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Bob Ryan

Red Sox are working on a near-perfect game

No excuses.

That's the situation with the Red Sox now. Everything is now going their way.

Ask any manager on the day when pitchers and catchers report in February what would be his fondest wish for the season and he would undoubtedly say that he hopes to enter the playoffs with his team playing its best baseball. That is precisely the situation Terry Francona finds himself in as he awaits the start of the American League Championship Series Friday night against the Indians.

If the Division Series didn't showcase the Red Sox at their offensive/defensive/pitching best, then what lies ahead will be magical. You might say, "Well, the offense wasn't all that great," but then you would be guilty of confusing this team with the offensive powerhouses of 2003 and 2004. The 2007 edition is not on that level.

But the 2007 Red Sox now have what they never had during the regular season. They have the firm of Ortiz & Ramírez operating at peak efficiency.

What David Ortiz and Manny Ramírez did to the Orange County American League Baseball Representative was frightening. (Attention Mr. Arte Moreno: When the Los Angeles Times puts you on page 20 of its sports section, that means it doesn't consider you to be a Los Angeles team.) In just three games, Papi and Manny reached base a combined 19 times in 26 plate appearances, with 4 homers, 7 RBIs, and 8 runs.

You don't need a PhD in Diamondology to know that if this type of offensive destruction is allowed to continue, the Red Sox will be holding a parade in three weeks time. But you all surely know that no one performs at this exalted level for very long. There has to be a market correction coming, however modest.

It was hardly surprising to hear Manny say Friday night that he had not really felt right at the plate all year. We all knew something had to be wrong. Oh, he'd have his little spurts every now and then, but he never locked into a power groove. Had he not come up with the oblique thing at the end of August, he'd have nickel-and-dimed his way to a 12th 100-RBI season. He'd have found the needed 12 ribbies in his missing 80-some at-bats, all right. But it would have been a monumental struggle.

So what was wrong with him? We still don't know, but we do know that it was not exactly Manny's favorite year. He had to work through whatever he had to work through, calling on all his years of experience to be as productive as he was.

On Friday night, we discovered that Manny had given himself high marks.

"I guess, you know, when you don't feel good and you still get hits, that's when you know you are a bad man," he pointed out.

And when he is feeling good, you get a pair of home runs, that, if laid end to end, would reach from here to Omaha. No wonder Papi is now saying that if opposing pitchers want to walk him every time up for the rest of the postseason, that will be perfectly OK with him.

As for Ortiz, we long ago exhausted the superlatives with regard to his propensity for rising to the occasion. What is not referenced often enough is just what a clever hitter he is in general. The man has simply gotten better and better and better over the course of his career.

He is truly a pitcher's absolute worst nightmare. Very few batters with his plate coverage, keen ball/strike eye, ability to work counts, and strategic willingness to go for the base hit in the right situation have his sheer power. Very few players with his explosive power have his all-around batting skills. I always think back to a batting cage conversation I had with Joe Torre at the '03 ALCS when he was marveling at how sophisticated a hitter Ortiz had become since moving from Minnesota to Boston. That was four years ago, and Papi has improved greatly.

But as impressive as these two great sluggers were against the battered Angels, hitting is a great variable, and there will be O-fers ahead for everyone, them included. Ah, but if the Red Sox maintain their pitching level, someone can start icing up more champagne.

I mean it quite literally when I say no manager and pitching coach could ask more from Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling than what Terry Francona and John Farrell got against the Angels. Start with the astonishing fact that the two combined to throw 159 strikes in 208 pitches. That's 76 percent strikes, and that's phenomenal. They walked one man between them in 16 innings and we all know that one was an intentional/unintentional concession to Vladimir Guerrero's presence.

You had Beckett terrifying the Angels with three "plus" pitches, as baseball people like to say. That was power pitching at its best. Then you had Schilling surgically dissecting them with his new altered repertoire. Beckett could have afforded to miss in the strike zone every now and then, except that he didn't (Coco Crisp, with the perfect view, said Beckett missed one of Jason Varitek's targets. One of 108). "I think that was one of the most dominating games I've ever seen pitched at any level," writes Schilling in his "38Pitches" blog.

Schilling could not have afforded to leave many pitches hanging in the middle of the strike zone, and he didn't. "Thankfully," he writes, "I made 99 percent of my mistakes in the first two innings, all location misses, and when I did they took or fouled off pitches. I thought after the third we executed a lot more consistently."

So he's now 8-2, 2.08 in the postseason as a Power Pitcher and 1-0, 0.00 in the postseason as a Finesse Pitcher.

Daisuke Matsuzaka's maddeningly inconclusive start reopens the debate. Who should start Game 2 of the ALCS? After what we've seen, it's hard to imagine it not being Schilling. That would put Daisuke in line to start a potential Game 7, but after what happened to Lou Piniella, I doubt that managers will be worrying about Game 7s before Games 1, 2, and 3.

The bullpen is in good shape. It's pretty clear that Hideki Okajima will be the man in the eighth inning, not Eric Gagné. When they hand you the ball to close out the 9-0 game, you should get the message. Win a few, lose a few, you know? As for Jonathan Papelbon, looks like people knew what they were doing. He's the freshest closer in the derby.

Tim Wakefield should be another weapon for the ALCS, which means that the only thing Terry Francona might have wished for that he doesn't have is Clay Buchholz. Believe me, the brass wanted very much to find a spot for a kid with, as Theo Epstein puts it, "swing-and-miss stuff."

So if not having access to a 23-year-old kid with 22 2/3 innings of big league experience is your only unanswered druther, you're in pretty good shape.

The Red Sox are ready. I'm not saying they're the best team. I don't know who is. That's what we're all curious to find out.

What we do know is that if the Indians outplay them, well, they'll just have to shake hands and go home. They are living the Dream Scenario. The Boston Red Sox are playing their best when it matters most. If they don't win, there will be no excuses.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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