ALCS Game 6: Schilling, Drew come through

Curt Schilling just seems to be on his game when the season is on the line. The wily 40-year old veteran showed that he’s still capable of pitching with what he has. He used his split-finger fastball and his changeup pretty effectively over seven innings, allowing six hits and two runs, walking no one. He worked his way through a LOT of leadoff hits (he surrendered hits to begin 5 of his 7 innings of work). There were some long fly balls, but the Sox ran them all down. He needed only 90 pitches in this outing, and he even struck out five batters.

Schilling was handed a four-run lead after one frame by an unlikely hero. After two infield singles by Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis and a walk of David Ortiz loaded the bases, Manny Ramirez struck out on a nasty sinker and Mike Lowell flied out. With J.D. Drew at the plate, the best outcome I was hoping for was that he could walk in a run. But he took a 3-1 fastball by Fausto Carmona for a pretty good ride, and just cleared the fence to the right of the Green Monster. I’m very happy for the much-maligned Drew, and hope this becomes a turning point for him in his Boston career.

The Indians didn’t help matters, stumbling and bumbling their way through a 6-run bottom of the 3rd inning. Carmona walked Manny and Lowell to lead off the inning, and props to Drew for singling to keep the pressure on. Out comes Rafael Perez, the Red Sox favorite Tribe bullpen punching bag this series, now with a 45.00 ERA (why didn’t Wedge bring him in to face Drew at least???). Jason Varitek flied out to right, and then Jacoby Ellsbury had a key opposite-field single. Then he scored from first on Julio Lugo‘s double down the line.

Then the real fun begins. Obviously flustered, Perez walks Pedey, and Youkilis bangs a long one off the Green Monster. Kenny Lofton finally manages to play the carom right (he got a lot of practice last night), and they trap Youk off of first. Rookie Asdrubal Cabrera is chasing him back to first, and somehow manages to throw it off a ducking Youk’s helmet. Safe. The Indians bring in lefty Aaron Laffey, who gets Papi to ground hard to first base. An easy double play, right? It is unless your first baseman (Ryan Garko) throws it a good 10 feet short into the ground. After a Manny walk, the massacre finally ends with a Lowell fly ball. 10-1, Sox after three. Hello Game 7!

Ellsbury played well in his first postseason start, and didn’t shatter anything (except maybe Cleveland’s hopes). Hey, even Eric Gagne did well in this one.

You get the feeling that you’re watching a young, inexperienced team just unravel. After two straight poundings, I don’t expect them to put up much of a fight tonight. Those Cleveland fans will be sorry for calling one of our players “Rice-K” (I won’t tell you who). Despite the loss in Game 3, it’s still my opinion that Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched better Jake Westbrook last time, and I fully expect it to happen again in tonight’s game. Well, Cleveland, you guys can always donate those World Series T-shirts to the homeless.

ALCS Game 5: Beckett wills the Series back to Boston

Once again, C.C. Sabathia was off his game, giving up 10 hits over his six innings of work. But the Red Sox didn’t make him pay for the 14 baserunners he allowed. In fact, he left the game with the score still just 3-1. He allowed baserunners in every inning except the sixth, and hit two batters. The Indians induced two double plays and had lots of lucky breaks; the Manny Ramirez almost-a-home-run single, the Mike Lowell almost-a-double down the third base line. Both of those balls missed by mere inches. Even if Cleveland were to make it past Boston, they’re in serious trouble if their ace is pitching like this.

That Manny ball that hit off the top of the wall is just bad luck, but Manny not getting at least a triple out of that is just bad baseball. After his comments the day before, and getting thrown out at home in the first, it just makes him look like a fool. I just hope that the Series doesn’t come down to a foolish play.

Josh BeckettThe Red Sox were playing sloppy, uninspired ball while Josh Beckett was ringing up Indians all night long. Beckett is making the leap from merely excellent to legendary. His eight innings last night were astonishing, even better than his first start against the Angels. On the road, down 3 games to 1, everything on the line, and Beckett delivers. What a stud. Even the Indians’ one run came on a bloop double by Grady Sizemore, a single, and a double play ball by Travis Hafner. The Indians tried everything, even bringing in an ex-girlfriend of Beckett’s to sing the at the stretch, but it didn’t matter. With the start, Beckett now boasts a 1.17 ERA this postseason in three starts. He’s allowed just 13 hits and fanned 26 in 23 innings of work, and walked 1. Yes, that’s right- ONE guy. Add in his postseason from 2003, and you’re looking at probably the best postseason pitcher EVER (so far).

So that’s the story; Beckett just put the Red Sox on his back and carried them back to Boston for game 6. Never mind the score. All that came after, and is why I think we can still take this Series. Let me explain:

In the top of the 8th, everything started to fall apart for the Cleveland Indians. Rafael Perez came out of the bullpen and walked J.D. Drew after getting ahead 0-2. After a Jason Varitek flyball, Coco Crisp grounded to Perez, who bounced a throw to second, making both runners safe. This is where an inexperienced team like the Indians implodes. Pesky Julio Lugo drag bunts for a base hit, and we have ‘em loaded. Eric Wedge calls in Tom Mastny, but it’s too late. A passed ball by Victor Martinez allows one run to score, and Dustin Pedroia walks to load the bases again. Not to be outdone, Kevin Youkilis walks too, forcing home a run. And now you got David Ortiz at the plate, bases loaded, one out, and Manny on deck. Heart attack for Mastny. He manages to get out the inning with just one more run, but I think this kind of inning is psychologically damaging in your last home game, going to Fenway, where the fans rock the rafters.

If we can win the next one, Jake Westbrook hasn’t got a prayer. I’m calling it right now, game 7, Rafael Betancourt is gonna be the losing pitcher. Write it down. I think the Indians are ready to fall, they just need a little push. And we’re looking to Curt Schilling to give it to them.

NEWS FLASH: Jerry Remy said on the radio this morning that nothing’s confirmed yet, but don’t be surprised if you see Jacoby Ellsbury in centerfield tomorrow night! Maybe he proved last night to Tito that he won’t freak out if he actually got some playing time.

ALCS Game 2: Starters lifted early, Gagne and Lopez blow it

On this cold night in New England, neither Fausto Carmona nor Curt Schilling could make it past five innings. Despite featuring his heavy sinker inside to righties and low and away to lefties, Carmona couldn’t get hitters to bite often enough. Schilling was mistake prone and had several mistakes up in the zone, which led to two home runs by Jhonny Peralta and Grady Sizemore. The weather made it really hard for pitchers to get a good feel or get in a groove, and as it got colder, I think it probably bothered the bats as well.

Anyone else think Carmona’s ears are too small and elvish for his head? He must be half Vulcan.

Manager Eric Wedge made an interesting decision in the 5th, wouldn’t you say? He brought in his prize lefty, Rafael Perez to face David Ortiz, then he leaves him in there to face a red-hot Manny Ramirez, who happens to be one of the top hitters in the game against lefties. Okay, maybe that’s defensible, but why leave him in against Mike Lowell? And you definitely have to pull him in the post-season after giving up two back-to-back home runs, lefty or no lefty. That should have cost them the game right there, but the drama wasn’t over. The inning ended with a double play, but was there anyone else out there that thought Drew’s takeout slide into second was really weak? He was practically there before he started sliding.

In the 6th, Manny Delcarmen came out throwing 97 mph heat, but he couldn’t get his curve over for strikes, and the Indians started sitting on the heater. That allowed them to tie the game. Jensen Lewis managed to go 2 1/3, and Rafael Betancourt came out and kept the Sox at bay for 2 1/3.

Lowell had a long at-bat in the 8th, and even though he ended up striking out, he did exactly what the Red Sox preach to their hitters. I don’t know who said it, but the commentators said something like, “he shown no sign that he can get around on that fastball”. This is technique, not lack of ability. Anyone who’s watched Lowell all year knows that 95 mph is not too fast for him. He was sitting on Betancourt’s fastball, waiting for a mistake. Give credit to Betancourt though, he ended up getting Lowell on a very good breaking ball that dropped in.

Kevin Youkilis had a great at bat in the 9th, battling Betancourt with foul after foul. He finally got one to hit and pulled it into the left-center alley, but Sizemore managed to put it away to bring on the 10th. This left the Indians with little choice: we’re pitching Jonathan Papelbon in the 10th, while they’re trotting out Tom Mastny. That should have been the game. Should have.

Eric Gagne comes out for the 11th, and after striking out Casey Blake (their #9 hitter), he allows a hit and a walk. Javier Lopez comes out and gives up an RBI hit to Trot Nixon. Gagne is the goat again, and Lopez is just not effective. He can’t get lefties out, so why is he on the roster? Julian Tavarez would be a better choice. Lester’s outing was disappointing and embarrassing too, but I think it was pretty much over by then anyway.

I continue to be annoyed by announcers who don’t know what they’re talking about. Tim McCarver, that means you. In the 2nd inning, these guys were saying what a great at-bat J.D. Drew had because he went the other way on Carmona’s outside sinker. Uh, pounding it into the ground doesn’t really count as “going the other way”. There was nothing good about that at-bat, and he took a perfectly good 1-2 pitch before swinging. In the 4th inning, they were talking about “the silence at Fenway”. WTF? That could have been because nothing was going on at the time. I don’t think Carmona or the Indians did anything to take the crowd out of this game. Then in the 5th, they say how “someone” was playing the triangle in the Red Sox bullpen. That guy’s name is Jon Lester. Here’s a neat idea – why don’t you try familiarizing yourself with the teams you’re covering before you enter the broadcast booth? Sheesh. And they kept going on and on about Mastny’s “performance”. He did a good job, but it wasn’t that great.

This was a disappointing game to lose; I think we could have pulled it out, but that’s the playoffs, right? Anyway, I am still not worried about this series yet. We get Westbrook and Byrd next.

ALCS Preview: the Cleveland Indians

Here is the tentative playoff schedule and pitching rotation, as announced today:

GAME ONE, Friday, October 12 — Josh Beckett (7:10 p.m. at Boston)
GAME TWO, Saturday, October 13 — Curt Schilling (8:21 p.m. at Boston)
GAME THREE, Monday, October 15 — Daisuke Matsuzaka (7:10 p.m. at Cleveland)
GAME FOUR, Tuesday, October 16 — TBA (Tim Wakefield if healthy) (8:21 p.m. at Cleveland)
GAME FIVE, Thursday, October 18 — Josh Beckett (8:21 p.m. at Cleveland)
GAME SIX, Saturday, October 20 — Curt Schilling (TBA at Boston)
GAME SEVEN, Sunday, October 21 — Daisuke Matsuzaka (TBA at Boston)

Terry Francona has decided to flip-flop Schilling and Matsuzaka in the rotation, giving us the playoff rotation I’ve been calling for and Dice-K some extra time to recooperate. In the wake of today’s simulated games, it looks like Wakefield will be able to take the mound after all, a huge relief to us all. Wake was able to toss 77 pitches without much discomfort, so it looks like he is on track for the Tuesday start.

There is talk that Beckett could take the mound Tuesday on three days’ rest, then pitch game 7 with the regular four days. If the Sox go down 1-2 or 0-3, we could be seeing this scenario, but I don’t think it’s plan A. Besides, those who pitch on three days’ rest don’t look so hot in recent memory.

Setting the Roster

The roster will look very much like it did for the ALDS, with the exception that Wakefield will likely replace Kevin Cash. In a longer series, we no longer have the luxury of carrying three catchers. With the first game looming Friday, I’d expect that the final ALCS rosters will be released by Thursday afternoon.

Keys to the Series

Cleveland features some talented youngsters and several players in their primes who have signed hometown discounts. The Indians are a young team, and for many of them, this is their first time to the playoffs. That includes manager Eric Wedge. They are built on some strong pitching and a balanced lineup (5 players had at least 20 HR this season). They are good on defense, though they have their weak points too. While Fenway Park had the highest park factor in the majors for runs this season, Jacobs Field was not far behind at #4, so expect to see some fireworks this series, especially the games in Cleveland, where homers are more commonplace.

Rotation
No need to reiterate that the Indians will pose a much stiffer challenge than the Angels did. C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona are a better 1-2 than Beckett and Schilling, and Sabathia is a filthy lefty to boot. Lefties have given the Sox trouble this year and every year. Stuff rules in the playoffs, and both of these guys are stuff pitchers. The good news is that after these two, Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd do not scare me at all. It’s entirely possible that Wedge might bring Sabathia back on three days rest in order to pitch him three times in this series. From a numbers and experience perspective, the Sox have the advantage here, but for the reasons above, I’ll settle to call this even.

Bullpen
The Indians have two great Rafaels in their bullpen, Rafael Perez (lefty) and Rafael Betancourt (righty). Curiously, neither of them is the closer. Instead, veteran Joe Borowski closes out games with his 87 mph fastball and his 5.07 ERA. Obviously the Indians subscribe to the stathead mantra that anybody can close. And it hasn’t been a complete disaster, as Borowski notched 45 saves this year (and blew 8). They have a rookie, Jensen Lewis, with some pretty good stuff, but beyond that, there isn’t much more to this pen. They do have three lefties they could potentially throw at David Ortiz. I definitely give the edge to the Red Sox here.

Lineup
The Indians hit .268/.343/.428 this season, which doesn’t match up with the Sox’s .279/.362/.444, but remember that Travis Hafner (aka Pronk) has been off his game all year long. He’s a guy who is capable of mashing 40-50 in a good year. As I mentioned, there isn’t a real standout power bat besides Hafner’s, but there are several other guys who can hit, including Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez. They have a very balanced lineup, and Ryan Garko is an underrated bat. They have a very flexible roster, with many guys who can play multiple positions, so they are well set up in case of injuries. Sizemore and Kenny Lofton are the only real basestealing threats, but Cleveland was very aggressive with the Yankees, going 3-5 on the basepaths in the four games. Advantage Boston.

Coaching
I have to include this because it is a strong plus on our side. Not only does Terry Francona have more playoff experience than Wedge, but our pitching coach, John Farrell, just happens to have been the Indians’ Director of Player Development before he joined Boston (for FIVE YEARS!). That means the Red Sox will know their opposition pretty darn well. Cleveland does have its share of insiders, including Trot Nixon and Kelly Shoppach, but it’s not quite the same, IMO.

Final Thoughts
While Cleveland boasts two aces that trump our top two, their rotation is not as deep as ours. I think if the Sox can go up 2-0, this series is all but over, because then they have to lean on Westbrook for game 3, and probably Sabathia on short rest for game 4. The Indians need to get long innings out of their starters. If not, their shallow bullpen *will* get exposed. I don’t see an easy way to knock out Sabathia or Carmona early; we just need to get quality at-bats from our guys. I would say that Manny Ramirez and Bobby Kielty are key players in game 1 (of course Papi is always a key player), as they are expected to produce against left-handed pitching.

I keep hearing people saying the key for us is the bridge from starters to Jonathan Papelbon. I don’t think that’s the most important thing, though. I think we have to show the Indians early and often that they are overmatched and outclassed. If we can do that, they’ll fold. I think inexperience could play a significant role in this series. With rookies like Asdrubal Cabrera and Franklin Gutierrez expected to produce, they could get shaky if they struggle early on. Should they make an error or start 0-8 at the plate, it could really get to them and drag down the Indians offense.

I can’t wait to see Beckett on the mound again Friday. Did you see him last time? He was pumping 98 mph gas from the first inning. Man, does he ever step it up in the playoffs.

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