sterling 1.04 WHIP in 13 starts by the quartet.
The rookie Salazar was the only member of the Indians to not face the Sox, and the other three did not fare well. In four starts, the group had a miserable 8.10 ERA with a robust 1.98 WHIP.
Starting pitching aside, the bullpens are comparable, the slight edge going to Tampa for the season and more recent success belonging to Cleveland. Both sets of relief corps have had their troubles.
The Indians, like the Red Sox, have lived dangerously with a number of comeback wins following blown saves. In all, the Tribe has converted on just 63 percent of its save opportunities, with 22 chances squandered. Only recently was the team’s season-long closer, Chris Perez, replaced by one-time ace Justin Masterson, who has struck out seven batters and allowed one hit in 3 2/3 innings of relief.
The Rays have been successful in 70 percent of their save situations but Fernando Rodney, with eight blown chances, is showing far more pedestrian results than in his scintillating 2012 effort.
Cleveland has Jason Kipnis, "Not That" Carlos Santana, Nick Swisher, and Michael Brantley, but no one resembling David Ortiz or, for that matter, Longoria. Still, the Indians finished fifth in the majors in runs scored, which makes their bats a bit more formidable overall than those of the Rays.
More to the point, Sox starters – the four in line to pitch, anyhow – dominated Indians hitters with a 2.25 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in four starts during the regular season, versus a 4.01 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in 10 tilts with the Rays.
But of all the stats, one area may warrant consideration above any other: the caliber of competition.
Joe Maddon’s Rays put together a fine season in a tremendously difficult division, while Francona’s Indians avoided chicken and beer to get hot late against bad teams. Cleveland went 30-8 against the lowly White Sox and Twins, clubs that nearly lost 100 games apiece, and just 36-52 when opposed by .500-or-better teams. Tampa ran into more than a few cold-spells during the year, but still managed a 48-49 mark in the same such scenario.
Does Francona have a great deal of familiarity with Red Sox personnel? Of course. But, with almost 20 meetings a year under his belt, so does Maddon. Both men are experienced in pressure situations, and neither has a scarier managerial mind than the other.
For Boston now, it should be, “Bring on Cleveland!” The matchup is better, and fans would be delighted by the return of the man who guided the city to two World Series championships. Ironically, the Red Sox may need to send him home in order to win another.
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Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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