And it's quite a showpiece, this fifth all-East ALCS of the post-1994 tri-division era, and the third in six years. Tampa Bay's occasionally cantankerous challenge of Boston for AL East supremacy just got jacked to a new level.The floodlights will bathe Tropicana Field on Friday night, when Game 1 arrives at 8 p.m. ET, with first pitch scheduled for 8:37 p.m. Game 2 at The Trop will check in Saturday a half-hour earlier. Games 3-5 are booked into Fenway Park (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday), with a return to Florida for Games 6-7 the following Saturday-Sunday -- if, as they say, necessary. The respective managers have yet to nail down their opening pitching assignments, but Boston's Terry Francona and Tampa Bay's Joe Maddon have many choices. With the three-day hiatus between series, only Monday starters Andy Sonnanstine of the Rays and Jon Lester of the Red Sox are probably out of the picture. The Rays may have a tougher job keeping the title away from the Red Sox than they did taking it away from them in the first place. Boston, the defending World Series champion, is clicking at its peak. Not that having formally won the AL East isn't significant. It blesses the Rays with the dome-field advantage which helped in the Division Series, and could again be a major ally. Like the White Sox, who had a 3-17 indoor record prior to dropping the set's first two games in The Trop, the Red Sox played at an 8-19 rate under roofs. However, this is Boston's prime time. Even with some significant bumps and bruises, the Red Sox derailed the Angels, the Majors' best gate-to-wire team, with flawless precision. Against them, the Angels spent the entire Division Series playing uphill.
Regular season by the numbers
Postseason by the numbers
Exactly the way Mike Scioscia, their subdued manager, saw it: "The Red Sox ... they got it done a little bit better. Those guys stepped up and did the job, and we didn't do it quite as often."Tampa Bay was as money in its own Division Series, but took out an inferior opponent in the Chicago White Sox. And unlike their foes -- who are nursing J.D. Drew and Josh Beckett and finally had to forego Mike Lowell to his bad hip -- the Rays are healthier than they have been in two months. Left fielder Carl Crawford (finger injury), third baseman Evan Longoria (right wrist) and first baseman Carlos Pena (scratched eye) all appeared in the same lineup in Sunday's ALDS Game 3 for the first time since Aug. 7. It should not be surprising that both AL East clubs advanced. They've been bred in what is perceived as baseball's deepest, day-in-day-out toughest division -- a relentless environment that steeled them against playoff pressure. That's why the Rays came into their first postseason with a lot of street cred. They're from a rough neighborhood. "The experience [of playing in the AL East] factored into us getting good," Maddon admitted. "Thanks to that environment -- Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium -- we got better quicker. What better battle testing can you possibly get?" Rays-Red Sox may not have the history or be as virulent as Yankees-Red Sox -- yet. But what they lacked in tradition they made up for in intense excitement at various stages of a pennant race the insurgent Rays won by two games. In what was predominantly a backyard season series -- the Red Sox went 7-2 in Fenway, the Rays 8-1 in The Trop -- Tampa Bay broke serve most significantly. Its division lead, and perhaps confidence, hung in the balance very late on Sept. 9, when Jonathan Papelbon trotted out of the Fenway Park bullpen for his usual ninth-inning protection of a 4-3 lead. That was the Dan Johnson moment -- the full-count, pinch-hit home run that reaffirmed the Rays' feeling that, as B.J. Upton put it in Monday's delirious clubhouse, "We belonged, and we believed." One out later that night, doubles by Fernando Perez and Dioner Navarro pasted a loss atop Papelbon's blown save. The next day, the Rays won in 14, and escaped The Fens in firm control of the division. Flash forward a month. The Rays don't get big-stage fright, and halfway through their Division Series knockout blow, TV analyst Harold Reynolds of MLB.com shared a revelation with his audience: "This is a good team, aren't they?"
Rays vs. Red Sox in 2008
|4/25||TB, 5-4 (11)||Dohmann||Timlin||Tropicana Field|
|4/26||TB, 2-1||Dohmann||Buchholz||Tropicana Field|
|4/27||TB, 3-0||Shields||Beckett||Tropicana Field|
|5/2||BOS, 7-3||Buchholz||Jackson||Fenway Park|
|5/3||BOS, 12-4||Beckett||Shields||Fenway Park|
|5/4||BOS, 7-3||Lester||Kazmir||Fenway Park|
|6/3||BOS, 7-4||Masterson||Garza||Fenway Park|
|6/4||BOS, 5-1||Beckett||Jackson||Fenway Park|
|6/5||BOS, 7-1||Lester||Shields||Fenway Park|
|6/30||TB, 5-4||Shields||Masterson||Tropicana Field|
|7/1||TB, 3-1||Garza||Wakefield||Tropicana Field|
|7/2||TB, 7-6||Glover||Hansen||Tropicana Field|
|9/8||BOS, 3-0||Lester||Jackson||Fenway Park|
|9/9||TB, 5-4||Wheeler||Papelbon||Fenway Park|
|9/10||TB, 4-2 (14)||Miller||Timlin||Fenway Park|
|9/15||BOS, 13-5||Matsuzaka||Kazmir||Tropicana Field|
|9/16||TB, 2-1||Wheeler||Masterson||Tropicana Field|
|9/17||TB, 10-3||Balfour||Wakefield||Tropicana Field|
To the Rays themselves, that has been a rhetorical question for many weeks."I believe we're going to play well every time we step on the field," said Upton. "And we expect to win every time we step on the field." Yet, playing the Red Sox in October is like trying to stem a jail break. Without their iconic postseason pitchers -- Curt Schilling gone, Beckett dull -- they throttled the Angels with a double dose of Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Their guys fought at the bat rack for their shot to play heroes -- Jason Bay, then Drew, then Kevin Youkilis, ultimately Jed Lowrie. The Angels spent the season cultivating a reputation as an aggressive band capable of running circles around you. Instead, the Red Sox had them on the run, period, brilliantly anticipating, and thwarting, any opportunity to force the issue, from taking the extra base to that aptly named suicide squeeze. And that's not a backward glance but forward spin, because the Rays run the same West Coast offense, under the direction of Maddon, Scioscia's former bench coach. Boston's proven ability to reign that speed game, and thus level the playing field, is merely one of the elements that make this matchup so intriguing. It could also be testy. Even before they became contenders, the Red Sox and Rays were antagonists, their history dotted with bean-ball wars and suspensions. So the early-June blowup between them in Fenway Park didn't instigate, simply perpetuated, their rivalry. And now the Rays have Grant Balfour, The Mad Australian. Years ago, mindful of the city's demographics, someone dubbed St. Petersburg "God's waiting room." The city has since evolved, become younger and more vibrant. Its waiting room now is crowded by a nation's fans, anxious to know whether the Rays can withstand another charge from the Red Sox.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.