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Friday, October 12, 2007
Indians must slay another behemoth to advance

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

BOSTON -- There was a famous moment before the 2001 World Series when Curt Schilling was asked if his Arizona Diamondbacks would be affected by the mystique and aura of the venerable New York Yankees.

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"When you use words like 'mystique' and 'aura,' those are names of night club dancers," Schilling said that day. "Those are not things we concern ourselves with on a ballfield."

Within a week's time, the Diamondbacks had proven both unmoved and engulfed by the Yankees' mystique. Arizona easily won the first two games of the series, but in New York the aura was strong, as epic Yankees victories over the next three games added to the mythology that, though Arizona was the superior team, the Joe Torre Yankees could not be beaten in big games. It was a feeling that did not dissipate until days later, when Luis Gonzalez shattered the myth for good with a broken-bat, series-winning single off Mariano Rivera in Game 7.

Schilling stood at the center of that series. He beat the Yankees in Game 1, pitched playoff stalwart Orlando Hernandez to a draw in Game 4, and classically dueled Roger Clemens in Game 7. He and Randy Johnson, the winning pitcher who relieved Schilling in the clincher, were named co-Most Valuable Players for the Series.

Six years later, in something of a reversal, it is Schilling who finds himself in the same position he overcame with Arizona, for it is he and the Red Sox who enter Friday's Game 1 of the American League Championship Series assuming the role of the Yankees in 2001, full of postseason reputation, mystique and aura in comparison to the Cleveland Indians, a team that won as many games as the Red Sox during the season. The Indians beat a tougher team in the first round in the Yankees, but as a group they are just now building a playoff history.

C.C. Sabathia
C.C. Sabathia is 1-1 with a 2.35 ERA in three career starts at Fenway Park, but he hasn't pitched there since Aug. 1, 2006.

C.C. Sabathia, the Cleveland left-hander who will start the opener, reprises the Schilling role, the indomitable ace who will have much to say about whether the Indians crack under the Boston mythology. To advance to the World Series, the Indians must win at least one game at Fenway Park, and should the series go seven games, Sabathia will pitch twice at Fenway, where he has a career mark of 1-1 with a 2.35 ERA.

The parallels are not completely exact, but they are nevertheless strong. When Schilling faced the Yankees in the World Series, New York was attempting to win a fourth consecutive Series title and fifth in six years. The Red Sox, which did not qualify for the playoffs last year, have not enjoyed the type of playoff success as the Yankees during the late 1990s. After winning the Series in 2004, the Sox were swept by Chicago the following year before finishing third in 2006.

With Arizona, Schilling was facing a Yankees team that did not merely win, but seemed to carry about it an air of invincibility, especially as they neared defeat. Cleveland led the 1998 Yankees two games to one with two more games at home but did not win a game. The Yankees finished the 2000 season losers of 15 of their last 18 games, but won 87 games and the World Series. In 2001, they lost the first two games of the Division Series at home to Oakland but won the final three.

And these Indians are not those Diamondbacks. Arizona was a veteran team, full of names like Schilling and Gonzalez and Johnson, Matt Williams, Mark Grace, Steve Finley and Reggie Sanders. These Indians resemble the Oakland Athletics of the early part of the decade, all growing into their own together.

INSIDE PITCH
ESPN analyst Rick Sutcliffe breaks down the American League Championship Series.

Boston: Watch Josh Beckett and how well he's able to control his curveball in the first couple of innings in Game 1. If he throws it for strikes right away, he's usually really good. If he doesn't, Cleveland can eliminate that pitch and just look for fastballs and changeups. Throwing his curve for a strike has been the key to his postseason success.

The Red Sox's pitching, for the most part, has been good all year long. But the one player who might deserve the most credit didn't throw a pitch, and that's catcher Jason Varitek. Last year, when he went down, the rest of the team missed his presence. He is like the NFL's franchise player -- he's the one player the Red Sox can least afford to lose.

Cleveland: There was pressure on manager Eric Wedge to start C.C. Sabathia in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Yankees. Wedge did not panic, stood his ground and showed confidence in starter Paul Byrd. Not only did the Indians win the ALDS, but Wedge, by starting Byrd on Monday, now has his rotation in order with Sabathia and Fausto Carmona pitching Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS. Derek Jeter once said about Joe Torre that he only manages when he has to, and that's what Wedge did in the division series. The result will carry over to the ALCS, and he needs to be applauded for what he did -- and didn't do -- in a short series.
Over the past four years, especially this year, the Red Sox have proven themselves as dangerous a commodity, their home field a strong advantage, their financial muscle felt from the broadcast booth; they are one of a handful of teams who own their own television station, and the Boston market is coveted by the national networks who will broadcast the postseason. Despite the Yankees' opulence, the World Series champion with the highest payroll is still the 2004 Red Sox. The Red Sox aren't cute. They aren't plucky, and they certainly are not underdogs. The Red Sox are a superpower on the field and a financial powerhouse off it. Only one team in baseball, the 1998 Indians, has had a chance to beat both the Red Sox and Yankees in the postseason. This $61 million Indians team must defeat a team with a $338 million payroll to reach the World Series.

Under owner John Henry, Boston has learned that the way to compete with the Yankees is to spend with them every year. That may be a reality difficult to reconcile for a franchise that has long preferred to cast itself as an underdog. The Red Sox have a strong farm system and yet can outspend their mistakes, for few teams can afford a misfire like J.D. Drew -- Epstein signed him to a five-year, $70 million contract -- and still lead their division from start to finish. The Red Sox were second to the Yankees in payroll this season by $50 million, but outspent their next closest rival -- the Mets -- by nearly $30 million.

Like Schilling's Diamondbacks did six years ago, the Indians will not only be facing the Red Sox team, but also their reputation. In a sense, it is an old story. For the Indians to assume the role as the next great team, they must first vanquish the old ones. In 1964, the Cardinals' Bob Gibson defeated the Yankees, a team that had been to the World Series five straight years. In 1966, the Orioles built their monument by sweeping the Dodgers in the World Series.

Despite the fashionable notion that clutch performing is an illusion, the pressure of the postseason is obvious. So that's what pressure can do to a team. J.P. Ricciardi, the Toronto general manager, told me that when he is gauging whether a pitcher has the mental makeup to be a closer, he first asks himself if the pitcher can finish a game at Fenway Park, with the fans sitting close and the left wall even closer.

As pressure grows, good teams crumble at Fenway Park. Under the John Henry ownership, the Red Sox are 10-4 in the postseason at home. The Athletics, up two games to none with a chance to sweep the Red Sox out of the 2003 Division Series, collapsed famously in Game 3 and less so in Game 4. The Angels did the same, both listlessly this season and more pronounced in 2004. In the 2004 World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals played as if they hadn't performed in front of a crowd in years.

Josh Beckett
In only six postseason starts, Josh Beckett has thrown three shutouts, second all-time to Christy Mathewson (four).
The Red Sox are formidable, but their postseason personality is growing. Gibson beat the Yankees in '64, and thus from that day forward teams were forced to contend not only with Gibson's stuff, but his presence. Schilling is the same. He lanced the Yankees in 2001 and again in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS. Josh Beckett, who will win the Cy Young Award this season if Sabathia doesn't, has emerged as the postseason pitcher among his young peers. Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Johan Santana have all pitched in the postseason, all in elimination games. But none have stood as tall as Beckett, who owns a 4-0 record with a 1.74 ERA in seven postseason games.

And then, there is the postseason aura of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. Ortiz is the clutch hitter of his time and Hall of Fame-bound Ramirez, like Beckett, is a World Series MVP.

Such byproducts of October pressure are what the Indians must handle. The difference, as always in baseball, comes back to the mound, if Sabathia knows what Schilling knew: Neither aura nor mystique can compete with a dominant pitching performance. Cleveland withstood the backbreaking moments at Yankee Stadium last week, arriving in Boston without the profile of their opponents. They reached the pennant by slaying one of baseball's giants, but going to the World Series means having to finish off the other.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.