The Papelbon Jig or the Balfour Stomp?Tampa Bay or Jason Bay? The American League Championship Series sides are cast, and so is the die. Will the Boston Red Sox be able to retrieve, on seven intense October nights, the AL East title they fumbled away during six contentious spring and summer months? Or will the Tampa Bay Rays keep it right where it is on their jolly way to the World Series? Seldom in sports have roles been as well defined as for the battle for AL supremacy, which kicks off here Friday night at 8:37 ET, between leading righties Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Red Sox and James Shields of the Rays.
LCS divisional matchups
This is a series without gray. It's all black or red ink.
The experienced Red Sox versus the raw Rays. New England's Old Towne Team, with all the solemnity that implies, versus a team compared to a fraternity by its first baseman. The Rays here in Tropicana Field, the Red Sox in their Fenway Park bunker.It's a new world. Safe to say, never before have the Red Sox played a postseason series against a team whose fans the day before held an oceanfront rally. Beach Blanket Let's Go! Good times.
"It's good for the game, man. People get tired seeing the same teams every year, over and over again," David Ortiz, Boston's feared DH, said with a beam. "They got tired of seeing the Yankees ... hopefully they won't get tired of seeing us."But bad blood? The documented acrimony between these teams -- not just these current players, since the perceived malice runs years deep -- endured as one of two recurring pre-series themes, along with the Rays' brilliance inside their home dome. Big Papi had an opinion on that, too: "Hey, this isn't the WWF. It's a baseball game, bro ... c'mon. Some things happen in the game, and they stay on the field. It's not like you walk out into the parking lot and wait for someone to kick their butt. "It ain't like that. We have fun, everyone plays their best." It's like this: The Rays spent an entire season proving they can go toe-to-toe with the Red Sox. Now they have to reprise that act. "We're excited," said Evan Longoria, the Rays' mercurial rookie third baseman. "This is how we envisioned it from Day 1. The two best teams playing for the American League championship," Deep down, Boston thinks Tampa Bay is welcome to try. "We've been battling each other all year," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, "and we're definitely excited to be playing these guys and get another opportunity."
Dome Sweet Dome?
"I think we have two similar ballclubs who can do very similar things and do them well," said Jonathan Papelbon, the Boston closer who is exceptional all year then becomes flawless in Octobers. "We'll probably go to Game 7."Grant Balfour, the Al Hrabosky-Mark Fidrych hybrid who could get a chance to close for the Rays in Troy Percival's continued injury absence, called Friday night's series opener "Game No. 167" of the season and "Game No. 19" against the Red Sox. "It's more baseball. More people in the stands, definitely more intensity ... but still 90 feet between the bases and 60-and-change to the plate," Balfour said. The Red Sox could be stuck in the best kind of Groundhog Day warp. Maybe that should be Gloryhog Days. Just as they did in 2004 and against last October, they will try to use an ALDS win over the Angels as a springboard to a World Series title. Leaping over the Rays could be a problem, but two of the leading arguments supporting that notion could be faulty. Tampa Bay took the season series between the teams, winning 10 of 18 games, and plays inside a dome which has given the Boston fits. In the nine prior LCS which paired teams from the same division, the team with the regular-season edge won six times. But haven't the Red Sox just finished mocking such trends with an ALDS win over an Angels team that had completely dominated them? And domed teams' postseason history isn't very convincing, with a modest overall edge in games played of 58-52. Despite a 1-8 record in The Trop -- and overall 7-17 in domes with a turf field -- these Red Sox, bearing little resemblance to their heavy-handed and slow-footed forebearers, are built to adapt to various conditions. Speed, often just the threat of speed, lends Boston the offensive versatility to little-ball its way through hitting slumps. Jacoby Ellsbury (50 steals), Coco Crisp and Pedroia (20 each) -- though all three are seldom in the same lineup -- are the first Red Sox trio with 20-plus steals since 1914 (Tris Speaker 42, Hal Janvrin 29, Duffy Lewis 22). Yet, the Rays believe their house actually exerts a bigger voodoo over the Red Sox than Fenway Park has over them. "No one likes coming in here. I've heard that for three years now," Shields said. "This year, we took advantage of that." Noted Longoria, "I do think we have a bit of an edge going into their place." The root of that confidence is Tampa Bay's last two nights in Boston: A ninth-inning ambush of Papelbon, triggered by the growing legend of Dan Johnson's pinch-homer, followed the next night by Carlos Pena's three-run homer in the 14th. Yet, prior to that double-lightning, the Rays had lost nine straight, and 19 of 22, in The Fens. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon sounds almost thankful for that experience. No growing pain, no gain. "Even when we were getting our butts kicked regularly, it was a wonderful place for us to learn how to play," Maddon said. "It gave us the confidence that we can win there." Before getting there, the Rays have to start here. Although ultimately they had an easy time with the White Sox, the reality is they cut their postseason teeth on four taut ALDS games. But the Red Sox's postseason teeth have been sharp for a long time. This is the new Boston legacy, replacing those long-forgotten 86 years of curses and heartbreaks. Their 2004 World Series MVP (Manny Ramirez) is gone. Their 2007 World Series MVP (Mike Lowell) is absent with a painful right hip condition. Yet no one takes them any lighter. Certainly not Maddon, who, in a selfish moment, admitted the Rays are playing the "wrong" team. The miracle worker of Tampa Bay had one fantasy coming to him, and the man who spent more than two decades as a "foot soldier" with the Angels longed to meet them in October. "Oh, man, to play against the boys would've been special," Maddon said. "That thought was front-and-center. Too bad it didn't work out. But we're just proud to still be playing, to put it mildly." They've got one postseason series under their belts. Any more notches left in that belt? "I hope they're not a good playoff team," said Boston manager Terry Francona, not wishing for his Red Sox to become another footnote in a Rays fable. "That [good story] made our life a little bit more miserable this year." They didn't have to wait long for a shot at vengeful rewrite, did they?
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.