ST. PETERSBURG — Their Hall of Fame bound leftfielder, Manny Ramirez, plays in Los Angeles now. Their most clutch hitter, Mike Lowell, is sidelined due to injury. Their middle relief has been anything but. And their Game 1 starter, Daisuke Matsuzaka, has larger pitch-count issues than Scott Kazmir.
And, still, the Red Sox are the Rays' most dangerous remaining obstacle.
"They're just like us," Carl Crawford said. "They're going to keep fighting real hard to the end, they've got good pitching and defense and stuff. … They're just a team you've got to worry about all the time."
The Sox are more balanced than you think (the only AL team to rank in the top five in hitting, pitching and fielding), have joined the modern era by making speed a weapon and have played through many big postseason moments.
"They're world champs," B.J. Upton said. "They know how to win. They're here for a reason."
He sometimes makes more headlines for his comments and onfield antics (and occasional jig), but what the Sox closer does on the mound is pretty special, too.
To start with, he hasn't allowed a run in 12 career postseason games, throwing up zeroes for 192/3 innings. His 1.83 career ERA is second lowest in major-league history for any pitcher with at least 200 innings, and his .190 opponents' average is seventh best.
"He's pretty tough," Crawford said. "He's throwing 96-97 every night, you know the pitch is coming and you still can't hit it. He's just tough to deal with."
This season, all he has done is convert 41 saves (11 of more than one inning) in 46 chances (the Rays got him Sept. 9 thanks to Dan Johnson), give up a run in only 15 of 67 games, strand 26 of 30 inherited runners and allow only 14 of 66 first batters to reach.
He makes so few mistakes that when he does, hitters have to take advantage. "You can't miss a good pitch," Upton said.
Even better? Have a lead so he doesn't pitch. "We hope we never get to him," Evan Longoria said.
He gets a lot of face time because of his whiny reactions to called strikes, but the rest of his show is usually pretty good, too.
He led the Sox in homers (29), RBIs (115) and on-base (.390) and slugging (.569) percentages and excelled in the clutch, with a .374 average with runners in scoring position.
He's a smooth fielder and likely will shift from first to third with Lowell out. Some think Youkilis was more their MVP than Dustin Pedroia.
"He's mentally tough and he's very competitive," Troy Percival said. "He's not going to give an at-bat away. You know he's going to put a good swing on you."
"It's almost like every pitch is his last," said Eric Hinske, a former teammate. "He plays really hard. And it's a tribute to how good a player he is because whatever situation he is in, he seems to succeed."
The $103-million Japanese import has won 33 games since coming to the Red Sox, including an 18-3 mark this season. But few are easy. Or pretty.
He led the AL in walks, was near the top in averaging a hefty 17-plus pitches per inning and lasted more than six innings only 10 times.
He was the toughest pitcher in the majors to hit with a .211 average (and .164 with runners in scoring position), was 9-0 with an AL-best 2.37 road ERA and got swings and misses on nearly 25 percent of his pitches.
He features a wide repertoire and a funky delivery, sometimes pausing in mid windup and occasionally quick pitching, and the Rays will see it all in Game 1.
"Everyone talks about him as being a power pitcher, I believe he's primarily a breaking ball pitcher; he likes his slider and his change," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "His fastball he likes to throw outside of the strike zone, he doesn't like to necessarily challenge with it."
The Rays have done well; Matsuzaka is 2-3, 3.75 against them (the only team to beat him three times). In two September starts, he worked only five innings each and totaled 110 pitches.
"He's wild, he walks a lot of guys," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "The big thing is that we're going to have to wait him out and see how he's throwing. … If we can get him on the ropes early, we've got to really take advantage of it."
There is ongoing chatter in Boston over how close the always-hustling second baseman is to his listed 5-foot-9 height.
There is no debate over how big the second baseman was for the Sox this season, especially after the Ramirez trade, leading the league in hits (213), doubles (54) and runs (118), hitting .326 and ending up the likely favorite for the AL MVP award.
"He's a little, scrappy dude," Rays starting pitcher James Shields said. "This kid, I've watched him throughout the minor leagues and now the big leagues, and he's really become a man. He's a little guy, but he's got a big heart. I'd love to have that guy on my team any day of the week."
"You don't like the fact that he's playing for the other team, but as a baseball fan, absolutely enjoy watching that kid play baseball," Rays reliever Troy Percival said. "He plays the game the way it's supposed to be played; he plays hard 27 outs."
Injuries limited him to 109 games this season and his production dropped, but the Rays still consider Big Papi the big boy of the Boston lineup.
"If he stood up there wrapped up in bandages swinging a bat, I'd always see him as dangerous," Rays reliever Grant Balfour said. "I'm not going to treat him any different than the guy I know as Ortiz."
Even in limited production, Ortiz hit 23 homers and drove in 89 runs, and he has a knack for getting the big hit when it's needed most.
Ortiz has had his moments in 117 games against the Rays, with a .304 career average, 34 homers, 99 RBIs and 132 hits. Expect them to use their now-standard shift, moving second baseman Akinori Iwamura to short rightfield and shortstop Jason Bartlett to the first base side of second, pitch him carefully and hope for the best.
"He's a threat," Game 1 starter James Shields said. "He's one of the most feared hitters in the league. The way he stands in the box, you've got to respect a man like that."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.