The Tampa Bay Devil*Rays have thus far continued to avoid falling victim to playoff inexperience. Big time.
After splitting two games in St. Petersburg, the Rays traveled to Boston for three. In the first game, the Rays got to young Sox lefty Jon Lester early and kept the pressure on for a 9-1 victory behind a dynamite pitching performance from Matt Garza.
In the second game, the Rays began clubbing knuckleballer Tim Wakefield early and followed the same pattern in posting a 13-4 win. Andy Sonnanstine continued to burnish his reputation as a pitcher who wins with pitch placement and tons of heart.
Up 3-1, the pressure shifts to a Red Sox team that has underachieved at the plate thanks largely to Rays' pitching. Boston still has some impressive arms to throw at the Rays (I haven't forgotten rating their top three starters as slightly better than the Rays' top three), and they have a history of storming back when their backs hit the wall. Regardless, Tampa Bay fans have got to like their team's chances with Shields, Kazmir and Garza pitching and a suddenly lively batting order churning out an abundance of runs.
I've written about the Rays' struggles at the plate all year, expecting that the team might put together a hot hitting streak that would propel them to the AL East crown (or at least close). It never really happened during the regular season, but the Rays won the division anyway. With B. J. Upton (five playoff homers) recovering enough from his shoulder injury enough to finally start pulling the ball and Evan Longoria (five playoff homers) becoming ever more comfortable with big league pitching, perhaps the Rays are set to enjoy that hot hitting streak at the perfect time of year.
We'll know more on Thursday, when the series picks up with the final game in Boston ... and perhaps the final game in the ALCS for 2008. The Rays eliminate Boston with a win.