ANAHEIM, Calif. -- At this stage, just as there is no crying in baseball, there are no surprises, either. They Red Sox and Los Angeles each played 162 games this season. They faced one another nine times. In the past four postseasons, they have met twice.
"They know us real well and we know them real well," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said of the Angels as the teams prepared for tonight's Game 1 of the American League Division Series. "Whoever plays better will win - not going to be a whole lot of secrets."
On paper, Los Angeles should win this series. The Angels won more games this year, have home field advantage, are healthier and deeper. And yet, as always, the human element complicates matters. Over the last five or six seasons, as Cleveland manager Eric Wedge recently noted, the Red Sox have had an uncanny ability to raise their level of play when necessary, explaining why they have two world titles in the previous four seasons and five playoff appearances in the last six.
Can the Sox win this series?
5. Maximize Josh Beckett.
If we are to believe what the Red Sox are telling us, Beckett will pitch Game 3 Sunday at Fenway Park. We all know his history in the playoffs. The real cost of moving Beckett back a few days is that Daisuke Matsuzaka will pitch twice if the series goes five games, and Matsuzaka's second outing will come at Beckett's expense. Nobody in the world -- or at least North America -- would make that trade.
All of that puts an additional emphasis on the first two games of this series, to be played tonight and Friday; the Red Sox have to win at least one. The Sox have had great success overcoming playoff deficits in recent years -- in 1999, 2003, 2004, and 2007, they won a total of four series after trailing by at least two games -- but such a deficit this year could prove fatal against an LA team that doesn't have many holes.
If the Sox can split the first two games of this series, they have Beckett and Jon Lester lined up to pitch two of the final three games. That would have been the case even if Beckett pitched Game 1.
4. Don't believe the hype on K-Rod.
Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez set a major league record with 62 saves this year, but that can be deceiving. Largely, saves are a product of opportunity. The Angels played more one- or two-run games than anybody in baseball this year (89 total, in which they went 61-28), which is why Rodriguez's save total is so high. Beyond that, his numbers are very much in line with last season, when Manny Ramirez beat him with a stratospheric homer in Game 2 of the ALDS.
Yes, Ramirez is gone, but the point is this: Rodriguez is quite beatable. Rodriguez blew seven saves this year; only Seattle's J.J. Putz and Sox reliever Hideki Okajima had more. Rodriguez generally has pitched quite well against Boston in his career, but he can get himself into trouble with a violent delivery that sometimes leads to control problems.
Without question, Rodriguez had a special year.
But given that Jonathan Papelbon walked just eight batters this year -- Rodriguez walked 34 -- the Red Sox might actually have the better closer.
3. Proceed with caution through dangerous intersection.
As Angels manager Mike Scioscia pointed out yesterday, the difference between these Angels and those of past years is like "night and day." (Original, eh?) The addition of Mark Teixeira has benefited both Garret Anderson and Vladimir Guerrero, thickening the Angels lineup considerably. Anderson has been batting second and Torii Hunter fifth (with Teixeira and Guerrero in between), and Sox pitchers may have to expend a great deal of energy during that part of the Angels lineup.
Here's the good news: With the exception of Teixiera, the meat of the Angels lineup is not particularly patient. If pitched to properly -- as the Sox have done in past postseasons with Anderson and Guerrero -- they can be neutralized. Where the Sox have to be careful is at the bottom of the lineup and with leadoff man Chone Figgins, the table-setters for the Angels' big four. If the Nos. 8, 9, and 1 hitters in the Los Angeles lineup get on base, the Sox may have no choice but to challenge everyone from Anderson to Hunter.
If that happens, fasten your seatbelts. There will be turbulence.
2. Beat the Angels at their own game.
For what the Sox lost in the Manny Ramirez deal, they gained in other areas. Jason Bay is a better all-around player than Ramirez who runs the bases well and aggressively while playing good defense. Jed Lowrie hasn't made an error yet at shortstop. With the exception of David Ortiz, the starters in the Boston lineup generally run the bases well and the Sox have more speed than they have possessed in a long time.
Jacoby Ellsbury could play a huge role in this series because of his ability to generate offense. As colleague Bob Ryan has pointed out, Ellsbury scores an unusually high percentage of the time he gets on. If Ellsbury can make himself a factor in this series -- and that could be a coin flip -- the Sox might be in a position to get meaningful at-bats from Dustin Pedroia, Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis, who are their best run producers. That is an enormous key to their offense.
If Ellsbury gets completely shut down, the series could be over.
1. Lean on starting pitchers.
One of the oldest clichés in baseball is that the starting pitcher sets the tone, but never has this been more important for the Red Sox. During the regular season, at those times their lineup struggled and their bullpen faltered, the Red Sox usually could depend on Lester, Matsuzaka, Beckett and, for that matter, Tim Wakefield. The rotation was the strength of the club and finished with more victories (71) than any team but the Blue Jays (71) and ... the Angels (73).
While Sox starters actually pitched fewer innings this season than last, do not be fooled. In those games he absolutely, positively had to win this year, manager Terry Francona didn't seem to trust anyone in his bullpen other than Papelbon. Francona was more inclined to let his starters go an extra inning than he was to go to a sometimes shaky middle relief and set-up crew, and he may have to do the same now.
Last year, outside of Beckett, Sox starters generally were asked to go no more than five innings because of the strength of the bullpen. That can't happen this year. Sox starters need to at least six innings and, more preferably, seven, which will allow Francona to match up his relievers (other than Papelbon) in the late innings.
Even if Sox starters keep the team in the game for five innings -- this means you, Dice-K -- prematurely turning the game over to the bullpen could be fatal against this Angels lineup and relief corps.
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