Red Sox, Rays start ALDS at Fenway

( - What a difference a year makes.

The Boston Red Sox lost 93 games last season. This year they head into the postseason as the top team in the American League. The Red Sox begin their first postseason run in four years on Friday in the best-of-five American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Only two teams were worse than Boston in the AL in 2012, leading to the dismissal of manager Bobby Valentine after just one season. So, out with the old and in with the new, as the team hired John Farrell away from Toronto to be the new skipper.

All Farrell did was put himself atop most people's AL Manager of the Year ballots, as he guided the Red Sox to a 28-game turnaround and ended the year 97-65, leading the club to its first AL East title since their World Series championship season of 2007.

The 97 wins were also the second most for the team since 1978.

Farrell, of course, was the Red Sox pitching coach under Terry Francona, and his impact was immediately evident, especially among the starting staff which saw their ERA decrease by nearly two runs from the prior season

Two of his former proteges, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, benefited the most, as both enjoyed bounce-back campaigns. Buchholz pitched to a 4.56 ERA in 2012, but was the best pitcher in baseball until a shoulder injury sidelined him for three months.

Still, he ended the year 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA.

Lester, meanwhile, will get the ball in Game 1 for the Red Sox. Like Buchholz, the left-hander struggled through 2012, posting a 9-14 ledger with a 4.82 ERA. He reverted back to the pitcher he was under Farrell this season, though, going 15-8 with a 3.75 ERA.

"Last year was just horrendous all the way around," Lester said.

In his 13 starts since the All-Star break, Lester is 7-2 with a 2.57 ERA.

"To be named Game 1 starter, especially after last year," Lester said, "big honor, obviously, very excited."

Offensively the Red Sox are still led by 37-year-old designated hitter David Ortiz, who put forth his seventh 30-homer/100-RBI season and hit .309 to boot.

Boston was criticized for giving outfielder Shane Victorino a 3-year, $39 million deal this offseason, but the Flying Hawaiian was one of the team's top performers this season, hitting .294 with 15 home runs, 61 RBI, 82 runs scored and 21 stolen bases.

Not to mention Victorino has had a penchant for coming up big in the postseason, as he has driven in 30 runs in 46 playoff games.

"He's added a grit to this team that we've seen repeatedly with the pain threshold in which he's played with," Farrell said. "He's been banged up for a lot of the year, but it hasn't forced him out of the lineup for really extended periods, and he gives us a well-rounded player both offensively and defensively in that 2-hole. He can play the small game. We've seen his ability to drive the ball out of the ballpark. He's a smart baseball player. He keeps things lively in the clubhouse, as I'm sure you all have seen. He's been a very good addition to this club."

One player to watch this series could be outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who missed most of September with a compression fracture in his right foot. The soon-to-be free agent, though, hit .298 this season and stole 52 bases.

The Red Sox as a team stole 123 bases this season, but it will be interesting to see if Ellsbury's foot allows him to be active in October.

If you are looking for an MVP on this Red Sox club you may have to look to the bullpen where right-hander Koji Uehara stepped up, as both Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were lost for the season with injuries, and saved 21 games while pitching to a remarkable 1.09 ERA.

Uehara, whose ERA was the best in the majors of any pitcher with 50 or more innings, also posted a mind-blowing 0.57 walks plus hits per nine innings - the lowest WHIP in baseball history by a pitcher who logged at least 50 innings, surpassing by a considerable margin the 0.61 standard set by Dennis Eckersley in 1989.

He didn't walk a batter over his final 22 appearances and posted a 0.72 in save chances.

"When you're surprised that he gives up a baserunner, that means he's having a pretty good year," said reliever Craig Breslow. "Maybe my metrics are a little bit subjective, but when you can't remember the last time a guy's been on base, he's having a good year. He's been absolutely dominant, especially considering that coming into the season he was probably the third, fourth, fifth option to close."

Tampa, meanwhile, has been in postseason mode for a while now. In fact, after a mad dash just to put themselves into the wild card mix at the end of the season, the Rays have already played two elimination games.

Pitching has been Tampa's calling card and that was again the case in Wednesday's wild card matchup with Cleveland, as Alex Cobb tossed 6 2/3 scoreless innings, Delmon Young belted a solo homer and Desmond Jennings hit a two-run double to carry the Rays past the Indians, 4-0.

The Rays had thrown a team-record 17 shutouts during the regular season, including four in their final 18 games.

Tampa's season nearly ended Sunday, but it kept it alive by winning the last game of the regular season in Toronto. A day later, the Rays clinched their fourth postseason trip in six years by upending the Texas Rangers in a one- game tiebreaker to capture the AL's second wild card spot.

"That's three different difficult venues ... all in enemy territory," Tampa manager Joe Maddon said of his club's recent stretch. "I'm so proud of our guys. It was outstanding to watch and I was very proud."

As good as Boston's starters were this season, Tampa's were even better with a 3.81 ERA. None were better than lefty Matt Moore, who will take the ball in Game 1 for Maddon's team.

"We feel very confident about our pitchers pitching against anybody, and we've done well," Maddon said. "Part of that is we talked about that prior to the fact that our guys are used to pitching or playing in that venue, whether it's Yankee Stadium packed, Fenway Park packed, we kind of dig it."

Moore, who tossed seven scoreless innings in his only other postseason start back in 2011, was fantastic in his second full season, going 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA in 27 starts.

The 24-year-old hurler pitched well against the Red Sox in two starts during the regular season, going 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings. He gave up three runs in six innings in a 5-3 win at Tropicana Field on May 14 before throwing his first career shutout on July 22 at Fenway Park.

The Rays are an amazing 82-18 when they allow four runs or less. Keeping Boston in check could be a chore, though, as the Red Sox were the only team in the league to have scored more than 800 runs.

Tampa's pitching will have to be on the mark, as the offense ranked just ninth in the American League with 700 runs scored. It's a lineup, though, that is built to grind out wins.

Third baseman Evan Longoria is as vital to the Rays' offensive attack as Ortiz is to the Red Sox. Longo remained relatively healthy this season and hit .269 with 32 home runs and 88 RBI. Of his 19 postseason hits, 13 of them have gone for extra bases.

Of course these teams are no stranger to one another. Boston, though, dominated the season series, taking 12 of the 19 matchups.

"They really pitched well against us," Maddon said. "We just did not swing the bats well, and that speaks to their pitching. They have a really good pitching staff. They have a great starting staff. They have a tremendous bullpen. I do anticipate a lot of the same in the playoffs as we continue."

Tampa actually beat the Red Sox in seven games back in 2008 to advance to the World Series in the only other postseason series between the clubs.