The Rays finished eight games ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East standings and won 11 of the teams’ 19 head-to-head matchups during the regular season. Tampa Bay enters the ALDS as a sizable favorite, while Boston is looking to ride the momentum of an AL Wild Card Game win over the New York Yankees.
So, which Red Sox player could be the X factor as Boston shoots for an upset?
We posed this question to our NESN Digital team and received a wide range of responses, which included both pitchers (starters and relievers) and position players.
Lauren Campbell: Nick Pivetta, RHP
Pivetta was a pleasant surprise for the Red Sox this season and also looked dominant out of the bullpen in Boston’s regular-season finale against the Washington Nationals. Pitching wins you games, right? Beating the Rays will be a tall task, but if Pivetta can mirror what he did against the Nationals, he could prove to be one of the unsung heroes for Boston in the ALDS. He also could come in for long relief should a starter need to exit early, so he provides the Red Sox with some stability before they’d need to dive deeper into their bullpen.
Jenna Ciccotelli: Alex Verdugo, OF
He is so fired up for this series — if that alone decided the winner, then you could just award him the World Series trophy right now. This is a Red Sox team that thrives off positive energy. (You are talking about a group of grown men who go for laundry cart rides and wear the same jerseys for weeks when they might be lucky.) All of this is to say if he brings what he had in the Wild Card Game to the ALDS, and he’ll be unstoppable.
Mike Cole: Tanner Houck, RHP
It seems the Red Sox are hoping the 25-year-old right-hander can be the 2021 version of 2018 Nathan Eovaldi. Houck’s ERA as a reliever was a run lower than as a starter, and he was lights out in the Wild Card Game. Boston should be able to use him as a weapon, with Alex Cora calling him on to play a number of roles if needed — perhaps even starting — and that makes Houck integral to success.
Ricky Doyle: Christian Arroyo, IF
Someone must step up in the Red Sox bullpen, and Houck and Pivetta are prime candidates to log meaningful innings. I like those picks a lot. But let’s roll with Arroyo, who spent parts of two seasons with the Rays (2018-19) and has had his 2020 campaign beset by both injuries and COVID-19.
Arroyo has produced exactly one hit in 15 plate appearances since July 17. He’s presumably healthy now, though, and not a moment too soon, as he becomes the Red Sox’s starting second baseman with José Iglesias ineligible for the postseason roster. Arroyo provides defensive stability — most notably, his return allows Kiké Hernández to stick in center field — and he’s demonstrated a flair for the dramatic before.
Adam London: Bobby Dalbec, 1B
Dalbec could see more playing time against the Rays than initially anticipated as J.D. Martinez deals with an ankle injury. The young first baseman enjoyed a very productive second half of the regular season at the plate, and if he carries it over into the ALDS, it very well could be what takes Boston over the top against Tampa Bay. Of course, that’s as long as the Sox’s top dogs live up to expectations.
First base also has been somewhat of a revolving door for Boston this season, so the club very much would benefit from Dalbec locking it down and playing sound defense.
Marcus O’Mard: Nathan Eovaldi, RHP
Eovaldi will enhance his reputation as a big-game pitcher, coming through in the clutch when the Red Sox need him most. Strong starts in each of his outings will help Boston avoid falling into deep holes and perhaps turn the tide of the series.
Logan Mullen: Hansel Robles, RHP
Alex Cora hasn’t been afraid to use him in big spots since he arrived in Boston at the MLB trade deadline. And after an erratic start, he has really settled down to become a pivotal part of the Red Sox’s bullpen. We could see Robles being one of the arms Cora goes to quickly, a la 2016 Andrew Miller with Cleveland.
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