Manager Terry Francona had PR man John Blake announce that Curt Schilling would skip pitching the regular-season finale this afternoon, even before the Red Sox learned they would finish no worse than tied with Cleveland for the best record in the American League, giving them the choice of what day their Division Series would open against the Los Angeles Angels. By virtue of their 5-2 record in head-to-head play against the Indians, the tiebreaker belongs to the Sox.
The Sox intend to open the Division Series Wednesday, with Game 2 following on Friday, the club announced in an e-mailed press release last night.
The Cleveland Indians, who had begun the day tied with the Sox for the league's best record, were still playing after the Sox beat the Twins last night, 6-4, and Francona said he wasn't planning to hang around to await word of a winner. "I've got a 13-year-old with me," said Francona, referring to his daughter, Jamie. "I'm going home."
The Indians lost shortly thereafter in Kansas City, 4-3, to the Royals, meaning they could at best tie the Sox for the best record in the league. The Sox, who also have secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs thanks to the AL victory in the All-Star Game, are 96-65, the Indians 95-66.
Francona said he was leaving it to Theo Epstein to inform the commissioner's office of their preference to play their first two games Wednesday and Friday.
Playing Wednesday and Friday allows the team to use its first two starters on regular rest twice in the series. Playing Thursday and Friday, a team would either have to pitch its Game 1 starter on short rest in Game 4, or use four starters. Choosing Thursday-Friday would also be a way to keep an opponent from using its top two starters on regular rest twice.
A couple of weeks ago, Daisuke Matsuzaka had indicated to Japanese reporters he'd been told he would draw the Game 2 assignment, but Schilling's strong performance this September appears to have dictated a change in plans. Matsuzaka, who has never faced the Angels, now figures to pitch Game 3 in Angels Stadium.
Another possible factor: While Matsuzaka had his best performance in weeks in Friday night's division-clinching win over the Minnesota Twins, his earned run average on the road (4.02) is significantly better than it is at Fenway Park (4.86). Matsuzaka said after winning Friday that "I've been told when I'm going to pitch, but I'm not sure I'm supposed to say."
Francona said before the game he did not want to discuss his playoff pitching plans until after today's finale.
The only plans Francona was willing to make public yesterday were that the team will have an optional workout tomorrow, have a scouting meeting tomorrow night, then meet with the players Tuesday before working out that day. Last night, the Sox rested DH David Ortiz, even though he is in the midst of a hot streak in which he had reached base in 13 of 15 plate appearances and had hit .593 (16 for 27) with 5 doubles, 4 home runs, 10 RBIs, and 9 runs.
"At this point, David really needs a day," Francona said. "I know he's swinging the bat great, but we can DH Manny [Ramírez], get him his at-bats."
The only other regulars who did not start yesterday were shortstop Julio Lugo and second baseman Dustin Pedroia. Royce Clayton began the game at short and Alex Cora at second.
The Sox beat the Angels in 6 of 10 meetings this season. They faced each other in the Division Series in 2004, the Sox winning three straight, with Ortiz hitting a walkoff home run off Jarrod Washburn in the deciding game after Vladimir Guerrero hit a game-tying grand slam off Mike Timlin.
"We know very well what they can do and they know what we can do," Francona said. "Even though they play in the West, it seems like we see them a lot. We know how they play the game. If the baseball doesn't end up where it's supposed to, there can be havoc. It's a different style of baseball."
The Angels, who finish the season in Oakland, are facing some significant injury issues. Gary Matthews Jr., their center fielder and easily their best outfield defender, has been playing with patellar tendinitis since June. It flared up on him last week in Texas and he wasn't expected to play the rest of this weekend. His availability for the postseason is in doubt, though he expressed some optimism he could go.
The Angels received some encouragement yesterday when Kelvim Escobar, who projects to start Game 2 but hadn't started since Sept. 17 to give him a chance to rest his right shoulder, allowed just a run in six innings against the Athletics to improve his record to 18-7.
If Escobar can't go, Angels manager Mike Scioscia could turn to Bartolo Colon, who has had arm trouble for most of the season. Slugger Guerrero is limited to DHing because of right triceps tendinitis, while Chone Figgins, who for four months had been one of the majors' hottest hitters, has a sore right wrist, and is hitless in his last 20 at-bats.
The scent of champagne still hung in the air in the Sox clubhouse yesterday afternoon, despite the best efforts of Joe Cochran's clubhouse equipment men, some of whom spent the night at the ballpark, and a cleaning crew that shampooed the rugs and washed the ceilings yesterday morning.
The Sox broke out into a raucous celebration Friday night after watching on TV while the Baltimore Orioles rallied to beat the New York Yankees in 10 innings, 10-9, just as Epstein had admonished former Sox favorite Kevin Millar in a text message before the game. Millar was hit by a pitch in the bottom of the ninth, before a game-tying bases-loaded triple by former Sox outfielder Jay Payton, while a former Sox pitcher, Chad Bradford, worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the 10th and was credited with the win after Melvin Mora's two-out bunt.
Some Sox players had left before the end of the Orioles game, evidently assuming that Yankees closer Mariano Rivera would not blow a three-run lead. Jason Varitek, Kevin Youkilis, and Hideki Okajima were among the Sox players who left and came back; Ramírez was among those who left and did not.
Francona professed not to know whether Ramírez was present for the celebration. "If he wasn't, I'll make sure Manny is aware we won today," Francona said.
But no one present last night, including Francona, missed Jonathan Papelbon's wild Irish jig on the mound after the game.
"You mean, 'The Riverdance'?" Francona said. "That's one of the . . . he looked to me . . . I don't want to call him a moron, but the only thing better than that was when he was inside dancing, wearing only a jock.
"That's him. He's young, carefree, a great kid. That said, when he gets on the mound, he's all business. It's a good mix."
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.