ST. PETERSBURG — Just like that, the storyline changes. The mood, momentum and odds, too.
The Red Sox have done what they needed to do — gained a split at Tropicana Field with a 14-6 victory Friday night — and now they have homefield advantage in what has been reduced to a best-of-three series. Nervous, yet?
The American League Division Series is tied after two games, and yet it feels as if the Rays are heading to Boston with a limp. Since MLB introduced the 2-2-1 version of the divisional round in 1995, a visiting team that gains a split in the first two games of the series has gone on to advance slightly more than 60 percent of the time. In other words, the Red Sox now have history on their side.
Of course, that doesn’t mean anything inside the Tampa Bay clubhouse, but the condition of the pitching staff does. The Rays need to win at least one game at Fenway Park just to get the series back to Tampa Bay, and that could be a dicey proposition based on matchups.
The current plan is for the Rays to start Drew Rasmussen in one of the games and a collection of bullpen arms in the other. The Red Sox, meanwhile, will have Cy Young Award candidate Nathan Eovaldi on the mound in Game 3. Nervous, yet?
“It won’t be our first time playing at Fenway,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “It’s a great ballpark. You know they’re going to have a packed stadium with great fans, and we’re embracing that challenge and that adversity. If we go out there and regroup and play our style of game, we’ll be fine.”
Look, here’s the bottom line:
The Rays are a better team than the Red Sox. That was proven in the crucible of a six-month regular season. Tampa Bay finished eight games ahead of Boston in the American League East and beat the Red Sox 11 times in 19 head-to-head meetings.
But a five-game series is a different type of test than 162 regular-season games. And one misstep can put a better team in an unforgiving hole.
That’s what Friday night felt like by the time the Red Sox finally put their bats away.
Yes, the Rays got a shaky postseason debut from 22-year-old pitcher Shane Baz, but that was virtually forgotten by the end of the first inning. Jordan Luplow electrified the crowd of 37,616 with a grand slam in the bottom of the first as the Rays chased Boston ace Chris Sale from the mound. It was the second straight night that a Boston starting pitcher failed to get out of the second inning.
At that point, Tampa Bay had outscored the Red Sox 10-2 over the first 10 innings of the series, and it seemed like cow bells and rally towels were here to stay.
But instead of burying the Red Sox when they had the chance, the Rays surrendered their shovels.
“It’s a loss, it didn’t go our way (Friday),” manager Kevin Cash said. “But you enjoy the off day and then bounce back and know that we’ll be in a great ballpark venue to play Game 3.”
While the offense went somnambulant in the middle innings, the bullpen was the real culprit on Friday night. The Rays came into the postseason thinking their stable of relievers was good enough to carry them through the end of the month, but there had been some warning signs of deterioration.
Rays relievers had blown six saves in September, but that turned out to be just an opening act for what happened in Game 2. Between them, Collin McHugh and Matt Wisler gave up three homers and five runs in less than three innings of work.
“We didn’t pitch to the best of our abilities,” Zunino said. “You chalk it up as a bad game.”
Yes, it was a bad game. But there are also a handful of bad signs.
Brandon Lowe had finished the regular season on a tear, hitting .410 with five homers in his last nine games. Now, he’s gone 0-for-8 with three strikeouts in the first two games of the ALDS. Which would be easier to overlook if he hadn’t hit .118 last October.
Michael Wacha had thrown 10 innings of one-hit shutout ball in his last two appearances of the regular season but gave up nine hits and six runs in 2-2/3 innings of work in Game 2. That kind of eliminates him from consideration if the Rays had been thinking of an alternative to the bullpen day in Game 3 or 4.
And Eovaldi had a 2.39 ERA in 26-1/3 innings against the Rays this season with 31 strikeouts and only 15 hits. The Red Sox were 5-10 against the Rays when using other starters in the regular season, but were 3-1 in Eovaldi’s four starts.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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