ST. PETERSBURG – For a few months this year, the Red Sox and Rays went back and forth atop the American League East. Boston claimed the division’s top spot from early April to May 23, then Tampa Bay led for nearly a month. The Red Sox regained first place and held on from late June until July 30. Then the Rays pulled off a three-game sweep at Tropicana Field and pulled away over the season’s final two months. In the end, the vaunted AL East belonged to Tampa Bay’s 100-win club.
The Red Sox earned the right to face the defending AL champions again by beating the rival Yankees, 6-2, in Tuesday’s AL Wild Card Game. The Rays and Red Sox were the two best teams in baseball’s best division, a powerhouse featuring four 90-win clubs, and they produced a handful of thrilling games during the regular season. Now, Tampa Bay and Boston will meet in the best-of-five AL Division Series beginning Thursday night at Tropicana Field.
The AL East rivals were two of the league’s top scoring clubs, and while Tampa Bay certainly has the run prevention edge, Boston -- a club assembled by chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, a former Rays executive -- showed it can pitch and play defense just fine Tuesday night at Fenway Park.
The Rays won the season series, 11-8, and are the favorites as the AL’s top-seeded team. But their 19 contests were close this season, even though Tampa Bay won 11 of the last 15. The Rays outscored the Sox by only two runs overall in the season series, and six of their games were decided by just one run. If that’s not a recipe for October excitement, what is?
When is the game and how can I watch it?
The game will air on FS1 at 8:07 p.m. ET tonight. It is also available to stream on MLB.TV with authentication.
What do the starting lineups look like?
Red Sox: Kyle Schwarber led off in the Wild Card Game against righty Gerrit Cole, but Red Sox manager Alex Cora bumped him down a spot and returned Kiké Hernández to the top of the order against the lefty starter. Christian Vázquez got the nod behind the plate after Kevin Plawecki started the AL Wild Card Game.
Rays: Here’s one thing that’s important to remember about the Rays, who this year had the highest-scoring lineup in franchise history: They don’t have bench players. They just have hitters who aren’t starting on a given day. Manager Kevin Cash will utilize his entire roster during this series, just as he did while running out 158 different lineups during the regular season.
Who are the starting pitchers?
Red Sox: Cora said on Wednesday that left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez (13-8, 4.74 ERA) will start Game 1. Rodriguez was 1-1 with a 4.71 ERA against the Rays this season. He had a 3.19 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 31 innings over his last seven appearances down the stretch, including polar-opposite consecutive starts against the Rays at the start of September: six scoreless innings in a win at Tropicana Field on Sept. 2, then six runs in 3 2/3 innings in a loss at Fenway Park on Sept. 7.
Rays: Left-hander Shane McClanahan (10-6, 3.43 ERA) will take the mound for Game 1 a little more than a year after he became the first pitcher in MLB history to debut in the postseason. The 24-year-old rookie was excellent for the final few months of the season, posting a 3.01 ERA with 99 strikeouts while holding opponents to a .249/.303/.361 line in 17 starts from June 15 on. He faced the Red Sox three times in August and September, allowing five runs while striking out 18 over 16 innings -- and four of those runs came in one outing. He made one of his best starts in prime time against Boston at Tropicana Field, as he held the Sox to one run over six innings in a nationally televised Sunday night game on Aug. 1.
How will the bullpens line up after the starter?
Red Sox: Cora has been mixing and matching with his bullpen since Matt Barnes was bumped out of the closer’s spot in August. So, if you’re trying to predict who could run in from the bullpen for the ninth inning, don’t bother. It could be just about anyone, including Garrett Whitlock -- the team’s best reliever all season -- who finished off the Wild Card Game. Having lefty-dominating southpaw Josh Taylor back should help, and Tanner Houck showed his power arm by striking out two in a perfect seventh inning Tuesday night. Ryan Brasier, Adam Ottavino and Garrett Richards are other right-handed options, while Austin Davis is another lefty possibility. Cora has a history of using starters as relievers in October, so that’s always on the table as well.
Rays: We’re talking about Tampa Bay here, so it’s anybody’s guess. Expect to see right-handers Andrew Kittredge, Collin McHugh and Pete Fairbanks in the highest-leverage spots, no matter when they come about during the game. McHugh’s a good option to pitch multiple innings, if McClanahan doesn’t pitch deep into the game. Kittredge could be asked to get them out of jams or enter in a key spot. Fairbanks will face a run of tough hitters with his high-octane stuff. But truthfully, one strength of the Rays’ bullpen is that anybody can pitch at any time. That might even include likely Game 3 starter Drew Rasmussen, who will be available out of the bullpen in Games 1 and 2.
Are there any relievers who are unavailable?
Red Sox: With a day off Wednesday, the group should be in good shape heading into Thursday’s opener. The Red Sox did not have to extend any of their bullpen arms in the AL Wild Card Game, using Brasier, Houck, Hansel Robles and Whitlock for no more than three outs or 15 pitches.
Rays: Nope. The Rays have been able to rest since Sunday’s series finale at Yankee Stadium, and clinching early allowed them to avoid overtaxing anyone’s arm even before that. It’s a safe bet that, aside from Game 2 starter Shane Baz, anyone who’s on the roster is good to go in Game 1.
Any injuries of note?
Red Sox: The status of Martinez, who sprained his left ankle in the final game of the regular season, was a big storyline heading into the start of the series. He was on the roster for the ALDS but was not in the lineup for Game 1. Aside from Martinez, the Red Sox are a healthy bunch entering this series.
Rays: First, consider all the pitchers unavailable because they’re on the Rays’ 60-day injured list: Chris Archer, Jalen Beeks, Yonny Chirinos, Oliver Drake, Tyler Glasnow, Tommy Hunter, DJ Johnson, Colin Poche, Chaz Roe, Jeffrey Springs and Ryan Thompson. Additionally, lefty reliever Adam Conley won’t be available in the ALDS, as he’s sidelined following a positive COVID-19 test. Reliever Nick Anderson, who didn’t debut until mid-September, ended the regular season on the 10-day IL due to a back issue but faced hitters Tuesday afternoon at Tropicana Field.
Who is hot and who is not?
Red Sox: Rafael Devers, Boston’s top hitter, got hot again during the final weekend of the season and still got on base twice, with two walks, despite going hitless in the Wild Card Game. That bodes well for the Red Sox, because Devers can carry them when he’s on top of his game. Xander Bogaerts looked like he was on the opposite side of the ledger, going 5-for-32 with nothing but singles to end the regular season, but perhaps he’s turned an important corner after taking Gerrit Cole deep Tuesday night. Kyle Schwarber also homered off Cole, and Alex Verdugo had a pair of big hits to help the Sox advance to the ALDS. Schwarber has a reputation of being a big-time performer in October. In 25 postseason games, he has a line of .290/.410/.609 with seven homers and 12 RBIs.
Rays: McClanahan’s in a good place, having put together a 1.50 ERA in his final four outings. Lowe had a 1.001 OPS, eight homers and 21 RBIs in September/October. Kiermaier finished strong and had a better second half offensively than his overall numbers might indicate. Zunino and Cruz each hit six homers in September/October, and Franco had a .924 OPS with more walks (five) than strikeouts (three) in 16 games. On the flip side would be Ji-Man Choi (.617 OPS in September/October), Brett Phillips (4-for-34) and Joey Wendle (.230, 25 strikeouts).
Anything else fans might want to know?
• Should the game go to extra innings, there will not be an automatic runner at second base to start each half-inning. Each frame will start with a clean slate, and that is in effect for each round of the postseason.
• Each team must submit a 26-man roster by 10 a.m. ET on Thursday. That roster is good for this series only. Whichever team advances can reset its roster for the Championship Series, which will begin Oct. 15 against the winner of the White Sox-Astros ALDS.
• These two teams have some postseason history. In 2008, the worst-to-first Rays beat the Red Sox in a seven-game AL Championship Series to advance to the franchise’s first World Series. Five years later, Boston’s 2013 World Series championship run began with a 3-1 series victory over Tampa Bay in the ALDS.