AMERICAN LEAGUE DIVISION SERIES
Tampa Bay Rays vs. Boston Red Sox
The pitchers: The Red Sox led the AL in so many offensive categories that it’s sometimes hard to remember that, as Rays Manager Joe Maddon said, “They can really pitch.” That’s in part because lefty Jon Lester, the Game 1 starter, has reestablished himself as the ace, posting a 2.57 ERA after the all-star break and allowing opponents to bat just .242 and slug .391. John Lackey’s success at Fenway Park (2.47 ERA, .232 average against) gives him the nod in Game 2, leaving a revitalized Clay Buchholz for Game 3. Tampa Bay, which has faced must-win games for two weeks, couldn’t set up its rotation, but Game 1 starter Matt Moore allowed three earned runs in 15 innings in his two starts against Boston. Combine that with David Price and Alex Cobb, who won win-or-go-home games impressively to get here, and the rotations match up. Boston relievers posted a 3.08 ERA in the second half of the season; the Rays were 3.67, and closer Fernando Rodney allowed six base runners in his last two regular season outings.
The lineups: The Red Sox have balance up and down. The average AL on-base plus slugging percentage is .714. Boston’s regular lineup features eight players higher than .770. David Ortiz owns postseason marks of a .310 average, .430 on-base percentage and a .589 slugging percentage since 2004. Tampa Bay’s Delmon Young has nine postseason homers — including one in the wild-card game.
The story lines: This series represents what is annually — and quietly — one of the best head-to-head matchups in baseball. Tampa Bay and Boston met for the 2008 AL pennant — with the Rays winning in seven games — but the Red Sox took 12 of 19 meetings this year.
Prediction: Boston in five.
Detroit Tigers vs. Oakland Athletics
The pitchers: The Tigers have the depth to choose someone other than Justin Verlander to start Game 1, and in Max Scherzer (21-3, 2.90 with league-best .970 walks and hits per inning pitched) they will throw a Cy Young favorite. Verlander (13-12, 3.46) will get the Game 2 nod, followed by Anibal Sanchez (14-8, 2.57), the AL leader in ERA. Oakland will open with Bartolo Colon, who went 18-6 and posted the lowest ERA (2.65) of his career while throwing his most innings since 2005 — at age 40. Rookie Sonny Gray will make his 11th career start in Game 2. He finished his season with six starts in which he posted a 2.27 ERA and allowed opponents to hit just .230 and slug .296 against him.
The lineups: Detroit’s is clearly better, but it also has the most significant issue: Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter on the planet, was hitting .359 with a .688 slugging percentage on Aug. 24. The rest of the way, he hit .284 and slugged just .333 — with one homer — as he battled groin and abdominal injuries. The A’s have sneaky-good power (.419 slugging percentage trailed only Boston, Detroit and Baltimore in AL), and only the Red Sox and Tigers scored more runs. Third baseman Josh Donaldson, a converted catcher, is the player to know after he hit .301 with an .883 OPS in his first full season as a starter.
The story lines: This is a rematch of a division series from last year, which the Tigers took in five games behind Verlander’s four-hit shutout. Detroit is looking for its third straight trip to the ALCS.
Prediction: Tigers in four.
— Barry Svrluga