When the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays won their respective playoff series this week, the American League East again proved why it's baseball's top division.
For the third time in six years, two AL East teams will face off in the American League Championship Series, starting tonight at Tampa. It guarantees that an AL East club will play in the World Series for the ninth time in 13 years.
Previously this decade, it was either the Red Sox or the New York Yankees representing the East in the World Series. But this year the upstart Rays, who had baseball's worst record in 2007, are threatening to add a different wrinkle.
The conventional wisdom is that the Rays are a legitimate contender but the defending champion Red Sox have too much experience and talent.
Baseball doesn't always hold to convention, however.
Besides, the Rays have home-field advantage after winning 97 games and capturing the division title. They boast the best home record (57-24) in baseball (incidentally, the Red Sox were second at 56-25).
And these Rays are incredibly balanced. They hit for power (fourth in the AL in homers), they run (first in stolen bases), they pitch (second-lowest ERA) and they catch (fourth-fewest errors). They wear the underdog label despite winning more games this season than any other club still alive in the playoffs.
If they have a weakness, it's that their young hitters were the worst in the AL with runners in scoring position, an awful .246 mark. Yet this season they seemed to always get the big, late-inning hit whenever they needed it.
Statistically, the Rays have a better overall pitching staff than the Red Sox. The challenge, though, will be for the inexperienced Rays offense to solve Boston's big three starters - Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who were a combined 46-18 with a 3.37 ERA this year.
Rays key player: 1B Carlos Pena
At 30, he's one of the lineup's older hitters and its most feared. He also has something to prove. Boston released him at the end of 2006, and he fell onto the scrap heap in Tampa. He has hit 15 homers in his career against Boston, including four this year in 51 at-bats. But this is his first postseason appearance in eight big league seasons.
Rays key number: 4
How many postseason games the Rays have had in their 11-season history - all coming this month.
Red Sox key player: P Daisuke Matsuzaka
The Japanese phenom gets at least two starts this series and might have to prepare for a third appearance if it goes seven games. He had 18 wins in 2008 and held his own in three regular-season contests against the Rays this year (1-0, 3.00).
Red Sox number: 0.90
Jon Lester's ERA against the Rays this season. He allowed just two runs in 20 innings pitched over a span of three games - all wins.
Should be a good matchup, with the Rays pulling off the upset in six games.