BOSTON — Red Sox LHP Jon Lester said the team's September 2011 collapse left a bitter taste in their mouths. Last year's 93-loss mess under Bobby Valentine was "just horrendous all the way around." But first-year manager John Farrell said the embarrassed group wanted to rewrite what took place and "put Boston back on the baseball map." The Red Sox did just that, leading the majors with 97 wins to claim the American League East and make their first playoff appearance in four years. They've done it with a unique chemistry and a seemingly magic touch, with 22 wins in their final at-bat, making for a tough task for the Rays.
Ace in the hole
After a miserable 2012, Red Sox ace LHP Jon Lester returned to his All-Star form. That included a big finish, in which Lester went 7-2, 2.57 in his final 13 starts heading into today's Game 1 start. "One of the top starting pitchers in the league," manager John Farrell said. "He finished the year extremely strong, powerful, with a good performance and we're looking at him to lead the way here in October."
Red Sox rust?
While the Rays have played three elimination games in the past five days, the Red Sox have had to sit and wait since Sunday. Boston tried to keep fresh with workouts, as well as a simulated game at Fenway Park on Wednesday, allowing pitchers to see some action. Though manager John Farrell said, "We can't replicate the environment the games that we've seen on TV certainly will generate," he believes his team won't be negatively impacted. "I think we're primed and ready to go," he said.
Manager John Farrell first thought the Red Sox were a special group in spring training. But it was how they came together after April's Boston Marathon bombings that set them apart. The night after the bombing, which killed three and injured hundreds after a Red Sox-Rays day game, OF Jonny Gomes hung a jersey with "Boston Strong" and area code 617 in the visitor's dugout in Cleveland. It remains a dugout fixture each game. The city rallied behind the Red Sox, with several emotionally charged ceremonies at Fenway Park creating an electric atmosphere, not including David Ortiz's f-bomb heard around the world. The "B Strong" logo is on the Green Monster, and cut into the outfield grass at Fenway. "This team's unity, the tightness, the willingness to have one another's back … continued to grow throughout the year," Farrell said.
Though the Red Sox won the season series with the Rays 12-7, five wins came in the ninth inning or later, including three walkoffs. And Tampa Bay was only outscored by a combined 14 runs, despite hitting .054 with runners in scoring position in six losses at Fenway Park. "We certainly felt like we could have switched roles," Ben Zobrist said. "We could have been the team that was clinching the AL East at the time they were and they could have been in our position, just with the way that our season series went against them, they just came out on the better end of it. Now we're hoping to reverse the roles here in the postseason."
'Fear the Beard'
The Red Sox definitely lead the playoffs in facial hair, with most of the players joining the chemistry-building bond of growing beards. OF Jonny Gomes and 1B Mike Napoli were the first to sport bushy beards in spring training, and it went from there, with 2B Dustin Pedroia and nearly everyone following suit — or, at least, trying. T-shirts saying "Fear the Beard" and "Blood, Sweat and Beards" are routinely worn around the clubhouse, with beard-tugs customary in home run celebrations. Some, including Gomes and Napoli, look like they came out of the Civil War. "It took a while for everyone to jump on," Gomes said. "I think it just shows how tight-knit a group it is. The 2008 (Rays) team had Mohawks, so it says a lot about the chemistry and guys inside here." As for who has the best one, Gomes says, "We don't grade beards. It's either have one or don't."
There has been no closer as dominating as Red Sox RHP Koji Uehara. Uehara, 38, posted a 1.09 ERA with 21 saves while retiring 27 straight batters at one point. His 0.57 walks-plus-hits per nine innings was the lowest WHIP in baseball history by a pitcher who logged at least 50 innings. Uehara isn't overpowering, his fastball barely reaching 90 mph. But he has great arm action and impressive command of his split-finger pitch, which teammates have called "invisible," leading to 101 strikeouts in 741/3 innings against nine walks. "It's very sneaky," Rays OF Sam Fuld said. "It just kind of looks like it's going to be there and all of a sudden it's by you." Uehara has been especially tough on the Rays, who have a .115 batting average against him. Manager Joe Maddon said the best way to approach Uehara is to get the lead so they never face him. "He's been outstanding," Maddon said. "He throws an invisiball. He doesn't throw that hard, but the hitters can't react to his pitches. The combination of the elevated fastball or whatever you want to call it, it's very effective."
Matchups to watch
Red Sox vs. RHP Joel Peralta
Jonny Gomes 5-for-10, 3 HRs
Jacoby Ellsbury 3-for-7, HR
David Ortiz 2-for-14
Rays vs RHP Koji Uehara
Evan Longoria 3-for-18, HR
Ben Zobrist 2-for-14
Yunel Escobar 0-for-11
Red Sox: By the Numbers
53 Home wins by the Red Sox this season, most in the American League
6.5 Runs per game by Boston in September, best in the majors
86.6 Stolen base percentage (123-for-142) for the Red Sox, best in AL history
25,639 Pitches seen by the Red Sox, most in MLB
32-22 Boston record against left-handed starters
22 Wins in last at-bat
36 Come-from-behind wins
(Red Sox won 12-7; home team in caps)
April 13: SOX 2, Rays 1 in 10 innings (walkoff single by Victorino)
April 14: SOX 5, Rays 0 (eight shutout innings by Buchholz)
April 15: SOX 3, Rays 2 (walkoff double by Napoli)
May 14: RAYS 5, Sox 3 (Moore outduels Lackey)
May 15: Sox 9, RAYS 2 (Price knocked out in third inning)
May 16: Sox 4, RAYS 3 (three-run double by Middlebrooks in ninth)
June 10: Sox 10, RAYS 8 (Saltalamacchia four hits)
June 11: RAYS 8, Sox 3 (Lester out in the fifth)
June 12: Sox 2, RAYS 1 (Aceves strong in spot start)
June 18: SOX 5, Rays 1 (Another spot start victory for Aceves)
June 19: SOX 3, Rays 1 (walkoff homer by Gomes)
June 20: Rays 6, SOX 2 (two hits, two RBIs for Gomes)
July 22: Rays 3, SOX 0 (Moore two-hitter)
July 23: SOX 6, Rays 2 (Lester posts quality start)
July 24: Rays 5, SOX 1 (Price 97-pitch complete game)
July 25: Rays 2, SOX 1 (Price allows one run in 71/3 innings)
Sept. 10: Sox 2, RAYS 0 (Buchholz five shutout innings)
Sept. 11: Sox 7, RAYS 3 in 10 innings (Carp game-winning grand slam)
Sept. 12: RAYS 4, Sox 3 (Myers, Longoria two hits apiece)