Boston Red Sox (95-67); First Place, American League East vs Los Angeles Angels (100-62); First Place, American League West
- Keys for the Red Sox:
Josh Beckett is one of the best post-season pitchers in the history of the game, but with his health in question and because he’s unavailable until game three (if then), the Red Sox are going to have to have Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka step into those impossible to fill shoes and pitch competently. If the Red Sox get to game four behind in the series, they’ve got two veterans available in Tim Wakefield and Paul Byrd. Wakefield’s post-season history and knuckleball will probably give him the nod. Wakefield has pitched poorly against the Angels in his career, but a knuckleballer isn’t like a normal pitcher in which his history can be taken at face value; if they’re in an elimination game, whoever the starting pitcher is will be on a short leash from the first pitch.
The Red Sox bullpen is anchored by one of the game’s best closers (better than his counterpart in the Angels bullpen in Francisco Rodriguez), Jonathan Papelbon. The problem will be getting to Papelbon with a lead. The rest of the Red Sox bullpen, especially young Justin Masterson are going to be very important. The situational lefties probably won’t play as much of a factor as they normally would because the majority of the Angels lineup either switch hits or is right-handed. Hideki Okajima received criticism because he didn’t pitch as well as he did in 2007, but he was brilliant that whole year and it was unrealistic to expect him to follow that up identically. For the most part, he pitched well in 2008.
Now we’ll find out the consequences of trading Manny Ramirez away. It had to be done for the good of the organization, and Jason Bay has filled the shoes of Manny adequately and quietly, but there’s no way the Angels are going to let either David Ortiz or Kevin Youkilis beat them before they take a chance and see what Bay does in his first playoff appearance. Bay has never, ever played in games of this importance in his entire career and while he’s played well under all the scrutiny of replacing Manny, the playoffs are a whole different animal in which Manny was a proven clutch player. The return of J.D. Drew and Mike Lowell will certainly help the Red Sox lineup, but this series is going to come down to what Bay does in clutch spots.
- Keys for the Angels:
The Angels have been coasting since early in the season when it was clear that they were the class of the American League West and they knew they were heading to the playoffs. Spending half a season readying oneself for the playoffs has its drawbacks. The Angels could have stood pat, safe in the knowledge that they were in one way or the other; but they instead went for the big prize and got it by dealing for a basher that they desperately needed in Mark Teixeira. Teixeira will be highly motivated to do well in his first post-season experience and undoubtedly knows that Carlos Beltran’s home run binge in 2004 made him a load more money than he would have without it. Teixeira wants to get paid and the best way to do that is to add a world championship to his resume and to play a major part in winning it.
During their current incarnation, the Angels have always been about pitching from top-to-bottom. They have starting pitchers in John Lackey, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders and Jon Garland who throw strikes, keep the games close and turn things over to a bullpen that is the strength of the team. Once a lead is handed to baseball’s best set-up man in Scot Shields (who does the heavy lifting) and record-setting closer Francisco (K-Rod) Rodriguez, the game’s basically over. Rodriguez will also be motivated to do well and bolster his own free agency qualifications and, by proxy, his paycheck. An unsung part of the bullpen is the clone of the 2002 version of K-Rod, Jose Arredondo who will likely move up to Shields’s role next season as Shields becomes the closer. Once the Angels get a lead, they’re hard to beat because of this bullpen.
The rest of the lineup, with the unflappable Vladimir Guerrero and veteran Torii Hunter should score runs against a compromised Red Sox starting rotation without Beckett until the third game. Chone Figgins and Howie Kendrick have to get on base in front of the bashers.
- What will happen:
The Red Sox should be alright with the gutty Lester starting the opener, but Daisuke Matsuzaka is going to be a concern in game two despite his gaudy 18-3 record. Matsuzaka had flashes of brilliance this season, but much of his record was accumulated as he pitched five or six innings and turned things over to his bullpen. He also struggled in the playoffs last year. The loss of Beckett for games one and two is a problem for the Red Sox and their offense and bullpen are going to have to come through to counteract that.
I have a problem believing that Bay is going to replace Manny as a threat in the middle of the lineup; as great as Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia have been, they’re going to feel Manny’s absence at some point in the series, possibly very early if K-Rod is closing a game and pitching to the spot where Manny once batted to finish the game. Drew and Lowell, both of whom have done great things in the post-season, will help, but are they 100%? Are they 85%? If they’re not at their healthiest, then they may not be able to fill that void at all.
The Angels have always had trouble with the Red Sox, but this year is different. To a man, they’re on a mission to win this year and with the addition of Teixeira and Hunter, they’re not leaving Guerrero standing alone in the lineup to carry the team. The Red Sox won’t be able
to just pitch around Guerrero and force the likes of Garret Anderson to beat them. The Angels play the game the right way with pitching, defense and opportunistic baserunning. If Beckett were healthy, his post-season cachet would be enough to give the Red Sox a better than even shot of winning the series; but he’s not and because of that, the Red Sox are going to lose to a different Angels team than the one they consistently have abused over the years.
Prediction: ANGELS IN FOUR.