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Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Pitching, experience give Red Sox the edge

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

BOSTON -- At this stage in the game, the Boston Red Sox are no longer a baseball team. They are the killer in a horror flick, 25 guys wearing hockey masks who seem to return very much alive -- especially at the very moment when you are convinced they are dead, relieved that the danger has passed.

"What's past is prologue," wrote Shakespeare, and in that vein do not view 2004 as a dusty old memory with no bearing on today. During their last championship run, the Red Sox won three in a row over the Angels in the Division Series, lost three in a row to the Yankees in the Championship Series only to win eight straight and the World Series.

Now, Terry Francona and the Red Sox are doing their Jason routine again, having won three in a row against the Angels, having survived triple match point against Cleveland only to stand stronger and more dangerous before Game 1 of the World Series against Colorado. The similarities are apparent, made more relevant by the fact that men named Schilling, Ramirez and Ortiz headlined the 2004 run -- along with Timlin, Wakefield, Varitek -- and are doing the same today.

It is with Shakespeare in mind -- but with the highest respect for the Rockies -- that I say the Red Sox will win this series, and here is why.

WORLD SERIES

Rockies-Red Sox
series page

1. Pitching, pitching, pitching

The biggest mistake that anyone can make during this series is to underestimate Colorado because it has flown below the radar for most of the season. The Rockies were 69-66 on Sept. 1, in fourth place, six games out of first place in the National League West, behind three teams for a playoff spot. On Sept. 15, they were 6½ games out of first place, closer to elimination than the playoffs. They even trailed Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Diego in the wild card, were a mere half-game ahead of Milwaukee, one game ahead of Atlanta, and weren't inspiring much confidence in the region, being in the middle of a three-game losing streak with two weeks to go.

But what I am doing is not underestimating the Rockies -- how can you doubt the hottest team in the history of baseball? -- as much as I am banking on the Red Sox pitching. In October, you don't look for tech stocks. You look for blue-chip investments, and the Red Sox front two -- Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling -- might as well at this time of the year be AT&T and IBM. Beckett, the ALCS MVP, who brought the Red Sox back from the dead by subduing the pennant-thirsty Indians on their home field, will start Game 1. In three starts this postseason, Beckett is doing his best Bob Gibson impersonation, not only giving his team a head start, but by being so dominant that the opposition believes it cannot beat him. Schilling, adding postseason moments to a regular-season career that needs an October boost for the Hall of Fame, will start Game 2. Schilling is a flyball pitcher whose blazer isn't what it once was. His starting Game 2 is significant: If necessary, he will have two starts at home instead of in the thin Denver air.

2. Big guys, big moments

During the ALCS, even when the Red Sox were at death's door, their big men -- David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Beckett -- were performing at their zeniths. Ramirez and Ortiz are so good these days that Ortiz went 0-for-5 with two whiffs in Game 7, and still the Red Sox won by nine runs. If the Colorado pitchers have learned anything from the Indians and Angels, it is that the best way to get into big trouble against the Red Sox lineup is to nibble against the big two. Jake Westbrook attacked Ortiz and Ramirez, and had the best results. Dancing around the strike zone with hitters this patient -- and with an umpiring crew that seems to think it a federal offense to call a non-swinging strike -- is a recipe for a big inning every time.

The Rockies are big, too. Matt Holliday and his gang have been productive in the postseason, but the Red Sox over the past four years are beginning to build the type of playoff history that puts players in the Hall of Fame.

3. Battle-tested versus bliss

The Red Sox are the only team in recent memory that turns elimination games into winning streaks.

In a sense, this series resembles the 1996 World Series, when the Yankees were a young team surrounded by veterans playing Atlanta, a team that in the mid-1990s had established itself as a playoff, though Series-challenged, monster. Both have their advantages.

And what will the Rockies do when the moments grow? The Rockies are flying through life right now, but we don't even know how they will react to that first postseason loss. (Of course, if they had their way, we'd never know.) The Red Sox have the experience, which is a big thing. The Rockies have the magic, which is inexplicable, fun to watch and impossible to predict.

The Jeffrey Maier Yankees of 1996 were young and good, and took a freak moment in Game 1 of the ALCS to rush to the World Series. Much like those Yankees, the Rockies have the momentum of a team that has no idea what it has to lose.

The Red Sox are all muscle and business. Terry Francona talks about the Boston pressure -- a phrase that, like everything else, is rivaling the Yankees. Most impressive is that the Red Sox just played a young Indians team, full of bliss and talent, and looked like another postseason veteran machine of the last decade. Down against Cleveland, the Red Sox resembled the 1996 Braves, who after being down 3-1, mashed the Cardinals by scores of 14-0, 3-1, and 15-0 in the NLCS. So much for bliss.

Given the choice, I'll take battle-tested.

4. Believe it when I see it

They are crying real tears in Cleveland, and for lots of reasons. Fausto Carmona and C.C. Sabathia formed the first set of 19-game winners to start four games in a playoff series and not record a win since -- that's right -- the 1954 Indians, when Early Wynn, Mike Garcia and Bob Lemon went out and got swept by the Willie Mays Giants in the World Series.

RED SOX POWER TRIO
How Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and J.D. Drew fared in the first four games of the ALCS compared to the last three:
  FIRST 4 LAST 3
Pedroia 3-for-16 (.187)
5 K, 0 RBI, 2 R
7-for-13 (.538)
1 HR, 5 RBI, 6 R
Youkilis 6-for-15 (.400)
1 HR, 1 RBI, 4 R
8-for-13 (.615)
2 HR, 6 RBI, 6 R
Drew 4-for-15 (.267)
0 RBI, 1 R
5-for-10 (.500)
1 HR, 6 RBI, 4 R

But they really are crying because after all the muscle and swagger and confidence, just when it came time to close the deal, the Indians suddenly lost their nerve. Over the final three games, when they were outscored 30-5, they played tight. They pitched tight. The Red Sox, meanwhile, grew stronger. Dustin Pedroia finished the series on a 7-for-13 binge. Kevin Youkilis became yet another home-run threat in the lineup, and even J.D. Drew, left for dead under the weight of his too-heavy $70 million contract, is giving enhanced meaning to the cliché "it's not how you start, but how you finish."

Will the Rockies do the same? The answer is no one knows. They might play like the 2003 Florida Marlins, all parts blissful and tough and good, winning the money points from the big boys, another wild-card expansion team celebrating at the expense of a giant.

Or they might offer a repeat performance of what went down with Cleveland, as even the third-base coach tightened up when it was time to seal the deal.

Either way, we know the Red Sox won't fold. They will succeed or they will fail, but it won't be because the moment is too big for them.

5. The man at the end

When it is time to close a game, Jonathan Papelbon gives the Red Sox a clear advantage. Having him lurking behind the Red Sox starters and setup men gave the Indians an even greater sense of urgency. They knew they had to score quickly in the middle innings, which is why their fatal baserunning gaffes -- Kenny Lofton and Joel Skinner, your table is waiting -- grew even more pronounced.

Jonathan Papelbon

Papelbon

Relief Pitcher
Boston Red Sox

Profile

2007 Season Stats
GM W L BB K ERA
59 1 3 15 84 1.85

Papelbon is not exactly a two-inning closer, but he has proven he can close the deal if necessary. Brian Fuentes and Manny Corpas have been great -- everything Colorado has done this postseason has been phenomenal -- but the track record edge goes to the Red Sox, perhaps in no bigger area than this.

Unless you happen to be Nostradamus, predictions are supposed to be fun. The Rockies could win this series -- how do you bet against a team that hasn't yet lost a postseason game? -- but the Red Sox seem too close to it. They have the track record. They have the home field. They have their best players playing their best. And they have Josh Beckett for two or three starts. That is a hard hand to beat.

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.