The Tampa Bay Rays are going to have their hands full this afternoon against Boston Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.
Lester, a cancer survivor, emerged as one of the premier starters in the American League during the regular season, going 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA and 152-to-62 K/W ratio in 33 starts while limiting opponents to a line of .256/.318/.368 and .686 OPS. This was, in large part, due to the return of his mid-90s fastball velocity and improved control and efficiency with his pitches.
And Lester has been on his game as of late, having tossed 14.0 consecutive scoreless innings in two postseason starts against the Los Angeles Angels in the Division Series. He entered the playoffs coming off a stretch in which he went 4-1 with a 2.14 ERA and limited opponents to a .220 batting average in September.
But equally concerning for the Rays, Lester has been practically untouchable at Fenway Park, where he is 11-1 with a 2.49 ERA mark and has surrendered only eight home runs in 115.2 innings pitched. On the road, his ERA jumped to 4.09.
The Rays have the momentum right now after the thrilling, extra-innings victory on Saturday night. But, in baseball, momentum only lasts until you run into an excellent pitcher.
That is exactly what Jon Lester is--perhaps the new Boston ace.
The Rays will turn to Matt Garza, who is a bulldog on the mound and has tremendous stuff. Garza, though, is coming off a so-so outing against the Chicago White Sox in the Division series in which he struggled to locate his fastball. In six innings, he allowed five earned runs on seven hits. More concerning, though, he had his fair share of command issues throughout the night, walking four.
In 30 starts during the regular season, Garza established himself as a legitimate number three starter in an improved Tampa Bay rotation, making Andrew Friedman look like a genius for pulling the trigger on the Delmon Young deal. He improved his fastball command and reaped the benefits of pitching in front of an excellent defense behind him.
Overall, Garza pitched a whole lot better than his 11-9 record indicates, posting a 3.70 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. He was tough to hit as well, limiting opponents to a line of .245/.304/.377 and .681 OPS in 184.2 innings.
However, Garza struggled down the stretch, posting his highest ERA total for any month in September while his once-common struggles with fastball command returned. And he was tagged for five earned runs in his lone start at Fenway this season.
Garza will need to make it through six innings, as the Rays' bullpen could use one more day of rest after Saturday night.
Ditto for Lester, who will benefit from facing a predominantly left-handed Tampa Bay lineup. Rocco Baldelli will start to negate some of that, but Lester is extra tough on left-hander hitters (.571 LHP opponents' OPS) and several core hitters in the Rays' lineup have struggled at times against southpaws.
The key for the Rays is to get to the Boston bullpen early, which will be quite a challenge. Scoring is going to be at a minimum for Tampa Bay against Lester.
And Garza must rise up to the challenge, matching him pitch for pitch. The Rays have got to this point by relying on excellent run prevention, so if Garza can keep the score close and the game is decided by relievers, the Rays have a much better chance of taking the series lead.
In order to advance to the World Series, Tampa Bay will need to win at least one game in which Lester, who will likely start Game 7 if needed, takes the ball.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com. Tune to the main page for a live blog during the game this afternoon.