Friday, September 28, 2007

AL EAST CHAMPS Looking toward October

As I write this, the Red Sox have just defeated the Twins 5-2, and the Yankees have blown another lead and lost in 10 innings on a squeeze play to the Orioles. The Red Sox are 2007 AL East champs! It appears Boston will be facing the Angels in the Division Series. Both the Angels and Indians are terrific teams. In the post-season, especially in short series, I’m of the belief that it comes down to three factors: pitching, experience and home field advantage. The Indians appear to have better pitching, but the Angels have been here before, they’ve got veteran leadership, and one of the league’s best managers in Mike Scioscia. If the Sox finish with the better record, which is likely, home field advantage will be crucial. So here’s how I think the Red Sox match up with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Disneyland and much of Southern California.

Starting pitching:
Red Sox: Josh (2007 Cy Young Award) Beckett, Curt (Mr. October) Schilling and Daisuke (2007 Rookie Pitcher of the Year) Matsuzaka will be one through three, with Tim (The only guy left who remembers Kevin Kennedy) Wakefield the fourth starter if necessary. Add it up. That’s 60 wins. Is there another rotation in the league better? No.

Angels: Lackey, Escobar, Weaver, Colon. Not too shabby. John Lackey and his 3.11 ERA will get a bunch of Cy Young votes. Kelvim Escobar throws gas and has exceptional control, but he’s returning from an injury, and nobody knows what he’s got right now. Jered Weaver is immensely talented, but he’s been tiring recently. The Angels’ biggest concern is their pitching, and it starts with the starters. Edge: Red Sox

Relief pitching:
Red Sox: From April to July, they were untouchable. Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon were almost literally unhittable. From mid-July through the beginning of September, the bullpen grew tired and achy. Eric Gagne was flat-out awful, and I wouldn’t be upset if he’s left off the post-season roster. But Okajima has returned, Tavarez will be joined by Jon Lester as a middle inning eater if necessary, and as long as Papelbon is his typical lights-out self, he can make all the difference.

Angels: The bullpen has always been the Angels’ strength in their glory years, culminating with KRod. This year, it hasn’t been so dependable. The Angels bullpen has a combined ERA over 4.00, 8th in the league. KRod is still KRod. It’s going to come down to the setup guys, specifically Scot Shields, Justin Speier and old man Darren Oliver. This could be the Achilles heel that dooms them or (literally) saves them. The numbers make you wonder. Edge: Red Sox

Red Sox: They lead the league in walks with the bases loaded. They’re patient, but there are big honkin’ holes in this lineup. These are not your father’s Boston Bashers. Julio Lugo runs hot and cold. Coco Crisp does, too, and he’s been hurt. Manny has never really been MANNY this year. The only three guys you can depend on day in and day out are Big Papi,, who admits his knees are killing him, Mike (Team MVP) Lowell and Dustin (2007 Rookie of the Year) Pedroia. After that, I’m not confident. They can nickel and dime teams to death, but it’s going to come down to one guy to be the tipping point in this offense, and that guy is J.D. Drew. Gulp.

Angels: Seven starters hit .290 or better. Only 1 guy has more than 90 strikeouts (Boston has 4 over 100). Their on base percentage as a team reads like a Moneyball dream. Three Angels have 20 or more stolen bases, and even Gary Mathews, Jr has 18. These are Mike Scioscia’s go-go Angels. They take the extra base, they put pressure on the pitcher and catcher by running when they can, and they’re unselfish. Orlando Cabrera, Chone Figgins, Vladimir Guerrero, Garrett Anderson and Gary Mathews, Jr. They don’t have the pop of the Red Sox, but they’re more balanced, and more aggressive. That matters in October. Edge: Angels

Red Sox: Terry Francona has established himself as one of the best, most patient managers in Red Sox history. He’s a true player’s manager. He handles the delicate veteran egos of the Schillings and Mannys, he pumps up the kids, he never, ever shows up his players, and he handles the pitching staff as well as any Red Sox manager I’ve ever seen. What many people don’t remember about 2004 is the lineup of managers that Francona went up against in order: Scioscia, Torre and LaRussa. As of today, I’d daresay that two of them should be locks for the Hall of Fame, and the other isn’t going to be far behind.

Angels: Mike Scioscia is the prototypical smart and gritty catcher turned brilliant manager, a la Birdie Tebbets and Joe Torre. He handles the Angels the way he used to handle his Dodger pitching staffs. He never lets up. Although I thought he was completely out of line at the time, I had to admire the way he didn’t back down last year when he went up against former manager Frank Robinson of the Nationals. He’s classic old school, and along with Torre and Francona, there isn’t a better manager in the league. Players play hard for him, or they sit.

Edge: Even

Prediction: It’s October. It comes down to pitching and experience. Home field advantage and the bullpens are going to tip the balance here, and so I give it to the Red Sox in 4.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Red Sox 13, Blue Jays 10

Last night was my second visit to Fenway this year for a game. This was the annual game where I take my stepson Marc. Last year, he and I sat through the excruciatingly painful 5+ hour, second game of a doubleheader in the midst of the 5 game Yankee sweep. That sweep effectively ended the Red Sox 2006 season. This year was different in a whole lot of ways. In the morning, Marc and I enjoyed a free tour of Fenway, which was a surprise I had waiting for him. It was one of the fun perks of my Red Sox Nation membership. Now that I’ve seen the field from there, I HAVE to see a game from the Monster Seats. They could be the best seats in all of major league baseball.

Daisuke Matsuzaka started last night for the Red Sox, and when the Jays scored their first run on back to back doubles in the top of the first, I leaned over to Marc and said “Buckle up. This is going to be a high-scoring game.”. Sure enough, in the Sox’ half of the first, Jacoby Ellsbury led off with a single, followed by a Dustin Pedroia single. These two seemed to be on base all night for Boston. With men on first and second and nobody out, Mike Lowell lined a shot into the Monster Seats, and the fireworks show was on. Boston went on to score another 2 in the third, again led by Ellsbury and Pedroia, and sent Toronto starter Jesse Litsch to the showers in the fourth, also teeing off on reliever Joe Kennedy for a combined 5 runs. I reminded Marc that we used to beat Kennedy like a rented mule when he was a starter for Tampa Bay, so last night’s performance was just about normal. End of 4, it’s 10-1 Red Sox, Dice K’s, cruising with a strike percentage north of 80%, and it’s looking like a laugher.

Then a strange thing happened: Matsuzaka-san suddenly and completely ran out of gas after 5 innings. He came out to start the top of the 6th, and inexplicably, he went from overpowering to batting practice. Troy Glaus launched a 3-run HR into the Red Sox bullpen, and before Terry Francona could get anyone warm in time, it was a ballgame. What Francona did at the time made some sense: he brought in lefty specialist Javier (The Other Javy) Lopez. The problem was, Lopez couldn’t throw strikes, and when he did, I could have hit him. He faced three batters, retired nobody, let the two inherited runners score (closing the book on Dice K), and allowed two runs of his own on a Matt Stairs 2-run double. Technically, Lopez was charged with two, but he really allowed four. Manny Delcarmen had to come put the fire out, and by the time he did, Toronto had scored 8 runs, and the 10-1 blowout was suddenly a 10-9 ballgame.

Marc turned to me and said “Wow, I guess you weren’t kidding. This is high scoring”. Somehow, even with the horrendous Toronto 6th, the Red Sox never really lost control of the game. They came right back with three runs in the bottom of the 6th to take back momentum. Hideki Okajima coming in after Delcarmen to give Boston another solid bullpen inning helped, too. Everyone in the park knew that Papelbon would be ready to pitch the 9th, and that would shut the door on what the late Ned Martin would have called a “wild and wooly ballgame”.

He did just that, blowing away Aaron Hill and Greg Zaun with 96 mph smoke, and inducing a weak popup to third to end the game.

I’m not sure what the deal is with Dice K. I think it’s important to remember that it’s got to be a much bigger acclimation process to Major League Baseball in the US after being the Big Man in Japan than we’re appreciating. It’s not easy: new league, new stadiums, a 5 man rotation instead of 6, a new ball, new players, new culture. Still, he’s routinely running into high pitch counts, and that one deadly inning per start where he has a tendency to lose his poise. I don’t think that’s cultural. I’m not sure what it is. In either case, we’re going to need him over the next 6-8 weeks.

Here’s also hoping that Manny Ramirez gets healthy soon and Kevin Youkilis snaps out of his recent slump.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Clay Buchholtz

In April of 1967, Billy Rohr of the Red Sox flirted with a no-hitter in his first major league start, in Yankee Stadium. Carl Yastrzemski made a memorable, diving catch in left to open the ninth and preserve the no-hit attempt. Two batters later, Elston Howard killed Rohr’s bid for baseball history with a clean single to right.

Tonight, Clay Buchholtz finished the job, in his second major league start! I really don’t believe I’ve ever seen a better pitched game in my life. Clemens’ two 20 K games, Pedro’s 17 strikeout, 1-hit masterpiece in Yankee Stadium, Hideo Nomo and Derek Lowe’s no-no’s, Curt Schilling’s 1-hitter earlier this year, they were all outstanding. This one certainly sits up there in the pantheon. Buchholtz’s offspeed stuff, especially his nasty changeup, made him literally unhittable. It should also be noted that Jason Varitek called a great game, and he once again showed why he’s the best in the business.

The irony is that if Tim Wakefield hadn’t been hurt, tonight probably never would have happened. What’s reassuring for the future is that Buchholtz’s performance tonight wasn’t a freak occurrence. He has legitimate major league stuff, with three “plus” pitches: his fastball, curve and especially his changeup are all much better than average, and should seriously concern future Red Sox opponents. World, meet Clay Buchholtz. He could be around, making your life miserable, for a long time…..

Just imagine, Red Sox fans: Next year’s rotation is likely to be:
Daisuke Matsuzaka
Josh Beckett
Clay Buchholtz
Tim Wakefield
John Lester

With Manny Delcarmen and Hideki Okajima helping to set up for Jonathan Papelbon.

Of course, we should enjoy the rest of this year first, I think. I’m going to be at Fenway with my stepson Marc on Monday, probably seeing Dice K, who also isn’t a bad rookie.