Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tough Tampa Trek Torpedoes Title?


Some numbers:
- 1 out of 3
- 1 out of 9
- 8 out of 18

And the scariest one - 2.

What do they mean? The Sox went down to Tampa this week looking to claim first place in the AL East and strike fear into the hearts of the Rays. Instead, they dropped two of the three games and leave 2 games back in the division with 10 to play.

This is the second week in a row the Sox had a chance to take over the division, only to lose 2 out of 3 to the Rays.

The Sox have now dropped 8 of the 9 games they have played this season at Tropicana Field (aka, the Trop). More on that later...

Additionally, the Sox have lost the season series to the Rays 10-8. This is the maybe the most dangerous stat.

Those last two don't bode well for the division title and the postseason.

I think we can all feel secure that, barring an HISTORIC collapse, the Sox will be playing October baseball. At the very least, they have the AL Wild Card well in hand, thanks to a 7-game lead in the Wild Card standings.

However, should the Sox finish with only the Wild Card, they will be the No. 4 seed in the playoffs and will open on the road against the Los Angeles/Anaheim/Orange County Angels. Yes, those same Angels who posted a 6-1 record against the Sox and appear to be much stronger this year than past incarnations. This year's Angels may be the deepest team they have had since that 2002 world champion team. The Angels have all the ingredients that the Sox struggle with: Big game pitcher (Lackey), deep rotation, solid bullpen, deep lineup, speed and solid defense.

As for the losing record at the Trop and in the season series, this is where it could get dicey. For whatever reason, the Sox have not been a good road team; the usual formula is win 2/3 of your home games, and go .500 on the road. The Sox, however, are under .500 on the road (dominant at home, tho), which -- as the No. 4 Wild Card seed -- could be problematic. Say the Sox make it past the Angels (on the road); their reward would be a 7-game set with the Rays in second round (since they will torpedo the AL Central winner) where the Rays would have home-field advantage. Given the 1-8 record at the Trop, that -- again -- doesn't bode well for the Sox.

Having said that, tho, there is one other troubling number: 2.
- 2 key guys are hurting, and there's no telling when (or if) they'll be good enough to help. Mike Lowell's hip is a mess, and he can barely run or field. The Sox need his bat AND glove, because Lowell at 3rd puts Youk at 1B and gives the Sox an above-average fielder at ALL the infield positions. And there's the J.D. Drew saga... say what you want about him, but his mere presence in the line-up makes the Sox so much more dangerous. He lengthens the line-up, gives Papi/Youk/Lowell/Bay protection, and plays great defense and lets Ellsbury relax and play CF. They need him, and heh as to come back.
- 2 spots in the pitching staff are up for grabs. With Beckett/Lester/Dice-K, the Sox have maybe the best 1/2/3 in the AL right now, with each guy capable of dominating. However, they need a No. 4 starter, and right now the candidates are Wakefield, Byrd and Colon... and all three have questions. Most likely, they won't have to worry about a No. 5 starter, but they will need a long guy out of the bullpen, and they have those three guys competing for those 2 spots.
- 2 games out. Like I said, the Sox winning the AL East is the best possible outcome over the next two weeks. Win the East, and they have home-field advantage for the 1st round and maybe the 2nd round if the Angels get knocked out. So logic would dictate that if the Sox win just two more games than the Rays in the next two weeks, they will win the division. Not so fast, tho; the Sox lost both key tiebreakers by dropping this series (head to head record and divisional record). So in reality, the Sox need to win THREE more games than the Rays to take the AL East title outright. Not impossible, mind you; the Sox have all 7 of their remaining 10 games at home (against the Indians & Yankees), while Tampa will have 8 of 12 on the road. It COULD happen.

I'm not scared. Why should I be? The Sox have won two world championships in the last four years, all while completely making over the entire roster. It's just that playing all those games last season to win the World Series (162 regular season plus 14 more in the post-season) may be catching up to this team through fatigue, injuries and an unexpected rival who just won't go away in the Rays.

Either way, I'm ready for the postseason.

I just wouldn't be a Sawx fan if I didn't feel a little nervous about all of the above.

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