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.

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