BOSTON -- There will be plenty of excitement, loads of intensity and your usual allotment of postseason drama when the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox kick off their American League Division Series on Friday at Fenway Park.
One thing there won’t be is unfamiliarity.
Not only did the teams play 19 times this season, but they were always aware of what the other one was up to as the primary competitors for tops in the AL East, at least until Boston opened things up in September.
“No surprises,” Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said Thursday. “They’re a good team. You’ve got to continue to fight. You’re not going to let off the brakes or let off the gas, you’re just going to go hard.”
That familiarity can be a blessing and a curse. While it is nice to know another team’s tendencies, that street runs both ways. For the Sox, contending with Tampa Bay’s ability to play small ball and squeeze the most out of a pitching-and-defense-first mentality is the key.
“First of all they come in playing a very good brand of baseball, consistent with what we’ve experienced against them, strong starting pitching, very good defense,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “They have a way of some timely hitting with an improved offense this year over recent years.”
Boston won 12 of the 19 matchups this season. Ten of those games were decided by two runs or fewer. That matters, but the intensity between the rivals extends far beyond 2013. There was the memorable encounter in the 2008 American League Championship Series, the only prior postseason meeting between the teams. There were also multiple skirmishes between the teams over the years, many when the (Devil) Rays were in their infancy and perennial losers, but one in 2008 that seemed to signal a turning point for Tampa Bay, which reached the World Series that season.
One current Red Sox player, left fielder Jonny Gomes, was heavily involved in that tussle while sporting a Tampa Bay uniform. He understands as well as anyone the routes that both organizations have taken since then.
“I think that kind of set the tone for the organization to where like, [we were] sick and tired of them taking our lunch money,” Gomes said. “Took it back. I ended up leaving but they kept that momentum.”
The on-field fights have died down, but the intensity of the matchups has remained steady. For the Sox, they can key in on specified items when laying out a game plan. First and foremost on that list is their approach to left-handed pitching, as imposing southpaws Matt Moore and David Price are lined up for Games 1 and 2.
Farrell knows what those two are capable of, but is confident with adjustments his team has made over the course of the season. For the season, the Sox had a .337 on-base percentage against lefties, which ranked second in the American League.
“I like the fact that since a July series in here where Moore and Price were dominant against us, toward the middle of that second half and beyond, we fared very well against left-handed starters,” Farrell said. “We know we’re going up against a very good starting rotation, led off by the two left-handers, Price and Moore. But [our approach will be] probably pretty consistent with what we’ve seen against left-handed starters. What our lineup has been will be reflected tomorrow.”
Boston managed two runs on 12 hits in three games against Price and Moore near the end of July. Like Farrell, the players feel as if things are different now.
“Yeah, we hit lefties good, second half,” said designated hitter David Ortiz, who was 5-for-18 with a home run against Price and Moore this season. “We had our right-handed hitters take over. That’s definitely what we need. Lefty on lefty is a battle.”
On the other side, the Rays seem similarly concerned about the pitching they will face, but also confident they’ll be fully prepared to tackle familiar foes.
“Primarily it’s their pitching presents very difficult for us,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “I like their starters. Their starters are really good. [Jon] Lester has re-found himself. John Lackey has had a great year. [Clay] Buchholz is back. He’s always been tough for us. [Jake] Peavy is their fourth game starter; that’s not bad. Their bullpen also gets progressively better, gaining progress.
“So they’re good, their pitching is really good. We’ve been able to kind of keep them at bay offensively, but I don’t take anything for granted with that, either. They’re such a prodigious offensive ballclub. If you look at the history of this season, it’s been primarily their pitching has really been tough for us. Now having said all that, we'll do a little bit better offensively. ... I want to believe the journey we’ve just gone through is going to hopefully relax our hitters a bit, so you might see a better offensive ballclub, to go along with pitching and defense.”
The Sox limited the Rays to an average of three runs per game in the 19 encounters.
The 24-year-old Moore is somewhat new to the rivalry, but has already sensed the joy that comes from taking on the Sox in Boston.
“For me right now, this is the biggest series, as far as rivalries go,” he said. “This is a great place for us to win on the road. I haven’t felt this good going on the field celebrating. I know our record against them this year is not too shiny but it’s definitely a very good feeling celebrating, you know, shaking hands in the middle of the field here. It’s nice.”
The Sox will turn to time-honored tactics in an effort to prevent that sort of celebration. In a matchup so familiar, knowledge is power.
“We know that they know but we know that they know that I know,” Saltalamacchia said.
The backstop’s phrasing was somewhat hard to follow, but we all got the point. There will be few secrets when the Rays and Red Sox tangle. There will be plenty of everything else.