BOSTON -- Going up against a Rays pitching staff that compiled a 3.67 ERA (fourth best in the Majors), the American League Wild Card-winning Red Sox were immediately tagged as underdogs going into the AL Division Series.
After getting shut out in Game 1, Boston hammered Tampa Bay for 26 runs, including 14 in Game 2, over its next three games en route to punching its ticket to the AL Championship Series.
“I just believe we didn’t expand,” manager Alex Cora said of their approach. “We did a good job toward the end of the season, especially the second part in the Washington game; that was a good one. We stayed in the middle of the field, we didn’t try to do too much. And when you do that, good things happen. And we hit a lot of long drives, a lot of balls hard, and it was impressive. Watching them, the videos, the way we went about it against a great pitching staff, it was eye-opening.”
It also helped that as division rivals, the Red Sox and Rays met 19 times during the regular season, an advantage Boston won’t enjoy when it opens Game 1 of the ALCS in Houston tonight.
“[The Rays] had some unique stuff. They’ve got a lot of different angles,” Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers said. “And I think it really helps them to be in our division, to play them a lot. I think our guys were comfortable. At a point against them, I think we just tightened up our game plan, we were a little more focused. … We knew how they’ve pitched to us in the past. And I felt that we came out probably more aggressive than we’ve ever been, and took advantage of some of those things.”
With the Rays behind them, the Red Sox have little time to breathe ahead of Friday’s opener against an equally dangerous, but different, Astros squad.
“That’s in the past,” Cora said. “We’ve gotta be ready for another, different type of pitching staff. They create angles, they have different shapes of breaking balls, different fastballs. We’ve just got to be ready for those.”
The Astros are significantly less familiar to the Red Sox, as the two teams haven’t faced off since playing a home-and-home series back in June. Houston’s rotation, which put up a 3.63 ERA in the regular season, is a challenging mix of veterans -- Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. -- and younger arms in Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia and José Urquidy.
“They’re a really good team. They have really good pitching,” Hyers said. “They have some unique angles, how the ball comes out of the hand with some of their starters. I think it helps us because we did face them earlier, but we’ve got our work cut out for us and we’re going to have to make some adjustments to kind of counteract some of those moves.”
Those younger arms proved to be Boston’s Achilles' heel in June. On June 1, the Red Sox offense mustered just five hits and one run off of Garcia, striking out six times over seven innings. The following night looked much the same off Valdez, but with 10 strikeouts over the lefty’s seven innings. Just more than a week later in Boston, Valdez commanded the night again with a 7 1/3-inning outing, limiting the Red Sox to one run on five hits.
Despite the outcome of the June at-bats off Valdez and Garcia, the opportunity to face both pitchers was an invaluable experience for the Red Sox ahead of their postseason matchup.
“Because of their unique angles, those young guys, it helps a lot,” Hyers said of getting an early look at Valdez and Garcia. “We already have a little bit of a database with some of our hitters. So I think it helps a lot, but still a challenge. And it’s still unique, and it’s going to be a handful.”
“Obviously, [Astros pitching coach] Brent Strom is one of the best pitching coaches in the big leagues,” Cora said. “The way he prepares, the way he uses the information to his advantage. … So we know how good they do it, but at the same time we just faced one of the best pitching staffs in the big leagues, one of the best [coached] teams in the big leagues and we did a good job offensively. So we’ll be prepared for them.”