- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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The Red Sox against the Rays. The defending world champion against the best team story that baseball has seen since the Miracle Mets.
The two teams have played 18 times this year, and from all indications, they're going to play seven more. The Rays won the season series 10-8; they dominated at home, winning eight of nine games, as did the Red Sox at Fenway, winning seven of nine. The series opens at Tropicana Field. It'll be sold out, it'll be loud, and much, much more.
Here are five questions heading into the series:
How good is Jon Lester?
Right now, he is Boston's best pitcher, which includes Josh Beckett, who is one of the five greatest postseason pitchers in baseball history. Lester is 24 years old. He has won the clinching game of the World Series, he has thrown a no-hitter, and he has started Game 1 of a playoff series -- the last one to accomplish all that before turning 25 was former Red Sox pitcher Smokey Joe Wood 100 years ago.
Lester had a terrific season, then he beat John Lackey in Game 1 of the ALDS, then he was terrific again in Game 4. Lester hasn't lost at Fenway since April. But with the way the rotation could be set up, Lester wouldn't start an ALCS game at Fenway. Chances are he will start Game 2 in Tampa Bay on full rest, then he would pitch Game 6, also on the road. Home, road -- it doesn't matter. He isn't just the best pitcher on the Red Sox right now; he is the best pitcher in this series. You don't have to remind the Rays: In 20 innings against Lester this year, they scored two runs.
When were the Rays 100 percent certain they could beat the Red Sox, and win the AL East?
On Sept. 9, the Rays had lost nine straight games at Fenway Park. They were losing 4-3 entering the ninth inning. Jonathan Papelbon was on the mound with a chance not only to win the game but also to put the Red Sox back in first place.
The Rays' leadoff hitter in the ninth was pinch-hitter Dan Johnson, who was taking his first at-bat as a member of the Rays, and his first major league at-bat since April. Johnson was supposed to have started the game, but his plane to Boston was late and he didn't arrive until game time. But better late than never. He homered off Papelbon, and the Rays won it in the ninth on Dioner Navarro's double. As the Rays shook hands on the field after the win, Rays coach Don Zimmer jokingly said to Johnson, "I don't know who you are, but nice hitting.''
What is the status of Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell?
He was taken off the LDS roster before Game 4 because he was in so much pain from a hip strain. He's now ineligible to participate in the ALCS. Gil Velazquez, who was called up to the big leagues on Sept. 25, took Lowell's spot on the Red Sox's LDS roster.
The Red Sox simply aren't the same team defensively with Kevin Youkilis at third and Mark Kotsay or Sean Casey at first. Plus, Lowell is one of the better postseason players in the game. And he hit three home runs against the Rays this year. Rays closer Troy Percival (back injury) is hoping to be added to the roster for the ALCS.
How good is Tampa Bay's defense?
With Lowell out, the Rays have, without a doubt, the best defensive infield in the league. First baseman Carlos Pena is very good. Second baseman Akinori Iwamura has made an amazingly smooth transition from third base to second. "We knew he'd be great at second because he was so great at third,'' Pena said. "He is so acrobatic.''
Shortstop Jason Bartlett is the glue for the infield; his work with Iwamura in spring training made that move to second so much easier. "There have been many times this year where a ball went up the middle, I thought, 'That's a hit,' then Jason had the ball and I had to run to the bag just to get there in time,'' Pena said. Third baseman Evan Longoria has been tremendous; he will win multiple Gold Gloves before he's done. And with the return of Carl Crawford -- the best defensive left fielder in the league -- the Rays' defense will be at its best.
Can the Red Sox's pitching slow down the Tampa Bay offense?
The Rays averaged only 3.7 runs per game in the 18 games against the Red Sox this year. Boston did a really good job on B.J. Upton, who went 5-for-39 (.128). Lester was dominant against the Rays, as were Boston's two primary left-handed relievers, Hideki Okajima and Javier Lopez, who did not allow a run in 15 1/3 innings. The two pitchers the Rays did hit hard were reliever Justin Masterson and starter Tim Wakefield, who combined for four losses and 19 runs allowed in 29 2/3 innings.
But is the Boston bullpen reliable enough these days? Even closer Jonathan Papelbon was not his dominant self the last week of the regular season and even in the postseason, but he was good enough to throw five scoreless innings. And he still has never allowed a run in 19 2/3 innings in his postseason career, one-third of an inning short of the major league record held by Joe Niekro.
Prediction: Red Sox in 7.
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.
The top five questions heading into the AL Championship Series between the Red Sox and the Rays.