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In the AL, it's a match game

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 16, 2008 05:25 PM

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- No matter what happens in this series at the Trop, this much seems certain:

Two weeks from now, either the Red Sox or the Tampa Bay Rays will be facing the Los Angeles Angels in the first round of the playoffs.

So which team stands the better chance?

That all depends on your perspective.

The Angels, who opened a series with the Oakland A's last night, have a winning record against every American League team but one: the Rays. Los Angeles is a mere 3-6 against Tampa this season while going a well-publicized 8-1 against the Red Sox. All of that seems to suggest that the Red Sox would be far better off facing the White Sox (or Twins) in the first round, leaving the Angels to deal with the Rays.

Naturally, there are no absolutes in these types of discussions, so here are some arguments to consider as the Sox and Rays battle for the AL East. Keep in mind that the second-place finisher in the AL East probably will draw the Angels (unless the Twins and White Sox somehow both qualify):

The Red Sox would be better off playing the Angels in a short series. If the Angels are the better team this year, and current won-lost records suggest they are, the Sox' chances would be better in a shorter series. Over a seven-game set, the Angels' talent would have a better chance of impacting games, which means the better bet is to take them out early. Of course, if you believe the Sox have just as much talent, a short series could hurt them as much as it would help.

Still, in a shorter series, the Red Sox could conceivably start Josh Beckett and Jon Lester in three or four of the games, depending on some of the variables. That's a tough matchup for anybody.

The White Sox are the easier draw. Especially with Carlos Quentin out, the White Sox seem like the easiest opponent on paper. Chicago is 15-24 against the AL East this year, including a 5-4 record against Baltimore. That puts the White Sox at 10-20 against Boston, Tampa, New York and Toronto. The obvious logic is that the Red Sox could wipe out the White Sox in the first round and let Tampa deal with the Angels.

There is also this version: If the Red Sox can wipe out the White Sox quickly and the Rays can at least extend the series against the Angels, Tampa Bay could do sufficient damage to Los Angeles's rotation, shifting the ALCS pitching matchups in Boston's favor. For example: Facing John Lackey in Anaheim would be a far less appealing option for the Sox than having him pitch at Fenway Park, where the righthander has often struggled. (Of course, Lackey also nearly threw a no-hitter at Fenway earlier in the year. But you get the idea.)

Let the chips fall where they may. As Bill Belichick likes to say, it is what it is. When the Red Sox last played the Angels, they had yet to acquire Jason Bay, Paul Byrd and Mark Kotsay, and David Ortiz had just returned to the lineup. These Sox are a much more balanced team, which is to say that their bullpen has improved and they are playing better defense. This might enhance their chances at winning close games, a specialty of the Angels.

This year, of the nine games the Sox and Angels have played, six have been decided by one or two runs. The Angels have won five of those games. These Sox are more equipped to win the low-scoring games than the ones from April through July.

After all, until Monday, the Sox hadn't won at Tampa Bay this season, either.

Which team would you rather see the Red Sox face in the first round? Let your voice be hard in our comments section. (Statistics updated through Tuesday's games.)

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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