I think it’s fairly safe to say that this will be the most important series the Sox have ever had against the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s also a fair bet that it’s the most important series in the history of the Tampa Bay franchise. We’re officially in uncharted territory here folks.
How, exactly, the two teams view the series is almost as important as how good the teams are. I still believe that the Sox are the better team. That’s especially true with Lowell and Youkilis in the line-up at the same time, and Longoria and Crawford out of theirs. So, how important do the teams think the series is? For the Sox, I think they really want the division. Beckett or no Beckett, I want to avoid playing Anaheim in the first round. Hosting Chicago sure beats the heck out of trekking out to LA. So, the series means a great deal to the Red Sox if they’d like to advance in the playoffs. If we dare look ahead to the ALCS…right now, the sox stand 2 games behind the Angels in the race for home field in that potential series. They need the division for that to matter.
The question is, does Tampa care? At what point do they say, “Heck, who thought we’d ever even make the playoffs” and subconsciously back off a bit. When do they put it on cruise control and settle for the best season the franchise has ever had. After the Sox win the series opener? If the Sox win the first two to take the division lead? Do the Sox need to win both upcoming series? Is Longoria really coming back? It was interesting to see them activate Longoria. I’d be worried about rushing back the future of my franchise from a wrist injury. Does this mean they’re going for it this season? Does this mean an all-out blitz for the remainder of the season? What is the mindset of the Rays? Of the front office? Obviously, I don’t know the answers to those questions. But, we should find out in the next ten days or so.
Like I said, the Sox are the better team. Fully loaded and lined up, I don’t see the Rays as beating the Sox. Now, if the series starts matching Kazmir with Byrd, or the likes, that skews things a bit. (Actually, it doesn’t look like Byrd will face the Rays, but you get the point) It all comes down to attitude and desire. From the Sox standpoint as well. Right now, the Sox lead Minnesota by 6.5 with 20 to play. Even a 500 record virtually assures a playoff spot. Do the Sox start resting Lowell? Drew? Ortiz? Do they juggle the rotation and skip a Beckett start? Dice-K? Or, do they chase down the home field advantage that served them so well last year?
So many questions, so few answers. So, here’s what I think. The Sox take 4 of 6 from the Rays the next two weeks. That gives them the division lead they need. They hold onto the lead going into late September. The Rays, also having already virtually clinched a playoff spot happily grab the Wild Card. They drift back a bit, handing the division to the Sox, who can’t quite catch the Angels for the best record because they’d rather have Beckett-Dice-Lester going games 1-2-3 of an ALDS. The bloom comes of the Rays’ rose as they’re cast aside by the Angels. The Sox easily handle Chicago. That sets up one heck of an ALCS.
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