(SportsNetwork.com) - What a difference a year makes.
The Boston Red Sox lost 93 games last season. This year they head into the
postseason as the top team in the American League. The Red Sox begin their
first postseason run in four years on Friday in the best-of-five American
League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Only two teams were worse than Boston in the AL in 2012, leading to the
dismissal of manager Bobby Valentine after just one season. So, out with the
old and in with the new, as the team hired John Farrell away from Toronto to
be the new skipper.
All Farrell did was put himself atop most people's AL Manager of the Year
ballots, as he guided the Red Sox to a 28-game turnaround and ended the year
97-65, leading the club to its first AL East title since their World Series
championship season of 2007.
The 97 wins were also the second most for the team since 1978.
Farrell, of course, was the Red Sox pitching coach under Terry Francona, and
his impact was immediately evident, especially among the starting staff which
saw their ERA decrease by nearly two runs from the prior season
Two of his former proteges, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, benefited the most,
as both enjoyed bounce-back campaigns. Buchholz pitched to a 4.56 ERA in 2012,
but was the best pitcher in baseball until a shoulder injury sidelined him for
Still, he ended the year 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA.
Lester, meanwhile, will get the ball in Game 1 for the Red Sox. Like Buchholz,
the left-hander struggled through 2012, posting a 9-14 ledger with a 4.82 ERA.
He reverted back to the pitcher he was under Farrell this season, though,
going 15-8 with a 3.75 ERA.
"Last year was just horrendous all the way around," Lester said.
In his 13 starts since the All-Star break, Lester is 7-2 with a 2.57 ERA.
"To be named Game 1 starter, especially after last year," Lester said, "big
honor, obviously, very excited."
Offensively the Red Sox are still led by 37-year-old designated hitter David
Ortiz, who put forth his seventh 30-homer/100-RBI season and hit .309 to boot.
Boston was criticized for giving outfielder Shane Victorino a 3-year, $39
million deal this offseason, but the Flying Hawaiian was one of the team's top
performers this season, hitting .294 with 15 home runs, 61 RBI, 82 runs scored
and 21 stolen bases.
Not to mention Victorino has had a penchant for coming up big in the
postseason, as he has driven in 30 runs in 46 playoff games.
"He's added a grit to this team that we've seen repeatedly with the pain
threshold in which he's played with," Farrell said. "He's been banged up for a
lot of the year, but it hasn't forced him out of the lineup for really
extended periods, and he gives us a well-rounded player both offensively and
defensively in that 2-hole. He can play the small game. We've seen his ability
to drive the ball out of the ballpark. He's a smart baseball player. He keeps
things lively in the clubhouse, as I'm sure you all have seen. He's been a
very good addition to this club."
One player to watch this series could be outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who
missed most of September with a compression fracture in his right foot. The
soon-to-be free agent, though, hit .298 this season and stole 52 bases.
The Red Sox as a team stole 123 bases this season, but it will be interesting
to see if Ellsbury's foot allows him to be active in October.
If you are looking for an MVP on this Red Sox club you may have to look to the
bullpen where right-hander Koji Uehara stepped up, as both Joel Hanrahan and
Andrew Bailey were lost for the season with injuries, and saved 21 games while
pitching to a remarkable 1.09 ERA.
Uehara, whose ERA was the best in the majors of any pitcher with 50 or more
innings, also posted a mind-blowing 0.57 walks plus hits per nine innings -
the lowest WHIP in baseball history by a pitcher who logged at least 50
innings, surpassing by a considerable margin the 0.61 standard set by Dennis
Eckersley in 1989.
He didn't walk a batter over his final 22 appearances and posted a 0.72 in
"When you're surprised that he gives up a baserunner, that means he's having a
pretty good year," said reliever Craig Breslow. "Maybe my metrics are a little
bit subjective, but when you can't remember the last time a guy's been on
base, he's having a good year. He's been absolutely dominant, especially
considering that coming into the season he was probably the third, fourth,
fifth option to close."
Tampa, meanwhile, has been in postseason mode for a while now. In fact, after
a mad dash just to put themselves into the wild card mix at the end of the
season, the Rays have already played two elimination games.
Pitching has been Tampa's calling card and that was again the case in
Wednesday's wild card matchup with Cleveland, as Alex Cobb tossed 6 2/3
scoreless innings, Delmon Young belted a solo homer and Desmond Jennings hit a
two-run double to carry the Rays past the Indians, 4-0.
The Rays had thrown a team-record 17 shutouts during the regular season,
including four in their final 18 games.
Tampa's season nearly ended Sunday, but it kept it alive by winning the last
game of the regular season in Toronto. A day later, the Rays clinched their
fourth postseason trip in six years by upending the Texas Rangers in a one-
game tiebreaker to capture the AL's second wild card spot.
"That's three different difficult venues ... all in enemy territory," Tampa
manager Joe Maddon said of his club's recent stretch. "I'm so proud of our
guys. It was outstanding to watch and I was very proud."
As good as Boston's starters were this season, Tampa's were even better with a
3.81 ERA. None were better than lefty Matt Moore, who will take the ball in
Game 1 for Maddon's team.
"We feel very confident about our pitchers pitching against anybody, and we've
done well," Maddon said. "Part of that is we talked about that prior to the
fact that our guys are used to pitching or playing in that venue, whether it's
Yankee Stadium packed, Fenway Park packed, we kind of dig it."
Moore, who tossed seven scoreless innings in his only other postseason start
back in 2011, was fantastic in his second full season, going 17-4 with a 3.29
ERA in 27 starts.
The 24-year-old hurler pitched well against the Red Sox in two starts during
the regular season, going 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings. He gave up three
runs in six innings in a 5-3 win at Tropicana Field on May 14 before throwing
his first career shutout on July 22 at Fenway Park.
The Rays are an amazing 82-18 when they allow four runs or less. Keeping
Boston in check could be a chore, though, as the Red Sox were the only team in
the league to have scored more than 800 runs.
Tampa's pitching will have to be on the mark, as the offense ranked just ninth
in the American League with 700 runs scored. It's a lineup, though, that is
built to grind out wins.
Third baseman Evan Longoria is as vital to the Rays' offensive attack as Ortiz
is to the Red Sox. Longo remained relatively healthy this season and hit .269
with 32 home runs and 88 RBI. Of his 19 postseason hits, 13 of them have gone
for extra bases.
Of course these teams are no stranger to one another. Boston, though,
dominated the season series, taking 12 of the 19 matchups.
"They really pitched well against us," Maddon said. "We just did not swing the
bats well, and that speaks to their pitching. They have a really good pitching
staff. They have a great starting staff. They have a tremendous bullpen. I do
anticipate a lot of the same in the playoffs as we continue."
Tampa actually beat the Red Sox in seven games back in 2008 to advance to the
World Series in the only other postseason series between the clubs.
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