Experience different for ALCS foes
Sox boast solid postseason resume, while Rays just starting
ST. PETERSBURG -- Rays reliever Dan Wheeler will never forget the feeling he had as he walked out of Houston's Minute Maid Park three years ago, having just been swept out of the 2005 World Series. It was his second postseason run with the Astros, and he wondered if he'd get back.
"It was an amazing experience," Wheeler recalled. "We lost four in a row in the World Series, but I remember thinking, 'I hope this isn't the last chance I get.' I'm very blessed to be in the same situation."
In terms of postseason experience, some are more blessed than others. How much of a difference is the frame around this American League Championship Series.
When Wheeler closed out the White Sox in Game 4 of the AL Division Series on Monday, it was his 14th career postseason appearance, trailing only Chad Bradford on the club. That would barely rank Wheeler in the top 10 if he were on the other side.
One head-to-head meeting separated the 95-win Red Sox and 97-win Rays, both in their season series and the standings. The teams, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said this week, match up well in their strengths. The biggest difference is the Red Sox's experience level.
Red Sox's postseason experience
"Been there, done that," Maddon said. "They understand how this part of the year works."
The game totals are hard to ignore. What it means is more difficult to define: What does experience earn you in October nowadays? For every Red Sox run, Yankees dynasty or Cardinals surge over the Tigers in 2006, there are the upstart 2003 Marlins or '02 Angels.
On one hand, Boston overcame a 3-1 deficit in last year's ALCS to topple Cleveland before sweeping Colorado for its second World Series championship in four seasons, and it just outplayed the team with baseball's best record in 2008 to advance out of the ALDS.
On the other hand, one clutch play after another last October came from then-rookie second baseman Dustin Pedroia, and the series win over the Angels ended with a walk-off single from rookie shortstop Jed Lowrie.
"For me, all it does is prove to everybody else what you're capable of," Lowrie said. "You've shown what you can do. But for a guy like me, who's never done it before, it comes down to what I have inside of me. It hasn't been proven yet.
"I had a good series in the ALDS, but [now] it's another first -- ALCS. It's just a matter of going out there and doing it."
Many Rays can relate. Just eight had postseason experience before this year, and aside from Bradford, Wheeler and Cliff Floyd, it's limited. Even Troy Percival hasn't pitched in the postseason since 2002.
The Rays proved themselves in the ALDS with two comeback wins vs the White Sox. Now, it's another level.
Rays' postseason experience
It's not that the game changes. The team that executes best gives itself the best chance to win. The difference is the pressure and intensity of a packed crowd and national television audience, and how players react as they try to execute plays they've done countless times in the regular season.
"It's just the experience of being through all of it before," said Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, a rookie with the Pirates in the 1992 National League Championship Series. "The emotional side of it, knowing what to expect, a lot of guys in this clubhouse have been there before. It's just a matter of preparing as best as you know how."
Lowrie noticed the difference on his own without any help.
"You can tell that the intensity is turned up, that this is playoff baseball," he said. "But at the same time, it's not like everybody's freaking out. It's just they're more prepared. They're more emotionally into the games -- the chatter around the cage during BP, the way that the guys talk."
Some thrive on it. Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon clearly falls on that list, having not allowed a run in 19 2/3 postseason innings.
"In the postseason, you have to go out there with a certain game plan, and you have to stick to it," Papelbon said. "I think with all the intensity and the environment that you're going to be put in, as long as you can stay confident in your game plan and stick to it, that's what's going to carry you throughout the postseason."
For the Rays, Maddon's success over the course of the season arguably prepared them for it. As they stunned the baseball world this year, Maddon emphasized enjoying the moment without suffocating in it. Their style of play, moreover, stresses executing smaller plays that can make a big difference.
"I want them to go out there and react with open minds," Maddon said going into the ALDS, "and just play and react in the moment and not be concerned about a bunch of details right now. Just play."
So far, the approach has worked.
"You can't put [on] any added pressure," said reliever Grant Balfour, who pitched for the Twins in their 2004 ALDS loss to the Yankees.
"There's a lot more focus on this game. But if we can just stay focused within ourselves and keep our mind on what each individual needs to do, then we're going to be successful."
To some, it could be an advantage. With so little experience, Eric Hinske suggested, go so few expectations.
"Maybe that's our edge," said Hinske, who was with the Red Sox for last year's run. "They've been through it all before. We don't know any better. We're just a bunch of guys running around, playing."
But the Rays are a bunch of guys the Red Sox respect. Boston has been through the playoffs too much not to.
"It's not just having experience," David Ortiz said. "It's who plays the best. You can't take anything for granted when you play the Rays."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.