Saturday, September 27, 2008

2008 ALDS preview: Red Sox vs. Angels

The drawback of winning the Wild Card is that you draw the strongest division champion, as long as they’re not in your division. This year that’s going to mean the Angels, and that’s not good news for the Red Sox. This isn’t the same Angels team we swept in both 2004 and 2007. They’re more complete, and they have something personal to prove. Of everyone in the American League, the Red Sox match up worst with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. There’s a reason we’re 1-8 against them this year: they’re the best team in the league, and we’re not. In the 9 games with the Angels, the Red Sox were outhit, outpitched and outplayed. The Angels are the real deal, and if they continue to do what they’ve been doing all year, which is pitch, field and hit with consistency, they could easily turn the tables on the Red Sox and sweep the defending World Series champs in three games (the first two are in Anaheim). In fact, I think the Angels are the best team in baseball, period.

In the postseason, the discussion begins and ends with pitching. The rotation of John Lackey, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders, Jered Weaver and John Garland are a combined 69-36. The three likely playoff starters (Lackey, Santana and Saunders) have an average ERA around 3.34. Quality starts are their bread and butter. That eases the workload on the bullpen, and in the ninth inning we all know about K-Rod and his gaudy record of 62 saves and 2.27 ERA. After Cliff Lee, he’d be your likely Cy Young award winner. So their pitching is outstanding.

The lineup is deeper and longer than ever before. Adding Mark Teixeira (13 HR, 42 RBI, 1.089 OPS in only 52 games as an Angel) and Torii Hunter (21, 78, .816 over a whole season) has given Vlad Guerrero the support he’s never had. And remember, offense isn’t the full reason the Angels landed Hunter: there’s no reason to believe he won’t win his 8th consecutive gold glove award this year. With Vlad’s cannon arm in right and Juan Rivera / Garrett Anderson in left, the outfield defense is every bit Boston’s equal.

Boston comes into the series tired and wounded: Count on both Mike Lowell and JD Drew being out. This seriously hamstrings Terry Francona’s ability to tinker with the lineup. Jed Lowrie’s been a great fill in at shortstop, and he should blossom into a terrific shortstop over time, but he is a rookie, and he doesn’t add much pop to the lineup. Jason Varitek isn’t quite so awful offensively, but he still gives away 1-2 at bats a game. Jason Bay was a superb pickup, but he has cooled off some since arriving on the scene midseason. He’ll need to anchor the middle of the order with Kevin Youkilis if Drew and Lowell can’t play a significant role. It’s hard to know which David Ortiz we’re going to see in October, but we know Bay and Youkilis won’t frighten pitchers the way Manny and Lowell did last year, and therefore, the Angels’ starters may not give Big Papi much to hit. In other words, the Angels can pitch around this lineup, which wasn’t possible in either 2004 or 2007. Look, there’s no way around the most obvious point: although Manny Ramirez HAD to be dumped to save the team and the season, his loss is not without its consequences, the biggest of which is a badly weakened lineup. Since the trading deadline, this Red Sox lineup isn’t scoring runs with the ease that they had previously.

The lineup can be a bit schizo, but my biggest concern is the Red Sox pitching. Josh Beckett NEEDS to be the 2007 postseason stud again. Jon Lester NEEDS to be as good as he’s been all season, and Daisuke Matsuzaka NEEDS to stop spending whole innings performing death-defying high wire acts. In his two losses (can you believe he only has two?), he was absolutely shelled. One game was against the Cardinals. I was there, and he didn’t survive the second inning. The other was against these same Angels, at Fenway at the end of July: 5 innings pitched, 6 runs allowed (all earned), 7 hits and two homers, including a 3-run shot off the bat of Mr. Hunter. If he pounds the strike zone and uses all his pitches, Dice K is worth the big bucks. But he doesn’t do that all game, every game, and that could hurt in October. Our emergency starter / long man is likely to be Tim Wakefield, which could be a godsend or a death sentence, depending on the whims of the knuckleball gods on any given night.

The bullpen has been a crapshoot all year, and still, from one game to the next, it remains just like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get. In an October short series, you can’t afford even one Lopez, Aardsma, Okajima or Delcarmen implosion, because if an imperfect bullpen corps follows a sloppy five or six innings from Beckett, Lester or Dice K, that could literally be the ballgame against Los Angeles.

Boston’s battle tested, gutsy, well coached and has enjoyed delicious postseason magic the last couple sojourns into the chilly lights of national television. Dustin Pedroia is a legitimate MVP candidate, and if you give them a chance, the Red Sox can and will hurt you. That said, I don’t see Mike Scioscia’s crew being denied this year. If the first round matchup were against the White Sox or Twins, it’d be a different story, but it’ll take another long, grinding series with too many improbable occurrences to escape this Angels team. If they manage to survive the Angels, I think the Red Sox win the AL pennant, but that’s a big if. I hope I’m wrong, but I think the 2008 season ends here. Sorry.

Prediction: Angels in four games.

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