Big RAAAAAAAANDY is ready for the ALDS. (Photo Credit: Tampa Bay Rays)

After a four-day respite following a regular-season capping series win against the Yankees, the Tampa Bay Rays are set to start the best of five American League Division Series against the Red Sox on Thursday, at the Trop. Meanwhile, after dropping two consecutive series to the Yankees and Orioles, the Red Sox swept the Nationals in their final series of the season, then defeated the Yankees in the AL Wildcard game.

At 100-62 on the season, the Rays enter play as the top team in the American League, while the Red Sox ended the season 92-70 and tied with the Yankees for second in the division.

Despite many injuries that would normally sink a team’s chances — just ask the Padres — Tampa Bay returned to the postseason for the third consecutive season. They won the division for a second consecutive season and clinched home-field advantage through the American League playoffs. When all was said and done, the Rays put together their most successful regular-season team in Tampa Bay history.

The Rays have shown they can win games in a variety of ways, regardless of the opponent. That versatility will serve them well in the postseason.

They have plenty of power; Brandon Lowe, Mike Zunino, Austin Meadows, Nelson Cruz, and Randy Arozarena all hit at least 20 home runs, while six others hit at least 10. They also boast a roster that works tough at-bats and gets on base. Yandy Díaz, Ji-Man Choi, and Wander Franco exemplify that. To that end, the resilient roster has shown the remarkable ability to score late in games; consider that they have scored 117 late runs — 14% of their total output. To that end, the Rays have come from behind to win more games than any team in the league. Yet, the Red Sox run a very close second in that category.

Expect Cruz and Franco to loom large the next few days. Boomstick drove in 36 runs in 55 games with the Rays and boasts a career 1.019 OPS in 46 career postseason games with 17 home runs. As for Wander, the rookie sensation has reached base in 46 of his last 47 regular-season games, and he drove in 16 runs, hit three homers, had more walks than strikeouts (9:7), and hit to a 1.007 OPS in 16 games versus Boston.

Tampa Bay should benefit from having a home-field advantage. Tropicana Field can get deafening and rowdy as evidenced by their home games against Houston in the 2019 ALDS.

For us to have the first two games at home is going to be huge for us. This place was electric back in 2019. I think it’s going to be just that and then some tomorrow and we’re all going to be very excited about it.

— Kevin Kiermaier

There’s another benefit to the Trop though: the mound. The Rays posted a 2.93 ERA at home this season — about a run and a half better than their road ERA. That will only help Tampa Bay’s pitching staff, which has performed to a combined 3.67 ERA and 3.79 FIP, with a 1.17 WHIP and a 24.6 K%. That breaks down to a 4.08 ERA and a 3.98 FIP for the starting rotation on the season (4.53 ERA and a 4.13 FIP in the second half), and a 3.24 ERA and a 3.59 FIP for the relief corps (3.21 ERA and a 3.64 FIP in the second half). Compare that to Boston, whose pitching staff maintains a combined 4.26 ERA and a 3.95 FIP, with a 1.38 WHIP.

Tampa Bay won the season series against Boston, 11-8, and are the favorites in the series. Yet, while the Rays are in the top two in overall runs scored, they outscored the Red Sox by just two runs. Six of those games were decided by just one run. Even so, Tampa Bay won 11 of the last 15 against Boston after starting the season 0-4.

PITCHING PROBABLES

In the first three games of the series, Kevin Cash will turn to Shane McClanahan (10-6, 3.43 ERA), Shane Baz (2-0, 2.03 ERA), and Drew Rasmussen (4-0, 2.44 ERA). Alex Cora will counter with Eduardo Rodriguez (13-8, 4.74 ERA), Chris Sale (5-1, 3.16 ERA), and likely Nathan Eovaldi (11-9, 3.75 ERA).

Shane McClanahan allowed a run on three hits and struck out three in three innings against the Yankees on Friday. McClanahan only threw 43 pitches (28 strikes, 65% strike rate) in the contest, yet that was due to workload management for the 24-year-old, who was getting one last tuneup before the playoffs. He finished the regular season with a 3.43 ERA and a 3.31 FIP, with a 1.27 WHIP and 3.81 K/BB across 123.1 innings. He made three starts against Boston this season, finishing 1-1 with a stellar 2.81 ERA. The Red Sox are batting .245 in 53 plate appearances off McClanahan over that stretch.

Eduardo Rodriguez pitched a perfect inning on Sunday against Washington. With a playoff spot on the line, manager Alex Cora took no chances, turning to the hurler late after he threw five shutout innings Friday. The 28-year-old ended the regular season with a 4.74 ERA and a 3.32 FIP, with a 1.39 WHIP, and 3.94 K/BB across 157.2 innings. After the All-Star Break, Rodriguez posted a 3.76 ERA in 67 innings across 14 starts. The southpaw has given up two earned runs or fewer in each of his last five appearances although he has completed six innings or more just once in that span. In four starts against the Rays this season, Rodriguez is 1-1 with a 4.71 ERA. He owns a career 2-4 record, and a lifetime-5.21 ERA in 13 starts versus Tampa Bay, including a 4.26 ERA in seven career starts at Tropicana Field. Key Matchups: Randy Arozarena (4-11, 2B), Yandy Díaz (7-17, 2B, 2 BB), Brandon Lowe (4-13, 3 HR, 4 RBI), Manuel Margot (4-12, 2B, RBI), Francisco Mejía (2-5, RBI, BB), Joey Wendle (1-2), Mike Zunino (4-11, 2B, 3B, HR, 3 RBI, 2 BB)

Shane Baz gave up one run on a hit and two walks across 2.2 innings. He struck out four. With Tampa Bay already having the best record in the American League locked up, Kevin Cash elected to give Baz some extra rest ahead of the playoffs — a sign that right-hander will play a big part in Tampa Bay’s postseason pitching plans. Baz threw 51 pitches (28 strikes, 55% strike rate) before exiting, and he wrapped up the regular season with a 2.03 ERA and a 4.06 FIP, with a 6.00 K/BB through 13.1 frames.

Chris Sale surrendered two runs on four hits and three walks with seven strikeouts in 2.1 innings against the Nationals on Sunday. Alex Cora was quick to give Sale the quick hook, for the second consecutive start, once he pitched into a jam in the third inning. The southpaw ended the regular season with a 3.16 ERA and a 3.69 FIP, with a 1.34 WHIP, and 4.33 K/BB in 42.2 innings across nine starts. Sale is 0-0 with a 2.79 ERA in two starts against Rays this season, however, all that glitters is not gold — in his second turn against Tampa Bay, he gave up five runs (one earned) on 10 hits in 3.2 innings of work. In that outing, the Rays tagged the left-hander for four fourth-inning runs which later were deemed unearned. Key Matchups: Nelson Cruz (12-35, 3B, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 2 BB), Yandy Díaz (6-12, 2 2B, 3B, 3 RBI, BB), Wander Franco (4-6, 3B, HR, 2 RBI), Kevin Kiermaier (6-20, HR, 3 RBI, BB), Manuel Margot (3-5)

Drew Rasmussen hurled five scoreless frames during which he allowed one hit and no walks while striking out two Astros. Rasmussen held Houston without a baserunner for 4.1 frames before Yuli Gurriel broke through with a single. Rasmussen completed the inning without surrendering any damage on the scoreboard. He threw only 54 pitches (42 strikes, 78% strike rate, 17% StStr%) despite his dominance. Rasmussen finished his 2021 campaign with a 2.84 ERA and a 2.86 FIP, with a 1.08 WHIP, and a 2.92 K/BB across 76 innings.

Nathan Eovaldi allowed one run on four hits and no walks while striking out eight across 5.1 innings against the Yankees on Tuesday. Eovaldi tossed six scoreless frames in his final regular-season tuneup, and he maintained his success in his first postseason outing of the season. The right-hander exited the contest after he gave up a solo home run to Anthony Rizzo with one out in the sixth inning. Eovaldi finished his 2021 campaign with a 3.75 ERA and a 2.89 ERA, with a 1.19 WHIP, and a 5.57 K/BB across 182.1 innings. Key Matchups: Ji-Man Choi (5-19, 2B, HR, 3 RBI), Brandon Lowe (5-19, 2B, HR, 2 RBI, 3 BB), Manuel Margot (2-7), Austin Meadows (7-21, 2 2B, 3B, HR, 3 RBI, BB), Francisco Mejía (2-7, 2B, HR, 2 RBI, BB), Joey Wendle (6-17, 2B, 3B, HR, RBI, 2 BB)

NOTEWORTHINESS

— Rays manager Kevin Cash set the ALDS roster Thursday morning, opting to include 13 pitchers and 13 position players for the opening round. The roster includes RHP Matt Wisler, LHP Josh Fleming, and OF/1B Jordan Luplow. Surprising to many, OF Brett Phillips and LHP Ryan Yarbrough were not included on the roster.

Yarbrough had been very effective over the last two weeks of the season, maintaining a 1-1 record with a 2.53 ERA and 3.64 FIP, to go along with a 0.66 WHIP, and a 7.00 K/BB across 10.2 frames. He, however, has not fared well against Boston. Be that as it may, Fleming had performed to an 0-2 record, and a 7.36 ERA and 2.90 FIP across his last 3.2 innings of work, with a 1.36 WHIP, and a 2.00 K/BB. Given his sub-three FIP, and a .308 BABIP, there is likely some bad luck at play with the left-handed hurler.

Cash likely opted to go with Luplow over Phillips since he has more defensive flexibility, and has slashed .308 BA/.357 OBP/.590 SLG/.947 OPS over the month of September, with four runs, seven RBI, and a 162 wRC+.

You can see the ALDS roster in its entirety below.

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