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.

No comments: