There is an ALCS set to begin tonight at Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg.
Or, as Terry Francona has been known to call it, “That @#&*^%$ place.”
Go back to March, and most would have been more apt to predict the Apocalypse before the Rays having home field advantage for the entire 2008 playoffs. “Cute team. Year away maybe. God help us if any deciding game has to be played in that @#&*^%$ place.”
Yet, here we are, the Red Sox and Rays matched up in a terrifically compelling championship series. Not only do we indisputably have the two best teams in the American League (sorry, John Lackey), two franchises that have built as deep a rivalry as can be imagined in just over a decade, we also have the ultimate wild card at play, a dome where fly balls disappear at frequent intervals. Those are ground rules often only found in your average afternoon college Wiffle ball game, sponsored by Natural Light.
Rays fans have begun to take offense to all this criticism, which is ironic seeing as thousands refused to show up because of the park’s location and antiseptic atmosphere in the first place, and that the team’s success this season is seen as a gateway to getting a new park built. Now, they love the Trop. They swoon to “Feel the Heat,” clang their cowbells, and gather by the outfield aquarium to watch the Cownose rays, which, up until this season, were vastly more entertaining than the ones on the diamond.
“What about that stupid left field wall?” one such lifelong dedicated Rays fan wrote in an e-mail recently after criticism of his beloved home ballpark. Fine. The Wall has always been love-hate in Fenway lore, which is why there may be no more fitting way to end this series than to watch someone like Alex Cora Bucky Dent one off the center field cat walk.
The most amazing stat heading into this series: When 30,000 fans or more showed up at Tropicana Field this season, the Rays were 23-3.
Astounding. I never would have thought Tampa drew 30,000 for 26 games.
Who they're picking
Our roundup of pundit predictions for the Red Sox-Rays ALCS.
- Boston Globe: Dan Shaughnessy, Nick Cafardo, and Amalie Benjamin pick the Sox in seven, while Adam Kilgore and Tony Massarotti like the Rays in six.
- St. Petersburg Times staff: Marc Topkin and Gary Shelton pick the Rays in six. Joe Smith and Dave Scheiber go with Rays in seven. Brent James and John Romano both like the Sox in a series to go the distance.
- Joe Capozzi, Palm Beach Post: Red Sox in seven. “There's been no stopping the Rays, but Boston takes it up a notch in October.”
- ESPN.com staff: Jason Stark and Jerry Crasnick pick the Sox in six, while Steve Phillips goes with Boston in seven. Rob Neyer and Buster Olney both pick the Rays in six.
- Tim Kurkijan, ESPN: Red Sox in seven "The Rays averaged only 3.7 runs per game in the 18 games against the Red Sox this year. Boston did a really good job on B.J. Upton, who went 5-for-39 (.128). Lester was dominant against the Rays, as were Boston's two primary left-handed relievers, Hideki Okajima and Javier Lopez, who did not allow a run in 15 1/3 innings. The two pitchers the Rays did hit hard were reliever Justin Masterson and starter Tim Wakefield, who combined for four losses and 19 runs allowed in 29 2/3 innings.”
- CNNSI.com staff: Jon Heyman and Ben Reiter pick the Red Sox, while Tom Verducci, John Donovan, Ted Keith, Albert Chen, Lee Jenkins, and Gennaro Filice all toss their support Tampa Bay’s way.
- Ken Rosenthal, FOXsports.com: Rays in six." The Rays are more athletic, and their offense is at full strength now that Carl Crawford is back from his finger injury. The Sox's vast edge in experience cannot be dismissed, but the Rays are a more complete team. By the end of this series, Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton could be major stars. I can't believe I'm writing this, but everything adds up."
- Danny Knobler, CBS Sports: Red Sox. “They won't back down against Boston, either, and they won't be intimidated by Fenway Park. They'll run on Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek when they can, and they'll keep coming at the Red Sox all the way through. Still, the prediction here is that they'll fall just short. The young Rays are good enough to win, but the Red Sox are just a little bit more prepared to come out on top when it really counts.”
- Dan Connolly, Baltimore Sun: Rays in six.
- Jose Mota, Yahoo! sports: Rays.” The Rays seem like the Team of Destiny, circa 2008, and with the young and talented weapons they possess, the baseball culture is already changed in Florida."
- Yahoo! sports staff: Steve Henson and Gordon Edes pick the Red Sox in seven, while Tim Brown likes Boston in six. Jeff Passan goes with the Rays in six.
- Evan Grant, Dallas Morning News: Red Sox in seven. “Tampa Bay has played excellent baseball since the start of the season and stared down the Red Sox and Yankees to win the AL East. They have home-field advantage and won the season series 10-8. But it's impossible to argue against the Red Sox' postseason experience. The bullpen is in better shape. And there is no telling what kind of madness the Rays are going to experience at Fenway Park in October.”
- Ron Shandler, BaseballHQ.com in USA Today: Red Sox in seven. “The Red Sox need a healthy Beckett, or Lester to pitch every game, to guarantee their third trip to the World Series in five years. Failing that, this is going to be a very close, possibly high scoring series, and may simply come down to experience.”
- Ryan Fagan, The Sporting News: Red Sox in seven. "Francona's postseason resume with the Red Sox is impressive (two World Series titles), as is his ability to keep his team on an even keel when trouble arises. He kept his team focused when down three games to none to the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, and again last year when the Sox trailed the Indians 3-1 in the ALCS. Even against the Angels, when Lowell was hurting and Beckett and Matsuzaka delivered subpar efforts, the Red Sox still lost only one game.”
- Our pick: Red Sox in seven. Say what you want about the rotation being set up the way it is, but ultimately, it’s a sign of respect for the Rays on the part of Terry Francona. You won’t hear anyone complaining when it’s Lester on the hill in Game 7. This is a series that’s set up to be nothing short of fascinating.