Jeff Keppinger a smart pickup for thrifty Rays

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Counting on Carlos Pena, Matt Joyce and Luke Scott to fill key roles this year, the Rays had set themselves up to have huge problems against lefties in the bottom half of the order. That was alleviated somewhat today with the signing of Jeff Keppinger.

Of course, Keppinger doesn’t play the same position as any of those guys, but that’s where the Rays’ versatility and ability to adapt kicks in. Ben Zobrist was looking at a full-time role at second base this year. Now he’ll likely play right field and maybe some first base against lefties, with Keppinger taking his spot.

The Rays still have to decide how exactly they’re going to comprise their bench. Keppinger will get one spot and the backup catcher (currently either Jose Lobaton or Robinson Chirinos another). That leaves two places for infielders Reid Brignac and Elliot Johnson and outfielders Sam Fuld and Brandon Guyer. Brignac and Fuld are both left-handed hitters, which would seem to work against them here, but Fuld at least is probably going to have a job anyway.

My opinion is that the Rays should forget about Fuld and bring in a right-handed hitter (Conor Jackson?) to claim that spot. As is, they’re still looking at starting two from the group of Pena, Joyce and Scott against southpaws and that’s far from ideal. Pena hit .133/.260/.333 in 120 at-bats against lefties last season. Joyce came in at .217/.287/.370 in 92 at-bats. Scott, who missed much of the season with a shoulder injury, was at .167/.225/.556 in 36 at-bats.

Keppinger is an obvious upgrade from that group (he hit .290/.292/.484 in 93 at-bats against lefties last year and is at .324/.371/.481 for his career), and his arrival will also improve the defense a bit, not because he’s a better second baseman than Zobrist but because Zobrist is a terrific right fielder. For $1.525 million, he was an excellent find for one of the league’s brightest teams.

Red Sox look to punch their ticket to the World Series tonight

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Thanks to some amazing defense, some big hits and — to continue to beat this horse, a bad call by Joe West — the Red Sox have a 3-1 lead in the ALCS and look to clinch the AL Pennant tonight down in Houston.

If you believe in momentum, you’d have to say it’s on Boston’s side. If you believe that momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher, however, you’d have to say things favor Houston more than the standing of the series would suggest. All of which makes me wish Game 5 was starting right now, because it figures to be a tense and exciting affair.

ALCS Game 5

Red Sox vs. Astros
Ballpark: Minute Maid Park
Time: 8:09 PM Eastern
TV: TBS
Pitchers: David Price vs. Justin Verlander
Breakdown:

If someone told you that you had to win one baseball game against the Martians to save the human race, you could do far worse than calling on Justin Verlander to be your starting pitcher. Among the pitchers still in the postseason, he’d almost certainly be your choice right now.

Does Verlander himself appreciate the situation? This is what he said about that yesterday:

“I mean, these are all must-win games at this point. Every time you take the mound I don’t think there’s any difference whether it’s 2-2 or 3-1.”

Look, we’re asking him to beat the Martians here, not win the National Math Bee, so let’s let that go. The point is that after all of these years he’s still one of the most dominant pitchers in the game and after the exhausting, see-saw battle of Game 4, he stands the best chance of giving Houston what it needs: a quick, quiet and drama-free win.

Not that the Red Sox are likely to roll over for that. They didn’t the first time they faced Verlander in this series. They Astros won, yes, and Verlander limited them to two runs on two hits. But he also issued four walks and wasn’t his sharpest overall. Boston didn’t capitalize on his mistakes as best they could, but he’s not invincible.

For Boston it’s David Price. He allowed four runs on five hits and four walks over four and two-thirds innings in Game 2, not factoring in the decision. That’s not great, but given the talk leading up to that game being all about how Price is a postseason flop, the fact that the Sox won it in the end had to bouy him at least a little. As does the fact that, here, tonight, it’s not 100% on his shoulders. Sure, the Sox want to close this out, but with a 3-1 lead there is less pressure on Price than on his former teammate Verlander. Worth noting, though: Price is on short rest and warmed up in the bullpen last night in case he was needed to bail out Craig Kimbrel. He may not go deep into this game.