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Bob Ryan

Sox still in tenable position

Jonathan Papelbon was a little shaky yesterday. Does the Sox closer have a consistent pitch to augment his mid-90s heater? Jonathan Papelbon was a little shaky yesterday. Does the Sox closer have a consistent pitch to augment his mid-90s heater? (John Bohn/Globe Staff)
By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / September 29, 2008
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Sit down, put your feet up, pour yourself a nice glass of wine. Just relax.

This year the Red Sox are playing with house money.

The pressure's on the Orange County American League Baseball Representatives, who clinched the AL West sometime around the Fourth of July and who have been proclaimed by many experts to be the best team in baseball. And if there's any teeny-weeny bit of pressure left over, it's on the cuddly Tampa Bay Rays, who can't afford to do a complete header in the playoffs, not if they want anyone to show up at the Trop next year.

There also will be minimal pressure on the White Sox or Twins. No one is expecting any great playoff heroics to come out of the AL Central.

The Red Sox? C'mon, they're in a great position. Everybody knows what they don't have, or at least may not have. Mike Lowell is a really important piece of the puzzle. He is a valuable two-way player, and his absence would have an impact on Terry Francona's in-game maneuverings. It would be nice to have a healthy Lowell, but it's rather obvious that's not going to be possible until 2009.

And though I realize it is indeed difficult at times to remember that J.D. Drew is actually a member of this ball club, he's simply doing what J.D. Drew very often does, since he participated in fewer than 110 games for the fifth time in a 10-year run as a major league regular. The maddening thing is that he can play. We can all grit our teeth about the $14 million per for such a perennial tease, but in the end it's not our money.

So if Francona has to go with Jed Lowrie at third and Alex Cora at short, so be it. Cora can be a good short-term player. And if this means that if Francona hits for Cora and winds up with Kevin Youkilis moving to third, Lowrie back to short, and either Sean Casey or Mark Kotsay finishing up at first, well, that's not so horrible, either. Theo did not leave his manager's cupboard bare.

But, sure you worry about the lineup. Jason Varitek continues to flounder. Lowrie's problems since mid-August likewise have been very well-documented, but at least he'll be able to bat righthanded (where his OPS is 300 points higher than when he bats lefty) against Joe Saunders in Game 3. Cora is a crapshoot with the bat in his hands. So yes, it's very possible the production could stop after the sixth spot in the order.

That may not matter. For, if the Red Sox are to defend their championship, or at the very least advance to the ALCS for the fourth time in six years, it's not going to have all that much to do with the batting order. It will be about the men on the hill, and that's why there was cause for some nice cautious, safe, rational optimism - at least until the surprising news that Josh Beckett has an oblique issue and will be pushed back to Game 3.

Though we don't know for sure that Beckett will pitch the way he did last October, we do know that he has looked very sharp in the four starts he's made since dealing with the finger numbness, and that includes his last start against the Indians (four earned runs in six innings), when there was a lot of funky stuff going on.

We also know Francona will feel perfectly comfortable handing the ball to Jon Lester in Game 1 Wednesday night in Anaheim.

What about Daisuke Matsuzaka, who now will start Game 2? Isn't 18-3, well, 18-3? Well, no, not when it is accomplished in 167 2/3 innings. It's one of the strangest plus-15s in modern baseball history. No one hit him much all year, as opponents batted just .211 against him. But he walked 94 men, and only went into the eighth inning twice. Adding to the madness, foes hit .000 against him with the bases loaded.

The bonus here is that he was 9-0 on the road and opponents hit 1.78 against him away from Fenway.

The Bridge to Papelbon looks reasonably sturdy, especially with Justin Masterson around. As for Jonathan Papelbon himself, people can only hope he'll be capable of being more than a one-pitch pony. All anyone can do is hope he has another pitch ready to augment the mid-90s heater.

The Angels are scheduled to throw John Lackey, Ervin Santana, and the aforementioned Saunders out there. They're good, but not scary good. There is no way manager Mike Scioscia was going pitch anyone else. In Jered Weaver's last nine starts, he's given up 51 hits and 28 earned runs in 52 innings. But those numbers are practically Koufaxian when compared to Jon Garland's body of work since Aug. 5. In 10 starts, covering 58 2/3 innings, Garland gave up an astonishing 82 hits and 41 earned runs. No, three starters is a far as Mr. Scioscia cares to go.

The Angels won eight of nine against the Red Sox this season. The Angels have been, by far, the best road team in the American League this season (50-31). The Angels, with Mark Teixeira (1.077 OPS), are probably the best offensive team in the entire Scioscia era. They're scrappy, feisty, likable, and well-managed. But they are far from unbeatable, and the Red Sox are feeling pretty good about themselves.

It doesn't matter who the defending champion is. Last year was last year. The Angels are the ones with something to prove. Just sit back and enjoy watching the Red Sox make 'em earn it.

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

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