ALCS: Cleveland Indians vs. Boston Red Sox
Cleveland Indians (first place, AL Central, #2 seed) vs. the Boston Red Sox (first place, AL East, #1 seed)
There's some history here. For the fourth time in the last thirteen seasons the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox square off in post-season play. This is the first time the two have played in the ALCS but not the first time the teams have played winner-take-all for the America League. In 1948, Boston peculiarly decided to hand the ball to Denny Galehouse for the first time that season in a one-game playoff after the clubs tied for the AL title. The Tribe won decidedly.
The ALCS pits arguably baseball's two best teams. The two tied for the AL's best record, and both clubs feature exceptional, balanced attacks that should make for great drama. When going right, Boston's offense functions better but Cleveland's top-heavy starting rotation might just make up for whatever edge Boston holds over a 162 game season. The importance of pitching depth matters less in the playoffs and Cleveland hopes to ride their two aces to a World Series slot.
Game 1: Friday, 10/12, 7:07 PM ET - CLE (Sabathia, 19-7, 3.21) @ BOS (Beckett, 20-7, 3.27)
W L PCT HOME ROAD RS RA Cleveland 96 66 .593 52-29 44-37 811 704 Boston 96 66 .593 51-30 45-36 867 657
The Red Sox won 5 of 7 contests against the Indians this season.
Hopping in the way-back (Wasdin) machine for a second, this series has a familiar feeling to it. The Red Sox and Indians met in the playoffs three times in the mid/late-'90s, with the Indians dominating in 1995, winning handily in 1998 before finally being defeated by Pedro Martinez (and the Red Sox) in 1999. I bring those series up not because of any similarity to the current one, but because I think it's pretty cool that Tim Wakefield, Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, and Julian Tavarez were all involved in the '95 series too.
In 2007 the teams are built differently than in the 1990s. Instead of the amazing offense that was a fixture of their earlier playoff teams (the '95 Indians outscored the '07 Indians by 29 runs, despite playing 18 fewer games), Cleveland is led by two dominant starters, an above average bullpen and a good offense. The Indians' strength lies with their top pitchers, but C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona can't start every game and the two Rafaels (Betencourt and Perez) can't relieve every game, so eventually their lower tier pitchers will be called on, which could really hurt them. The Red Sox are also built around great pitching (they allowed the fewest runs in baseball), a great offense (they scored the fourth-most runs) and while they can't use Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling, Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon every game either, they have better depth after those top guys. Overall, the Red Sox are better at both scoring and preventing runs, so I think they're going to party like it's 1999.
It's tough, if not downright dumb, to bet against Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling in the postseason. Beckett and Schilling are a combined 12-2 with a 1.88 ERA in 168 innings over their careers during the playoffs. Moreover, they head into the ALCS in tip-top form. Beckett threw a complete-game shutout and Schilling tossed seven scoreless innings as Boston swept the Angels in the ALDS. Beckett's fastball and curve combo ranks among the best in the game, and Schilling's splitter was virtually unhittable in his last outing.
Sure, the Indians can counter with an intimidating 1-2 punch of their own in C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. Sabathia and Carmona were two of the top four starters in the AL this season, and the latter is coming off an absolutely dominating performance vs. the Yankees in the ALDS . The bottom line is that neither club can afford to lose the first two games of the series with their aces on the hill.
As difficult as it is to separate Boston's and Cleveland's starting pitching, the difference between the two closers is night and day. If Eric Wedge hands Joe Borowski (4-5, 5.07 ERA, 1.43 WHIP) the ball in the ninth when the Indians are ahead by three runs, I'm sure Cleveland will be OK. However, it might be a different story if the veteran is asked to preserve a one-run lead. The manager would be better served to use Rafael Betancourt (5-1, 1.47 ERA, 0.76 WHIP) in important situations. It's Betancourt – not Borowski – who has held Boston to four hits in 36 at-bats (.111/.179/.222), including 1-for-11 with five Ks vs. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. If you subtract Julio Lugo's contributions, the Red Sox are 1-for-32 against Betancourt. I'm sure Wedge knows that. I'm just not convinced he will make the best use of it.
With respect to managerial decisions, what we do know is that Terry Francona is going with Bobby Kielty over J.D. Drew in right field in tonight's opener. Kielty is 9-for-29 with 4 2B and 2 HR in his career vs. Sabathia, whereas Drew is 0-for-3 with 3 SO. Kudos to Tito. Manny is 12-for-21 with 3 2B and 4 HR vs. the 6-foot-7, 290-pound lefty. Francona is starting him, too. Pure genius.
Boston has superior hitting, pitching, and defense, as well as the home-field edge. The Indians will do well to extend the Red Sox to seven games.
Yes, Boston surrendered fewer runs and scored more than Cleveland but there is much more to that story than meets the eye. Cleveland's team 105 OPS+ is significantly weighed down by Josh Barfield's 58 OPS+ in 444 plate appearances. 21 year-old Venezuelan Asdrubal Cabrera now holds down the second base job for Cleveland and in his 186 PA's this season contributed a very solid .293/.354/.421 line. Further, Travis Hafner was just ok for much of the 2007 campaign but finished like his old self, hitting .316/.414/.551 for the month of September. He was solid in the LDS as well.
Players who will have no bearing whatsoever on the LCS outcome also make Cleveland's pitching look worse that it is for the purposes of analyzing their prospects for this series. Neither Jeremy Sowers nor Cliff Lee will see the light of day for the Tribe and it's a good thing for them. The two southpaws combined for a mere 70 ERA+ in 165 innings this season.
Still, Boston is a magnificently assembled team, which is not to say that they are not prone to lapses. But with devastating offensive and run-prevention games when firing on all cylinders (as they seem to be now), there just are not many holes anywhere on this club. Papi and Manny are locked in, while Kevin Youkilis, Mike Lowell, Dustin Pedroia, Jason Varitek and JD Drew make for a fantastic second tier of hitters after the big two. We won't discuss Coco and Lugo.
On the pitching side I have my concerns about Games 3 and 4 with Dice-K and Tim Wakefield taking the hill but then so too should Cleveland fans with Westbrook and Byrd. Boston pounds mediocre righties. As for my previous fears about Boston's bullpen, they have proven unfounded thus far in the post-season. Against Los Angeles in the LDS, Red Sox relievers yielded a mere two hits in just under seven innings of work.
This is a good match up but in the end Boston will prove too strong. They pound in Games Three and Four and chase one of Cleveland's Big Two early in one of their starts. Curt Schilling nails it down at Fenway in Game Six.
You won't want to miss Joe's Sabathia/Beckett preview below.