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Sticking to the formula: Red Sox offensive explosion against Rays starters continues a pattern

10.06.13 at 10:37 pm ET
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Two games, two statements.

It seemed fair to expect that, based on what transpired during the regular season against the upper echelon of left-handed starters, and specifically against Rays Game 1 and Game 2 starters Matt Moore and David Price, the Red Sox might struggle to claw their way to some offense in the first two contests of their American League Division Series. It didn’t happen that way.

The Red Sox beat up on both Rays left-handers in a way that they’d never done so before. Moore had a 1.80 ERA against the Sox during the regular season. In part because of some of the defensive lapses behind him, it hardly showed on Friday, when they mauled the All-Star for eight runs (seven earned) while knocking him out of the game after 4 1/3 innings. Meanwhile, Price had gone 20 straight starts against the Sox without giving up as many as six runs — the second-longest streak by any pitcher since 2000 — before getting beaten up for seven runs in seven-plus innings.

“Are you surprised?” Shane Victorino beamed on Saturday night. “C’mon, man.”

Victorino was kidding. On one level, he and everyone else with the Sox recognized that it was startling to see the Sox erupt for such lopsided wins (claiming victories of 12-2 and 7-4) against starters with the pedigrees of Price (the reigning AL Cy Young winner) and Moore (an All-Star this year).

On the other hand, there was an element that should have been utterly unsurprising about the performances. The Sox’ offensive success this year — the Sox scored 5.27 runs per game in the regular season, plating a whopping 57 more runs than any other team — featured a nearly unrivaled ability to deliver powerful knockout blows to opposing starters. The team’s oft-discussed grinding approach at the plate resulted in a .349 OBP (tops in the big leagues) while ranking second in the majors in pitches per plate appearance (4.01 per trip to the dish). The result? A lot of plate appearances (because they were getting batters on base) that forced opposing pitchers to labor.

The Sox led the American League by knocking out the opposing starter before he’d completed five innings on 41 occasions. It’s not an accident.

“That’s our goal every game,” said Sox hitting coach Greg Colbrunn. “Go up there, put together solid at-bats and if we knock them out before five, good things will happen. Guys go up there trying to have quality at-bats. They’ll pick and choose times to be aggressive, and pick and choose times to go up there, see a couple pitches and make the pitcher work. Guys are not necessarily trying to see pitches, but making the pitcher throw quality pitches. You do that one through nine on an everyday basis, even though we don’t score runs in some innings, guys put together quality at-bats and next thing you know, you have 40 pitches after two. Whether we scored or not, every at-bat or every inning of every game, we’re doing a real good job of it. Anytime you knock the opposing starter out before five, it’s a good thing.”

Only the Braves, with 42 knockouts before five full innings, finished ahead of the Sox. Both, of course, are playoff teams — a common occurrence, as it turns out, for lineups that proved capable of forcing an opposing starter from the game before he’d recorded 15 outs, as the graphic to the right would suggest.

The ability to jump of Price for seven runs likewise underscored the Sox’ quick-strike ability against an opposing starter, with six of the runs coming in the first five innings, on a night where the Sox adapted their approach and attacked his offerings early in counts. The ability to put up prolific offensive totals against an opposing starter represented the continuation of another pattern that was at the heart of the Sox’ success this year, as the team scored six or more runs against an opposing starter 30 times during the regular season — second most in the majors, behind only the 34 such contests in which the Tigers participated.

So, the identity of the pitchers on the mound when the Sox unleashed their Game 1 and Game 2 attacks made their accomplishments somewhat surprising. Still, what the team did in the first two games of the ALDS was very much in keeping with what made them the top team in baseball throughout the course of the regular season.

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