- Keys for the White Sox:
Pretty much the entire White Sox team has post-season experience from their title run in 2005 and they must use that to their advantage early in the series to get the Rays to begin doubting themselves. A young team’s confidence can erode early if they’re popped in the mouth as soon as they get out on the field. The White Sox starting pitching is the most important aspect of the series because manager Ozzie Guillen pushes his starters deeply into playoff games rather than relying on the bullpen. He shortens the pitching staff to his six or seven key guys unless he has no other choice but to use someone other than the guys he can trust. The White Sox have proven in 2005 and in this season that their veteran players have no problem handling post-season intensity.
Because of their post-season rush, the White Sox are at a disadvantage in that they have to start the struggling Javier Vazquez in the opening game. Vazquez doesn’t seem to handle pressure well and got shelled in both games of his earlier post-season opportunity with the Yankees. After that, they’ll have Mark Buehrle and, one would assume Gavin Floyd for game three and John Danks for game four. The bullpen will likely be limited to Scott Linebrink, Octavio Dotel and Bobby Jenks in the important spots. I’d be concerned about Dotel’s penchant for giving up homers.
The White Sox may get rejuvenated performances from veterans Ken Griffey, Jr and Jim Thome, both of whom must realize that their windows for winning a World Series are just about shut; this will add a sense of urgency. A.J. Pierzynski will do his best to irritate a young and enthusiastic Rays team and history shows that he’ll be able to do it while adding in a clutch hit or two. Alexei Ramirez must continue his clutch power hitting and Paul Konerko and Nick Swisher will have to overcome their shabby years and make up for the absence of Carlos Quentin. The White Sox have to start hitting.
- Keys for the Rays:
It can go one of two ways for a very young team in their first playoffs: A) they’ll come out relaxed and enjoying themselves and play just as well as they did during the season and blast their way through their opponents without realizing the gravity of what they’re dealing with; or B) they’ll get nervous, not realize the level of intensity that is the playoffs and get bounced out by a veteran team before they realize what happened.
It helps that the Rays have some playoff-tested veterans in their clubhouse in Troy Percival, Dan Wheeler, Chad Bradford and Cliff Floyd. Evan Longoria and James Shields aren’t the types to get nervous, but I’d be concerned about Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza. Kazmir will be pumped up beyond belief, may try and throw too hard, flattening his pitches or worse, injuring himself; Garza is a quirky guy and if things start off badly, he might implode.
The Rays have to make contact in run scoring situations and that could be a problem because their entire lineup strikes out a lot. They’ll be bolstered by the return of Carl Crawford who can wreak havoc from the leadoff position. Manager Joe Maddon has experience as a coach in dealing with the playoffs from his years with the Angels, but it’s different when you’re the man in charge and how he responds to any adversity will be interesting. Will he panic if his starting pitcher gets into trouble and have a quick hook? Or will he give his young pitchers a chance to get settled down and hope that his offense can ovecome any deficits? I have a feeling the Rays are going to have to score a lot of runs to win this series and they should play for big innings and avoid overagressive baserunning gaffes.
- What will happen:
The White Sox will be loose and relaxed now that they’re in the playoffs. Guillen rides his starters deeply into games and the White Sox know how to take advantage of mistakes made by a young team like the Rays. If things start off badly for the Rays, they could rapidly tumble downward and they’ll be gone before they know what happened. Starting Shields in the opening game is a smart move by Maddon; the Rays need to attack Vazquez and put a few runs up early to get themselves relaxed, into the series and allow themselves to believe that they’re really in the playoffs and that they belong.
Even if the White Sox don’t hit, their pitching (after Vazquez) is gutty and pressure-tested. I don’t know if the same can be said about the Rays. If the Rays fall behind, are they going to be able to dig deep down and muster what’s necessary to come back? And I do think the White Sox are going to hit and score runs despite the absence of Quentin. The Rays bullpen is superior to that of the White Sox, but that’s not going to matter much because Guillen doesn’t like using his bullpen all that much in the playoffs anyway. If the Rays don’t have a lead late in games, their bullpen isn’t going to do them much good.
The Rays penchant for striking out and the nervousness that will go along with a first post-season appearance is going to be their undoing; the White Sox have the experience, power and starting pitching to overcome whatever the Rays are throwing at them. If the White Sox get anything out of Vazquez, this series could be over quick, but I wouldn’t expect that. The White Sox experience will carry
them through this series as the Rays youthful inexperience costs them.
Prediction: WHITE SOX IN FIVE.