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ALDS: Red Sox vs. Rays

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles

Boston hosts Tampa Bay Friday afternoon at Fenway Park. It means both Division Series featuring the Wild Card team are matchups between teams who have already squared off 19 times this season. Fun?

Boston probably isn’t too thrilled to welcome Joe Maddon’s Rays to town. Yes, the Sox were 12-7 vs. the Rays in 2013 but Tampa opens the series with a tough one-two punch in Matt Moore and David Price. Boston hit just .167 vs. Price in 30+ innings this year and an anemic .107 off Moore in 15 innings.

The Rays come to Boston on a roll, winning three straight must-win games: Sunday in Toronto to ensure a spot in the playoffs; Monday night in Texas in the Game 163 tiebreaker and Wednesday in Cleveland for the actual Wild Card game.

Boston’s been sitting around for a week, letting their beards get closer to terminal length. This isn’t going to be easy for the Sox.

Narrative Storyline:

Beardsbeardbeardsbeardsbeardsbeards! … Beards!

The Red Sox shook the shackles off last year’s Bobby Valentine-led debacle because they grew beards, which equaled all sorts of clubhouse chemistry. Obviously.

Analytical Storyline:

Boston bottomed out in 2012, finishing 69-93. A year after they fired Bobby Valentine, they won 97 and the AL East.

Will other big market teams adopt their offseason approach? Ben Cherington didn’t break the bank on one huge marquee signing to try to turn it around, opting to land Shane Victorino ($13 million per year) and Mike Napoli ($5 million) while picking up Jonny Gomes ($5 million) as a “clubhouse guy.” A move few took notice of in the winter, signing Koji Uehara, paid dividends with the Japanese reliever putting together a 11-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Granted the Red Sox turnaround doesn’t happen if Jon Lester and John Lackey don’t have bounce-back seasons, but perhaps big market teams will go this route, spreading their money around rather than putting all their chips in with a Josh Hamilton or Albert Pujols-type deal.

Player to Watch:

James Loney.

Loney was part of the Red Sox/Dodgers mega-deal last August, basically a warm body to finish out the season for Boston. He posted an .574 OPS in 30 games for Boston and appeared ready for a trip on the Port Jefferson Ferry to play for the Long Island Ducks.

Tampa signed him and Loney had a very productive season, playing a gold-glove caliber first base. Loney posted a .299/.348/.430 line with 33 doubles for his highest OPS since 2007.

The Rays need somebody other than Evan Longoria to be productive. As good as the Tampa pitching staff is, it’s still difficult to win a lot of 1-0 or 2-1 games vs. Boston.

Rays’ Fever!!!:

And they say Tampa’s not a Major League city.

Related: Yankees: More Questions than Answers Heading into Offseason
Related: Baseball’s Current Wild Card Format is Far From Perfect

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