Monday, September 29, 2008
Can Red Sox win with both Beckett and Lowell ailing?
By Tim Kurkjian ESPN The Magazine
Now this is a hard one. The Angels beat the Red Sox eight times in nine games this season, outscoring them 61-33. And yet, the Red Sox swept the Angels out of the playoffs in 2004 and 2007, winning six straight games by a combined score of 44-16.
Maybe none of this means anything, maybe it was too long ago, maybe so much has changed since the two teams last played in late July. Still, it makes a fascinating series even harder to pick.
Anyway, here are five questions heading into the series:
No. Statistically, he is one of the five best starting pitchers in postseason history. The Red Sox won the World Series last season in large part because he was the guy who pitched Game 1 of a series, and then put the series away. But he hasn't been the same pitcher this year, and he's had more than one injury. And now he has been pushed to the third spot in the playoff rotation because of an oblique injury. Beckett hasn't been the same against the Angels this year, either. He went 0-2, allowing 20 hits and 11 earned runs in 13 1/3 innings.
A lot better. They traded for him in July because they were one bat short of being a very good offensive club. He has been terrific for the Angels; one statistical analysis shows that Teixeira has helped his team as much as Manny Ramirez has helped the Dodgers, but it's harder to tell because the Angels were so far ahead when they acquired Teixeira. The Angels are a dangerous offensive club now, especially if Howie Kendrick gets back to 100 percent.
A hip injury has limited Boston's third baseman to only one at-bat since Sept. 16. He is a team leader, a big-time, big-game hitter and an excellent defensive third baseman -- they simply can't win it all without him, and yet there's no indication that he will be able to move well enough to be highly productive in this series. If he can't play, they're not even close to the offensive club they were last October, especially without Ramirez. If Lowell can't play, the Sox likely will play Kevin Youkilis at third, severely weakening their defense.
How good is the Angels' rotation?
It is well above average; not many three-man rotations are 45-19 in the regular season. Ace John Lackey, who allowed 12 hits and 10 runs in 2 2/3 innings in his final start of the regular season, has not been the dominant pitcher that he was last year. But he did, for a change, pitch very well against the Red Sox this year: 2-0, 2.81 ERA, seven hits allowed in 16 innings. Joe Saunders has been slowed by a kidney stone, but he pitched well in a seven-inning start Sunday to end the season. Lackey, Saunders and Ervin Santana are better than most threesomes, but are they dominant? Do they even have to be, with that bullpen and that offense?
It has been up-and-down this season, but it is in pretty good shape for the playoffs. Rookie Justin Masterson has helped stabilize the late innings with his work the past two months: 28 innings, six earned runs, 24 strikeouts. The final numbers for Hideki Okajima and Manny Delcarmen were impressive, but are they as reliable as they were at this time last year? Closer Jonathan Papelbon is one of the best, but his September numbers (seven earned runs allowed in 11 1/3 innings) weren't as good as his August numbers (zero earned runs and zero walks in 12 2/3 innings). With Beckett ailing and not starting until Game 3, the Boston bullpen has to be at its best to win the series.
Prediction: Angels in 5.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback on May 27. Click here to order a copy.