Tuesday, September 30, 2008 Updated: October 1, 12:55 PM ET
Pitching fuels Rays, White Sox
By Tim Kurkjian ESPN The Magazine
The Rays made all sorts of history in their remarkable 2008 season, mostly notably by becoming the first team in history to win at least 95 games after posting the worst record in the major leagues the previous season. The White Sox made a small piece of history of their own by becoming the first team ever to win its last three games of the season against three different teams. Now they play each other in one of the two American League Division Series.
Here are five questions heading into the series:
The best player in the history of the Rays healed at least a week quicker than expected, allowing him to probably start Game 1 of this series. His right hand injury likely will affect his swing (he probably will hit sixth in Game 1), but he is by far the best defensive left fielder in the league. And, if he gets on base, his speed can help change a game.
Crawford endured so much losing with the Rays, spending six weeks on the disabled list "drove me crazy," he said. "The only thing that got me through was watching us keep on winning games." Now Crawford has a chance to contribute even if it's with a hand that's not 100 percent.
How good is the White Sox's rotation?
Right now, it's very good. Ace Mark Buehrle has been terrific lately, including winning on Sunday on short rest against Kansas City to make the rescheduled rainout game Monday necessary. Buehrle could have started Game 1 on short rest, but the White Sox are going with Javier Vazquez, who labored twice toward the end of the season on short rest (he will be on full rest for Game 1).
Gavin Floyd, who won 17 games this year and pitched well in the makeup game against the Tigers last Monday, has had an exceptional year. John Danks struggled at times down the stretch, but pitched a gem in Game 163 on Tuesday against the Twins.
What is Tampa Bay's rotation?
The Rays will start James Shields in Game 1, in part because he is known to teammates as "Big Game James." He always wants the ball and never backs down.
Scott Kazmir, the Game 2 starter, is a bit of an issue. His ERA per month, starting with May, was 1.22, 3.60, 4.18, 4.02 and 5.19. In September, he allowed nine home runs, including four in a game twice during a three-start stretch; before that, he had never allowed four homers in any start in his career. Matt Garza will start Game 3. The Rays have 13-game winner Andy Sonnanstine if the series goes to Game 4.
Will the White Sox's outfield defense cost them in this series?
Perhaps. Ken Griffey Jr. made a huge defensive play in Tuesday night's win over the Twins, but he's not even close to his former self defensively. How many center fielders are replaced for defense late in a game? Jermaine Dye is just average in right field. This could be an issue because of a funky Tropicana Field with its roof, the catwalks, the big outfield and the noise. Plus, the Rays are very aggressive on the bases and surely will challenge the White Sox's outfield arms as often as they can.
Who will close for the Rays?
There's a chance that Troy Percival won't be on the first-round playoff roster because of recurring back trouble. That would leave closing primarily in the hands of Dan Wheeler, whose stuff is plenty good; he has pitched in a number of big games in his career.
The Rays have plenty of depth. "Last year," one Ray said, "we didn't have one guy who could get a big out in the late innings. Now, we have six." One is Grant Balfour. "I don't know where he came from," said Rays coach Don Zimmer with a laugh, "but every time he goes in the game, everyone strikes out." The decrease in the Rays' bullpen ERA this year was the largest by any team in 85 years.
Not one reliever who started last year with the team was on the team this year, including David Price, who likely will be kept on the roster as a secret weapon in the late innings for Chicago's left-handed hitters, specifically Jim Thome. Percival was a huge addition this season. Winning the LDS without him will be more difficult.
Prediction: Rays in five.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback on May 27. Click here to order a copy.