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Burning Questions: Red Sox-Rays

10/3/2013

The Red Sox and Rays. We have seen this only once before in the postseason -- a remarkable series in 2008 -- but many, many times during the regular season. There are no secrets here. These are two teams that don't like each other, two teams that shift a lot, two teams that have been through a lot in the past few years. There are a lot of old faces, and plenty of new ones. I can't wait for this.

Here are five questions to consider before this series starts Thursday:

How good is Red Sox closer Koji Uehara?

Koji Uehara Uehara

For the past three months, he's almost been incomparable. During that time, he's pitched 40 1/3 innings, gave up 12 hits, one run, walked two batters, struck out 52 batters and saved 17 games in 18 tries. And he does it all with an 89 mph fastball. Former Orioles teammate Mark Reynolds said the most amazing thing in baseball is watching Uehara throw it past hitters at 89 mph.

"Every time he did," Reynolds said, "I'd look at [Orioles shortstop] J.J. [Hardy] and ask, 'How did he do that?'"

Uehara has a great splitter, which makes his fastball appear quicker, and he also has a very deceptive motion. He has brought tremendous life to the Boston clubhouse and dugout with his energy and enthusiasm and recently went around Boston high-fiving Red Sox fans of all ages.

Has the past week of crucial games hurt or helped the Rays?

"When you go through something like that," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, "it has got to galvanize you, doesn't it?"

The Rays are so resilient. They are so used to playing critical games that they seemingly can overcome anything. But they needed their best pitcher these days, Alex Cobb, to win the wild-card game Wednesday night. They needed their second best pitcher these days, David Price, to win Game 163.

Matt Moore Moore

That leaves Matt Moore to start Game 1 on Friday in Boston, which isn't a bad thing. Moore's stuff is so good, he can shut out you for six innings without his best stuff while throwing the ball all over the place. He was 16-4 this year without great fastball command for most of the season.

But the Rays would have been in better shape if they could have pitched Price and Cobb in Boston for Games 1 and 2. Price had a 2.48 ERA, with 19 hits allowed, three walks and 30 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings against Boston this year, and his numbers at Fenway are ridiculous.

How do you stop Boston's offense?

You can't.

The Red Sox scored 853 runs, 57 more than any AL team. They are relentless from top to bottom, with power and speed -- they got 68 RBIs out of the No. 9 spot in the order.

The Red Sox grind out at-bats better than any team. They saw more than 1,000 more pitches than any team in the major leagues. They wear pitchers down, and then, when something is thrown near the middle of the plate, the Red Sox crush it. In this new era of great pitching, the Red Sox's offense produces, at least at times, like it was 10 years ago.

What do we make of the Rays' offense?

Evan Longoria Longoria

Maddon is the master of mixing and matching in his lineup. He knows who has the hot hand and who doesn't. Center fielder Desmond Jennings, who can't run full speed because of a hamstring injury, was just terrible at the plate recently, and now he's red hot. Delmon Young was released by the Phillies and signed by the Rays: his home run in the wild-card game against Cleveland on Wednesday night was his ninth in the postseason since 2011, the most in the major leagues in that span.

The key will be how third baseman Evan Longoria swings the bat. For roughly 70 games, he didn't produce nearly to the level of what he usually does, but down the stretch, he has been terrific: in his last 29 at-bats of the regular season, he had 12 hits, three homers and 11 RBIs. As he goes, usually so go the Rays.

How healthy is Jacoby Ellsbury?

Jacoby Ellsbury Ellsbury

He is not 100 percent, obviously, after missing a month with a fractured foot. But he came back to play three games before the end of the regular season and just as importantly, he played nine innings, which was the goal.

Ellsbury has a lot to play for, not just another championship. He can be a free agent after the season, and he needs to show teams across the major leagues that he's not soft, not brittle, and can play to a high level even when he's not 100 percent.

The pick: Red Sox in five.