What We Learned: ALDS
1. Jon Lester is Boston's ace
Lester, who made headlines by throwing a no-hitter in May, finished the year third among AL pitchers in VORP behind likely Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee and 20-game winner Roy Halladay. His performance against the Angels in the ALDS offered further proof of his value. For the series, he provided Boston's only two quality starts, pitching 14 innings, allowing 10 hits, three walks and no earned runs while striking out 11. Though he didn't get the win in Monday's Game 4, Lester pitched seven shutout innings before passing a 2-0 lead to his bullpen.
Lester arrived in the AL three years ago as Boston's top pitching prospect, but his career was interrupted by non-Hodgkin's lymphoma toward the end of his rookie year, and his 2007 campaign was devoted largely to rehab and reestablishing himself after beating the disease over the offseason. Though he started and won the decisive Game 4 of last year's World Series, Lester didn't start in the first two rounds of the 2007 postseason, and was still finding himself this April, posting a 5.40 ERA over his first six starts. On April 29 he held the Blue Jays to one hit over eight innings, and from that game through the end of the season, he went 15-4 with a 2.82 ERA while allowing just nine home runs in 27 starts. With Josh Beckett scuffling, Lester is unquestionably Boston's ace and, at age 24, could retain that title for a long time.
2. B.J. Upton's power is still there . . . somewhere
The second overall pick in the 2002 draft, B.J. Upton has always been a tremendous offensive talent. In 2004, Upton slugged .519 as a 19-year-old in Triple-A and held his own at the plate during a late-season call-up to the majors.
In 2007, his first full big league season, the four-tool prospect blossomed into a five-tool star, hitting .300/.386/.508 with 24 homers and 22 stolen bases while displaying great range and a rifle arm in center and making just two errors in 78 games in the middle pasture.
This year, however, Upton seemed to go back to being a four-tool player because of a power-outage that could be attributed to the torn labrum he played with for most of the season. Upton hit just nine home runs this year while losing 107 points off his slugging percentage, only 27 of which can be attributed to his drop in batting average. After going deep once every 22.8 plate appearances last year, Upton's home-run rate dropped to one every 71 PA this season. It took him until June 8 to hit his fifth home run this year, and from then until the end of the season he hit just four more while slugging a mere .362. In the last two games of the ALDS, however, Upton homered in three-consecutive at-bats and enjoyed his first multi-homer game of the season in Game 4. It's good news for the Rays that his power is finally coming out of hibernation.
3. When squeeze bunts don't work, the results can be disastrous
Critics of the sacrifice bunt correctly assert that when a team plays for one run, one run is all it is likely to get, and sometimes it won't even get that. Unfortunately, that wisdom is still sinking in around the game and the sacrifice remains overused. The squeeze bunt is another story. The squeeze doesn't just set up a run, it drives it in. When a team is down by a run or tied in the late innings with a man on third and less than two outs, a successful squeeze bunt is as good as a base hit and can make the difference in the game. Yet, the squeeze bunt remains underused for reasons that may escape the understanding of those who didn't see the ninth inning of last night's ALDS Game 4 in Boston.
The Angels are a fast team and a good bunting team, so when pinch-hitter Kendry Morales led off the top of the ninth with a double in a 2-2 game that had the Angels facing elimination, it was an obvious and appropriate choice for manager Mike Scioscia to send in Reggie Willits to pinch-run and have Howie Kendrick bunt him to third base. With Erick Aybar, who led the Angels in sacrifices during the season, at the plate, one out, and Willits on third representing the run that could extend the Angels' season, the squeeze bunt was also an obvious and appropriate choice. Unfortunately, the pitch Aybar was trying to bunt tailed down and in, and he missed it, leaving Willits hung out to dry on the baseline. Thus, the Angels went from having the go-ahead run on third base with two chances to drive him in to having none on and two outs. After Aybar grounded out, the Red Sox rallied and won the game in the bottom of the inning, ending the Angels season. A similar situation is likely to present itself in the ALCS. It will be interesting to see if the team presented with the opportunity to squeeze will have been scared off by the Angels' failure.
4. The Rays are an extremely well-rounded team
The Rays aren't going to crush their opponents. They don't have a shut-down ace (though they might when David Price is ready for his close-up). They don't have a don't-let-him-beat-you masher in their lineup (though Evan Longoria could quickly mature into such a hitter). They don't really even have a closer (though curse-spewing Aussie Grant Balfour could assume the role before the postseason is over). They scored just 4.78 runs per game in the regular season, which was a lowly ninth in the AL, and didn't score more than six in any game of the ALDS. They aren't going to beat their opponents into submission; they're just going to out-play them.
The Rays were second in the AL in walks, led the league in stolen bases with a respectable 74 percent success rate, and were the best team in the majors at turning balls in play into outs. Speed, patience, and defense are perhaps the must undervalued skills in the game, and the last has a very large effect on pitching, which is a large reason why the Rays allowed 1.7 fewer runs per game this year than last. The Rays were also second in the AL in one-run wins (to the Angels, who ironically fell one-run short last night) and led the league in extra-inning victories.
One way to look at those stats is to say that the Rays are a team balancing on a razor's edge. Another is to say they're a team that wins games on the margins by being one step faster on the bases and in the field, by tracking down one extra out, and extending their own half of the inning by one extra at-bat, and by not allowing their opponents to plan around their one big bopper or their ace starter. Akinori Iwamura, Dioner Navarro, and Carlos Peņa were the top Tampa hitters in the ALDS, but Longoria and Upton both had multi-homer games. Their bullpen allowed one run in 11 2/3 innings while striking out 13. James Shields, Scott Kazmir, and Matt Garza are each capable of a dominant pitching performance. The Rays are dangerous because, while none of their players is going to single-handedly destroy their opponent, they're all capable of hurting them, and the opposing team never knows where the blow are going to come from on any given day.
5. Boston's depth can save them
If the Rays are a multi-headed beast that prevents its opponents from knowing which set of jaws to dodge, the Red Sox are the Hydra, able to regenerate new heads on the spot. After hobbling around with a torn labrum in his left hip and going 0-for-8 in Games 1 and 3, Boston third baseman Mike Lowell was mercifully placed on the disabled list prior to Game 4 of the ALDS, only to have Gold Glove first baseman Kevin Youkilis shift to the hot corner and play the sort of defense Lowell was known for before his injury. In place of Youkilis at first base, repurposed center fielder Mark Kotsay, a late-August acquisition, hit .300 in two starts and made a pair of game-saving catches in Game 4.
When Game 2 hero J.D. Drew was unable to start in the cold October weather in Game 3, Coco Crisp took his place and went 1-for-4 with a walk, a stolen base and two runs scored. When Josh Beckett had his start pushed back to Game 3, Jon Lester pitched Games 1 and 4, turning in stellar outings both times. Though the addition to the roster of veteran minor league utility infielder Gil Velazquez in place of Lowell has revealed that Boston's depth does have its limit (Velazquez went 1-for-8 for the Sox this year and has hit .231/.287/.309 in 11-year minor league career), the flexibility of the Red Sox's roster was essential to their ALDS victory over the Angels and could prove key to their ability to hold off the Rays in the ALCS.
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