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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