Familiar foes Red Sox, Angels endure
They keep coming back to one another, this week for the fourth October in six years. There are those who think that they have seen this too often and that having the Angels and Red Sox beat up on each another is simply fattening frogs for snakes in anticipation of a meeting with the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. But the 2009 meeting is not some season-ending rerun. From the tragic (Nick Adenhart) to the unimaginable (David Ortiz going homerless until May 20), from the painful and costly injuries to the sublime (Sox catcher Dusty Brown striking out a major league batter before he himself struck out), the fact that the Angels and Red Sox are back here again with the second- and third-best records in baseball is testament to the strong infrastructure these franchises have built over the past decade.
Not to mention they have two of the best managers and coaching staffs in the sport.
The Angels used 14 starting pitchers, the Red Sox 11. More than a quarter of Los Angeles' games were started by people like Darren Oliver and Adenhart and guys named Loux, Moseley, Palmer, O'Sullivan, Ortega and Bell, while 64 of Boston's 162 games were started by pitchers who are not on their postseason roster (and that's assuming ex-retiree Paul Byrd will be active in Anaheim).
The Angels' Torii Hunter looked like the MVP when he went down in July and ended up playing just 119 games, while Vladimir Guerrero played but 100. Howie Kendrick got sent to the minor leagues on June 13, and when he came back he batted .353 after the All-Star break.
For Boston, Ortiz went through the humiliation of batting .185 with one homer through June 5, then had his name pop up in The New York Times in relation to the 2003 drug test; he leads the AL in homers (27) and RBIs (78) since June 6. Mike Lowell has fought through his hip issues, and now he's dealing with a sore right thumb. Jed Lowrie's wrist injury led to a revolving door at shortstop. Jason Varitek seemed drained, but has never stopped trying to help Victor Martinez get to know the pitchers. Jonathan Van Every, Nick Green and Brown combined to allow one run in 3 2/3 innings, one less run than Enrique Gonzalez allowed in 3 2/3 innings.
The Angels were the best offensive team in the league for four months, then stopped hitting for more than three weeks. The Red Sox went through a six-game dive in early August that finished in Texas, then went on a six-game trip to Tampa and New York in mid-August that resulted in six straight defeats, including one in 13 innings and another in 15. Mike Scioscia says, "We fought through a lot to get here." Terry Francona says, "We battled and never gave up when there were a lot of times when lesser teams might have backed off."
But, after all each team endured, they are here, again. What makes this postseason interesting is that other than the Yankees' series against whichever team makes it out of the AL Central -- and no AL Central team won as many games as the Texas Rangers -- none of the other three series have a clear favorite. Finally, parity.
"The Angels-Red Sox series will come down to whichever of the two very good starting staffs outpitches the other," says one American League scout. Jon Lester-John Lackey. Josh Beckett-Jered Weaver, the former seeming to get through concerns about his back Saturday night in the third inning, the latter very tough at The Big A.
Perhaps the most intriguing matchup will be Game 3 with Clay Buchholz against Scott Kazmir. "If Buchholz slows down and gets his fastball down, he is a dominant pitcher," says the scout. "And Kazmir is throwing as well as he has in two or three years." It helps that Kazmir has thrown only 147 1/3 innings, has a 1.73 ERA for the Angels, can pitch inside and has never been afraid of Fenway Park.
There has been a lot said and written about the Red Sox's trying to stop the Angels from running, although in past playoffs the Angels have not run much on Boston. Opponents have stolen 151 bases on the Red Sox and been thrown out just 13 percent of the time. And as much as Martinez has changed the lineup when he catches, been astute handling pitchers and demonstrated extraordinary hands, throwing out baserunners has never been his strong suit. Lester, Beckett and Buchholz (who is quick to the plate) have to keep Chone Figgins (.395 on-base percentage and six steals in nine games against Boston) off base, just as the Angels have to keep Boston's emerging leadoff star Jacoby Ellsbury (and his 70 steals) off base.
Then there are the bullpens. Ervin Santana, who won the 2005 ALDS clincher against the Yankees in relief, will help Kevin Jepsen -- who has battled through a tired arm period but had a filthy slider Sunday -- and Brian Fuentes, who has had his problems with the Red Sox. Billy Wagner has thrown very well the past two weeks, and Francona will use Hideki Okajima and Daniel Bard in front of Wagner and close with The Adrenaline King, Jonathan Papelbon, who hasn't given up a run and has yielded just 10 hits in 25 career postseason innings.
Boston has injury issues, but with shortstop Alex Gonzalez OK after being hit with a pitch Friday, it dodged a major problem. Lowell's mobility is limited. Rocco Baldelli has a hip flexor problem that might keep him out. He hammers lefties and would have faced Kazmir and Joe Saunders in Fenway, but Brian Anderson might be on the roster instead.
The Angels don't want to be reminded of their recent October failures at Fenway, but they have not forgotten them. Logic says that they have to win one of these series because they have been such a good team, but logic doesn't pitch or stop base stealers or throw gas. These teams have been through too much the past six months to think or care about Octobers past.