Red Sox Record for the Week of September 28: 4-3
Since last week’s regular season games didn’t matter much other than being tune-ups for the playoffs, which for the AL Wild Card-winning BoSox and AL West division-winning Angels begins Thursday night at 9:37 pm ET in Anaheim, I won’t spend time going over them except where mentioned and will instead preview and predict what to expect in this ALDS showdown.
Red Sox-Angels Playoff History
Boston Bruins fans don’t have much in common with LA Angels fans, except that they are both probably sick of seeing the same playoff opponent year after year end the hometown team’s season. For the Bruins faithful, it was the damn Montreal Canadiens who time and time again knocked the black and gold out of the NHL playoffs (until last season when the Bruins returned the favor). The Red Sox itself, until the 2004 ALCS, had a similar fate against the Yankees.
But for Angels fans, they likely have bad memories of the 1986, 2004, 2007, and 2008 playoffs, when they saw their team eliminated from postseason by the BoSox, who themselves would appear in three World Series and win two of them (1986: lost, 2004 & 2007: won it all). In fact, the Angels have never beaten Boston in postseason play.
Red Sox-Angels Pitching Match-ups
John Lackey (11-8) likely has nightmares about pitching against Boston. In 17 career games facing them, he is 3-9 with a 4.95 ERA, and that includes losing all three career postseason starts going back to 2007. Still, he must take comfort that he gets to face the Sox lineup at home to start Game 1 Thursday night, where his ERA in ’09 was 2.11, compared to 3.80 away. For the second playoffs opener in a row, he will face Jon Lester (15-8), who dominated Angels hitters in last year’s division series, holding them scoreless through 14 innings in Games 1 and 4.
Though it’s difficult to see how, the Boston lefty hopes to do even better this postseason against the West Coast powerhouse, while Lackey is looking to repeat or do better than his two earned runs in Games 1 and 4 in last year’s ALDS but get more run support and his first playoff win versus Boston. I don’t know about a win but with a lineup that batted .285 for the year to lead the majors, the Angels should be at least able to crack the scoreboard against Lester.
Friday night, Game 2 (also in Anaheim) will see clutch playoff-tested co-ace and 17-game winner Josh Beckett go up against the younger but impressive 16-game winner Jered Weaver. Beckett will be looking to atone for a lousy 2008 postseason that saw him post an ugly 8.79 ERA in three starts, including ALDS Game 3 against Anaheim in which he allowed four earned runs over five innings.
This year’s ALDS Game 3, at Fenway Park on Sunday will see youngster Clay Buchholz make his playoff debut and will face Angels lefty Scott Kazmir. Kazmir has a mediocre 4.89 ERA for 2009 but since coming over in a trade from the Rays, in six starts, his ERA is 1.73 and owns a 2-2 record.
Buchholz, on the other hand had two lousy starts (13 earned runs) at Fenway to close the regular season last week against Toronto and Cleveland but has allowed three earned runs or less in 12 of his 16 starts, all of it coming post-All-Star break. Thus, he deserved this start over Dice-K, who has been solid in his return from the DL but hasn’t pitched long enough to earn it. That said, Kazmir has a definite advantage over Buchholz in league and playoff experience.
Pitching match-ups for Game 4 Monday in Boston haven’t been finalized yet but the Angels will start another lefty Joe Saunders (16-7, 4.60 ERA), while the Sox could start Lester again just as they did last year. Or less likely, Sox manager Terry Francona will take a chance on Dice-K (4-6, 5.76 ERA), even though he pitched six impressive scoreless innings against these Angels September 15. Saunders has had the fortune of a good offense score behind him but if it’s Lester he’s up against, as I think it will be (just like the ’08 ALDS), a betting man (which I’m not) would smartly pick him and the Sox in this game.
Red Sox Health And Roster Moves
The core of the Red Sox are much healthier going into the 2009 ALDS than they were at this time last year. Josh Beckett (17-6, 3.88 ERA), who in 2008 struggled and missed time due to back and elbow issues has been durable for much of 2009, as he made 32 starts, struck out a career-high 199 batters and pitched a career-high 212 innings. He had some mild back pain recently but got a cortisone shot to take care of that and is by all accounts healthy.
Even Dice-K, who helped the Sox win the World Series his rookie year in 2007, is healthier now than he was in April and could again be a significant playoff contributor if needed.
Only Tim Wakefield is missing from the core starting staff, but Buchholz has been an admirable replacement. Sadly though, captain Jason Varitek is no longer a “core” Sox player and for the first time in over a decade is primarily a backup (to V-Mart).
Switch-hitting infielder Jed Lowrie, who’s been on a long journey back from a wrist injury, isn’t 100%, but played last Saturday and Sunday. On the latter day he hit a grand slam, the second one in two days after Victor Martinez hit his first career slammer against his old team (Cleveland) on Saturday. That was enough for Francona to announce Tuesday that Lowrie will indeed make the roster over Nick Green (whose body is not healing quickly enough) and Chris Woodward, whose wife just gave birth to their third child.
Though he had his right hip drained and injected with a cortisone shot by the end of June, Mike Lowell’s health has not been much of a concern around Boston lately. He quietly got a second shot a week ago and is now ready to go for postseason play, even if he can’t run – nothing new there. Sox fans therefore should expect that he’ll be a lot more productive this ALDS than last year’s, when he went 0-8 at the plate in two games, after which he shut it down for the year.
Outfielder Rocco Baldelli has a hip flexor problem and his status on the Sox playoff roster is unknown. Boston doesn’t have much power off the bench, but his pop (seven homers) and .290 BA against lefties in ’09 could prove valuable in Games 3 & 4 (if needed).
The Sox will have two reserve outfielders and Francona, knowing Baldelli’s situation has to choose between him, Brian Anderson and Joey Gathright to fill those spots. Gathright’s bat is light but his speed on the bases and outfield is very well known and could come into use as a late-inning pinch runner or defensive replacement. Thus, he’s likely in.
So the other outfield spot is, IMO really between Baldelli and Brian Anderson. My money’s on Anderson. Francona has until 10 am Thursday morning to pick his final two players. FYI, Paul Byrd is in as long man, while Tim Wakefield and Manny Delcarmen are out.
Players To Watch
Kevin Youkilis, with his 27 jacks, 94 RBIs and .413 OBP is one of the best and most consistent all-around hitters in the game right now, and his clutch two-out hitting to lead the Red Sox is something to look out for. Dustin Pedroia and V-Mart (whom is team MVP, IMO) are consistent as well and more importantly, hit good pitching. For the Angels, Kendry Morales – aka Mark Teixeira’s replacement – has been an AL MVP candidate all year long and together with on-base guys Bobby Abreu and Chone Figgins, and pop from Torii Hunter, should provide the bulk of the offense.
Been Caught Stealing
Whether it’s Jacoby Ellsbury and Pedroia for the go-go Sox or Figgins, Abreu, or Hunter for Anaheim, both teams have plenty of speed on the bases. But the Angels are among the league leaders in SBs allowed and got caught stealing a major league-leading 63 times in 2009. The Sox are fourth in the majors in SB% at 76.4, while the Angels are 21st with 70.1%. So if Mike Scioscia wants his team to get over the hump of beating Boston in the postseason, he has to get his players to play smart aggressive baseball like the Red Sox do. Otherwise, they will, as they did last year (a botched squeeze play in ALDS Game 4), run themselves into outs and out of the playoffs.
And The X-Factor Is? The Battle of the Bullpens
For Anaheim, it’s good but untested bullpen arms like Kevin Jepsen and Brian Fuentes going up against the extremely deep Sox bullpen (Hideki Okajima, Billy Wagner, Takashi Saito, Jonathan Papelbon) that could make or break this series. If it’s a low-scoring or close game in general, I’d take the Sox arms over Anaheim’s, and Papelbon (who in 25 career postseason innings has allowed 0 runs) over Fuentes in particular, since the latter hasn’t had playoff closer experience or won a ring like the former. That said, I expect this series to go five games, with Boston the victor (again).
Now, let’s get the series started already!