Sunday, October 12, 2008

2008 ALCS after game 2

When Terry Francona set his ALCS rotation against the Rays, his logic was that the starters for games 1-3 would also start games 5-7. With last night’s extra-inning loss, Dice-K is now guaranteed for game 5, which would be the final series game at Fenway Park. The problem now is Josh Beckett. What we saw last night is that, for whatever reason, Beckett is not quite right. Either he’s still hurt or just isn’t sharp. Whichever it is, unless Boston sweeps the next three games, we’re looking at Beckett starting game 6, back at Tropicana Field next Saturday. It’s also entirely possible that the season will be on the line.

Dilemma #1: Do you want last night’s version of Josh Beckett starting that do-or-die game? If he was vintage 2007 Beckett, hell yeah. If it’s the Josh Beckett we’ve seen recently, not so much. The alternative would be to put Paul Byrd on the hill, which might conceivably be no better, and possibly much worse.

Dilemma #2: In the postseason, David Ortiz has 4 hits, no homers and 1 RBI in 23 at bats. He’s 0 for the ALCS. Jason Varitek is hitting .143 in the postseason. Jacoby Ellsbury is .207 in the same time period, with an on base percentage of .258. This is when you expect to face superior pitching, and although Pedroia, Youkilis and Bay are doing their part, the rest of the team has been handcuffed. What options do hitting coach Dave Magadan and manager Terry Francona have at their disposal? Not many. At this point, the lineup is set, and replacing Ortiz, ‘Tek and Ellsbury in the batting order with Sean Casey, Kevin Cash and Coco Crisp won’t improve the offense.

It’s still all about pitching, so seeing Jon Lester taking the mound for game 4 is hugely reassuring for Red Sox faithful. His tendency to get his team into the late innings will help take some pressure off the bullpen, and (I sincerely hope) keep Mike Timlin off the mound in important situations.

Friday, October 10, 2008

2008 ALCS Preview

Ok, so I was wrong about the ALDS. I expected the Angels to actually show up, and they didn’t. I did say that if the Red Sox beat the Angels, they’re in the World Series, and I stand by that. This is not to denigrate the Rays. This Tampa Bay Rays team is good. They’re young, hungry, talented and athletic. Their starting pitching is superb, their bullpen, always the traditional Achilles heel, is as good as anyone’s. Joe Maddon has them believing, and it’s been clear all year that nobody intimidates them. They’ve handled everyone and everything thrown in their way.

I’m picking the Red Sox for a couple reasons. One, my heart says I can’t bear to see my beloved Sox get dropped on the doorstep to the World Series by the freakin’ Tampa Bay Rays, of all teams. And two, the Red Sox have a seemingly endless supply of guts. Since the night that Aaron Boone took Tim Wakefield deep in October of 2003, the Red Sox have shown a wire tough resiliency in the face of all challenges. Overcoming decades of futility, bad play and bad luck to win in 2004 changed everything. Since then, Francona’s gang has had it figured out.

The St. Louis Cardinals were, on paper, a far better team than the Red Sox in the fall of 2004, and the Sox disposed of them as if they were the Washington Generals against the Globetrotters. Pujols, Walker, Rolen and company looked anemic. In October, pitching always wins. In 2007, the Indians were deep, tough, and also not the least bit intimidated by the AL East champion Red Sox, and with Josh Beckett’s help, Boston outlasted them. In the World Series, the Rockies weren’t a better team, but they came in white hot. The Red Sox put up an impregnable stone wall of pitching, and shut the Rockies down cold.

In the postseason, it’s always all about pitching and defense, and also the most intangible factor, toughness. The Red Sox know what is needed. Against the Angels, the heroes weren’t Pedroia, Youkilis and Ortiz. Game 4 was won in the bottom of the ninth by Jason Bay and Jed Lowrie, two guys who weren’t even regulars on the roster until after the All Star break (Lowrie had made early season appearances, but it wasn’t until Julio Lugo was hurt that he became a fixture). In ALDS Game 2, Bay and JD Drew both homered, and remember that Drew was a guy who hadn’t played all of September. What the Red Sox lineup does, and has been doing for most of the past five years, is exhaust opposing pitchers. They’re patient. They take more pitches per at bat than any other team, and in so doing stretch each inning, each rally, and make it harder for the opposing starting pitcher to get into and stay in comfortable grooves. When each pitch matters that much more, the Red Sox lunge at bad pitches that much less frequently (I constantly rail against “giving away at bats” by swinging at bad pitches). Mike Lowell won’t be on the ALCS roster, but the rest of the Red Sox roster showed Anaheim that they can succeed even without the 2007 World Series MVP. Combined with solid starting pitching from Dice K, Lester, Beckett and Wakefield, this plate discipline is ultimately going to make the difference against a younger, incrementally more eager Rays team.

In the 2003 ALCS, the Yankees had the confident swagger of a team that had been there before, that knew how to win, and trusted that if they hung in there long enough, the Red Sox would make the critical mistake that would, and did, ultimately cost them. By the 2004 ALCS, Boston was experienced enough to have learned that same lesson, and took advantage of their own newfound mental toughness to claw back from an 0-3 hole to win the league championship. I don’t believe a team can learn mental toughness. I believe you can only develop it via time and experience. Look at the players who were surrounding Michael Jordan on the Bulls. They needed time to “get it”. Same with the New York Giants, leading up to last year’s Super Bowl against the Patriots, or the Patriots leading up their first successful Super Bowl against the Rams. It’s a process, and it doesn’t generally happen the first time you’re in the bright lights. In the end, I think this is what’s going to bring the Red Sox their third American League pennant in five years. It’s not about one “this guy vs. that guy” matchup. It’s about knowing what it takes, and against the Angels, the Red Sox have proven they’re in the right frame of mind.

Prediction: Red Sox in 6.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

2008 Division Series postmortem

• I had picked them to win the National League pennant, but I need to start this post by saying that like so many people in North America, I was suckered onto the Cubs bandwagon like an unwitting rube at a bad carnival attraction. Regardless of what the carny said, the Cubs suck.

• Vladimir Guerrero has become the new Alex Rodriguez: a tremendous talent who becomes an impotent non-entity when it matters in October.

• After further review, the play stands, and the Cubs still suck.

• Manny remains Manny. When he feels like paying attention, he IS the most lethal offensive force in the game, and nobody can stop him.

• Jon Lester is the 2008 version of Josh Beckett. Put him on the mound, and he’s automatic. Just imagine if 2007 vintage Beckett shows up against Tampa Bay…

• I don’t believe the Phillies can stand up to Manny and the DodgerTones.

• Kudos to the Milwaukee Brewers and their fans. Though this wasn’t their year, they were great fun to watch while it lasted.

• Seriously, there’s no two ways around it. The Cubs flat out suck.

• Those remarkable Tampa Bay Rays are for real. They’re not just a cute, cuddly, freak occurrence. They’re a dangerous bunch.

• Terry Francona, Theo Epstein and the entire Red Sox organization have created an environment where everyone plays hard all the time, nobody hangs their head, and as long as the game isn’t over, it’s never over. That’s why Jason Bay and Mark Kotsay were great pickups, why the Red Sox are in the ALCS, and why the Angels are flying home to Anaheim for the winter. The Red Sox no longer try not to lose. In the new millennium, they play to win.

• The White Sox were lucky just to be in the ALDS, and were completely outclassed by Tampa Bay. Count on heads rolling on the south side of Chicago. Could be worse, though. At least they’ve won the World Series recently, unlike the Cubs, who suck.

• Thanks in large part to Epstein’s organizational philosophies, the Red Sox homegrown youth movement will continue to yield dividends for years to come. Ellsbury, Youkilis, Pedroia, Lowrie, Lester, Masterson, Delcarmen and Papelbon are all critical parts of the machine, all are on the 2008 postseason roster, and none are over 29 years old. Best of all, there’s more talent on the way. This is a very good time to be a Red Sox fan.

• It was a treat to listen to Don Orsillo do the play by play for the White Sox-Rays series on TBS. The guy’s good. Could you imagine him trading off innings in the World Series with the legendary Vin Scully? How cool would that be?

• Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukodome, Ryan Theriot and the rest of the pathetic, choking, infuriating Cubs completely, totally suck. I’m not buying into their “we’re due! It’s finally our year!” bullshit ever again. As far as I’m concerned, they can rot for another hundred years. Hey, eventually we figured out how to win, and then did it again. Count on three immutable truths: death, taxes and the certainty that the Cubs are going to suck.

• If anyone is interested in buying a slightly used Cubs cap and windbreaker, let me know.