No longer major league baseball’s doormats, the Tampa Bay Rays are one win from the World Series.
Against the Boston Red Sox, getting that last win can be a tall order.
The Rays look to continue their offensive surge, overcome Daisuke Matsuzaka and finish off the reigning champions when they face the Red Sox in Game 5 of the AL championship series Thursday night at Fenway Park.
After finishing two games ahead of Boston to win the AL East, the Rays are on the verge of besting the Red Sox again. Tampa Bay, which failed to win more than 70 games in its first decade of existence, has outscored Boston 22-5 in two games since this series moved to Fenway.
The Rays scored five runs in the first three innings off knuckleballer Tim Wakefield on Tuesday night, cruising to a 13-4 victory and a 3-1 series lead.
“We know we’re real close now to going to the World Series,” left fielder Carl Crawford, who has been with the Rays since 2002, said after he tied an ALCS record with five hits Tuesday. “A lot of guys won’t say it: There’s a nice vibe right now.”
While a 3-1 deficit may be daunting, it’s a hole from which the Red Sox can emerge. Under manager Terry Francona, Boston is 7-0 when facing elimination in the ALCS. The Red Sox came back from an identical deficit in last year’s ALCS against Cleveland, and rallied from 3-0 down in 2004 to stun the New York Yankees in seven games. They went on to win the World Series both times.
Of the 26 teams to face a 3-1 deficit in an LCS, only six have rallied to win the series. The Red Sox have mounted three of those comebacks, including the 1986 series versus the Angels.
“I hope it’s relevant,” Francona said of his club’s history. “I mean, I think every year is different. But rather than burden ourselves with what we look at four days from now, we’ll set our sights on our next game and we’ll come packed (for Tampa Bay). That’s, I think, the best way to go about it.”
For Game 5, Francona will turn to the only Red Sox starter to pitch well in this series. Matsuzaka (1-0, 2.25 ERA) took a no-hit bid into the seventh inning of Boston’s 2-0 victory in Game 1 last Friday. He struck out nine, gave up four hits and walked four in seven-plus innings, but the Rays don’t seem worried about facing him again.
“The last thing on our minds is going to be Dice-K,” said first baseman Carlos Pena, 5-for-13 with two homers in the last three games after going hitless against Matsuzaka in the opener. “We’re not going to focus on how he pitched last time. We want to go in there with the same approach. It doesn’t matter if Godzilla’s pitching.”
The right-hander may not be Godzilla, but he’s continued his season-long Houdini impression. Opponents were hitless in 14 at-bats with the bases loaded against Matsuzaka in the regular season, and he got Cliff Floyd to ground out in that situation in the first inning of Game 1. He wiggled out of another jam in the seventh as the Rays stranded seven total baserunners.
“It’s amazing. We always joke how he gets out of these innings,” Boston infielder Kevin Youkilis said. “He’ll have bases-loaded, nobody out; or first and third, nobody out, and he gets out of jams. We wish he wouldn’t put himself in those jams, but it’s amazing how he does it and shows how great of a pitcher he is.”
Since Game 1, though, Tampa Bay’s offense has dominated the series. The Rays have racked up 31 runs and 39 hits - including 10 homers - to win the last three games while getting contributions from up and down the lineup. Eleven Tampa Bay players have scored runs in the ALCS and six have homered, led by third baseman Evan Longoria, who’s gone deep three times.
Longoria’s solo shot in the first inning Tuesday game him five in the postseason - a rookie record.
“Right now it’s kind of contagious,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “I don’t want to see us do anything different.”
Kazmir is the only Tampa Bay starter to pitch poorly in this series. He lasted 4 1-3 innings in Saturday’s Game 2, yielding five runs, six hits - three homers - and three walks.
Dustin Pedroia hit two of the home runs, continuing his success versus Kazmir. Boston’s second baseman is 16-for-28 (.571) with three homers off the left-hander.
Kevin Youkilis also homered off Kazmir in Game 2, but is 9-for-38 (.237) in their all-time meetings. David Ortiz has fared even worse, going 8-for-40 (.200) with 10 strikeouts.
Kazmir is 6-7 with a 3.86 ERA in 22 starts versus Boston, but 0-2 with a 9.27 ERA in five outings this season.
He won’t be a welcome sight to Ortiz, who tripled in Game 4 to record his first hit of the series. The Red Sox slugger, a .317 career postseason hitter prior to 2008, is 5-for-31 (.161) in this year’s playoffs but denies it’s due to the wrist injury that sidelined him for 45 games in June and July.
“I’m all right,” he said. “I’m dealing with my hand and stuff, but right now the situation is it’s a ride-or-die situation and I don’t want to put too many things in my head.”
If Boston prolongs the series, Shields would face Josh Beckett on Friday in Game 6 at Tropicana Field.