Thursday, October 9, 2008

ALCS -- Trip to the Trop to Tackle Tampa

Roll Sawx!

It's on to the ALCS after dispatching the Angels for the 3rd time in the last five seasons. Despite the whining of John Lackey that the Angels were the better team, they weren't; they played tight, made errors, couldn't get key hits when they needed them, and when the game - the series - was on the line in Game 4, called for a boneheaded suicide squeeze when a ground ball or fly ball would have plated the go-ahead run.

Look, don't get me wrong - Mike Scoscia is a great manager and they are a good team. But when you get to play 1/3 of your games against the weak AL West (Rangers, A's and Mariners) and you win 100 games, you're not as a good as you might think. Peter Gammons does a better job of articulating it here, but the result bore out what most people suspected: Regular season dominance is often a matter of perception rather than fact, as very few of the "best" teams end up winning the World Series.

So now the Sawx travel to Tampa for the best-of-7 ALCS, with all sorts of storylines brewing: David (Tampa) vs. Goliath (Boston), the kids vs. the vets, the worst-to-first Rays, the bad blood between the two teams, etc. Sufficed to say, it's a series that most people expect to be hard-fought and to go the distance.

One storyline that seems to be a little overlooked is how this season has demonstrated that, without a salary cap in baseball, it is possible to be a small-market team like Tampa and win a division. Lost in all the "Dollar Wars" between NY, Boston, LA, etc. is the tried-and-true baseball edict - if you draft good players, develop them right, mix in some savvy vets and get a little luck (not to mention a steady hand on the till in Joe Maddon), you can win and win big.

And, unlike most Sawx fans, I don't "hate" the Rays. How can you hate a team that plays hard, plays smart, and leaves it all out on the field? Sure, they brawled with Boston in June. Hard slides and high & tight fastballs will get teams ornery, and mid-season is usually around the time you see a few dust-ups. Yes, Johnny Gomes is a cheap-shot artist... frankly, the guy's a punk, but he plays hard and never quits. Much like guys 1-25 on the Sox roster. So how can you hate a team that looks and plays exactly like your team?

I, for one, am excited about this series. I think the two teams are fascinating to watch because they mirror each other in many ways - great starting pitching, great defense, speed on the bases - and yet have so many opposite traits. The Sox are a patient-hitting team that grinds starting pitchers, while Tampa is the definition of the "see ball, hit ball" team. Tampa has a bullpen that's got everything you could want - power arms, situational guys, savvy veterans - while the Sox bullpen remains a work in progress. And, lastly, the Sox can put up a lot of runs in a hurry, while Tampa can struggle for runs against good pitching teams.

Personally, I wouldn't be surprised to see them go the full seven games, each game a 4-3 or 3-1 battle. Each team has big questions... for the Sox: Is Josh Beckett healthy? Can Dice-K go six innings? Will the Sox bullpen fall apart? For the Rays: Can they stay patient against the Sox starters, each of whom pounds the strike zone? Can they score enough runs? Who will close out the game? Will Pena, Crawford and the other walking wounded be able to make it all seven?

Fascinating... starting tomorrow night, we might get our first glimpse of the next five years of the AL East. It used to be Sox/Yankees... now it could be Sox/Rays.

Either way, bring it.

Go Sawx!

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