EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 4, 2013

Bring on the Rays ... and rivalry

Tampa Bay has replaced Yankees as Sox 'bitter' foe

By Chris Smith

---- — BOSTON — The last time the Boston Red Sox won a postseason game at Fenway Park feels like a lifetime ago.

The actual date was Oct. 16, 2008. Boston was a bloodied team, trailing the series 3-1 to the Tampa Bay Rays in their best-of-seven American League Championship Series, and trailing 7-0 in the seventh inning of Game 5.

Then came some magic: four runs in the seventh; three runs in the eighth. A J.D. Drew walk-off RBI single to right field in the ninth. Just like that, the Red Sox were 8-7 victors — and they and the Rays were headed to Tampa Bay for Game 6.

The Red Sox won Game 6 to even the series 3-3, but lost Game 7 when Matt Garza outdueled Jon Lester and Boston in an intense 3-1 outcome.

Here we go again, back here at Fenway Park, five years later, and bitter — yes, bitter! — AL East rivals Boston and Tampa finally meet again in the postseason. They collide at Fenway Park for Game 1 of the American League Division Series today at 3:07 p.m. Boston southpaw starter Jon Lester faces Tampa lefty Matt Moore.

It could be argued that the Red Sox “Dynasty” a lot of people expected after that 2007 World Series title came to an abrupt halt after the Game 7 loss to Tampa Bay.

Over the next four years, everything seemed to unravel for the Red Sox through a combination of injuries, bad free agent signings, disappointing starting pitching, character issues and one egomaniac manager.

Meanwhile, after knocking off the Red Sox, the Tampa Bay Rays headed to the World Series and, well, haven’t gone away since.

The once laughingstock of baseball, from their inaugural season in 1998 as the Devil Rays until Opening Day 2008, have averaged 91.7 wins per season over the past six years and won two AL East titles and made the postseason four times.

Over that span, the Rays replaced the New York Yankees as the Red Sox nemesis. And with the Yankees having missed the playoffs this year while being saddled with large contracts to Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira in the coming years, not to mention they also have a subpar minor league system, it appears the Rays and Red Sox rivalry is not going away any time soon.

“They got a lot of draft picks over those (down) years and they filtered them all up to the big league level and most of the team is young,” Red Sox star pitcher Clay Buchholz told The Eagle-Tribune about the Rays yesterday. “So it’s been fun watching how everything has happened over the last couple of years. We were talking about it either last night or this morning. They are just a team that does the little things right in a game to put pressure on the defense.

“They put pressure on the other pitchers,” Buchholz added. “There have been a couple blowouts here and there whatever which way, but they’re usually pretty well played games between both teams, us and them.”

One thing that allowed Boston to go from 69 wins last year to the best record in the AL this year is taking a chapter out of the Rays’ textbook on success. The Rays — under manager Joe Maddon — are extremely loose and have fun. The Red Sox, this past winter, signed a collection of high character, fun-loving, beard-growing players who drastically have loosened up Boston’s clubhouse.

That goes a long, long way in terms of a grueling 162-game schedule and then an intense postseason.

Jon Lester commented in Sunday’s Eagle-Tribune that he has never experienced such an enjoyable clubhouse like this one. He reiterated that fact yesterday, adding that this team has been the complete opposite of anything he’s ever been around. Everyone is having, he mentioned.

“Being around this market for a couple of years, I never thought you could actually do that here,” Lester said.

What will really makes this rivalry and series so intense and interesting is the great pitching on both sides. The first two games here at Fenway should be low scoring nail-biters with Lester against Moore today and John Lackey facing David Price tomorrow in Game 2.

Then, Clay Buchholz and Alex Cobb square off Monday in Tampa.

What’s better than this?

“They pitched some really good pitched ballgames against us this year and we’ve done the same with them so it’s more who’s going to score first,” Buchholz said. “That’s how it’s been between the two clubs for a while now. Pitching has been their key for the last couple of years. As far as the staff goes, they’ve been throwing the ball really well in the second half of the season but we’ve got a pretty good staff in our corner, too. So it’s going to be fun to see.”

Follow Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB