After a truly agonizing 4 months our beloved / beloathed Red Sox held on both to clinch the AL East for the first time in 12 years and finish the season with the best record in the AL. This allowed them to set the tone for the playoffs by starting it up early, and Wednesday we begin the post-season agony in a familiar way: taking on the Angels.
While the Sox edged the Angels over the course of the year 6-4 in ten games (and correspondingly outscored them 64-42, largely on the basis of a few blowouts), the two teams are fairly well-matched, in spite of their opposing offensive philosophies. The Angels have very little power (less now that Matthews Jr. is out) and create runs by being extremely aggressive on the basepaths and playing a lot of small-ball. The Sox, obviously, do not. Both teams will put the theory that Championships are won with pitching and defense to the test - the Sox were #3 in the AL in Runs Scored and Anaheim (I refuse to call them Los Angeles due to the incredible douchiness of that move) is right behind them at #4.
Tonight's game will feature the aces of the respective staffs in Beckett and Lackey. Both pitchers will be looking to make amends; Lackey for his 0-2 record and 8.38 ERA in Fenway this year, and Beckett for the awful outing against Minnesota last week. The primary focus for Lackey will be overcoming the mental aspects of having taken such a beating in his last two starts at Fenway. Fortunately for him he doesn't seem too bright, so he can probably barely recall those outings. For Beckett, it's the same focus as every other outing: throw his secondary pitches for strikes to keep hitters honest on the fastball, and keep the fastball down. Oh, and not get so insanely filled with rage that all bets are off.
Anaheim will need Anderson to stay hot (September OPS .952) in order to protect Vlad and generate some quick offense, and they will need Izturis, slotted 5th in the order, to produce like a #5 hitter. At the bottom of the order they'll want Willitts to be the spark-plug he was earlier in the season. If he and Figgins can frustrate Beckett with long at-bats he may revert to overthrowing the fastball against the meat of the order, and Kotchman, Guerrero and Anderson will tee it up.
To me, the bizarre placement of Izturis in the 5-hole, with Kendrick batting 7th, is the X factor here. In spite of two pretty serious hand injuries Kendrick put up great numbers this year, and has been raking in August and September, but he has pinkeye. If this is affecting him to the extent that he has to move down in the order I guess I'm not sure why he's playing, but so be it. If he can see the ball, he can hit it, and he could do some damage. If not, we'll just be thankful we're not facing Morales.
The Sox are going to need to get to Lackey early while he's still thinking. This means Youkilis is going to have to ask someone in JP to sacrifice a fucking chicken or something to bring him back to life. He has struck out in nearly 30% of his at-bats since the beginning of August - not the mark of your typical #2. He historically has enjoyed hitting in the 2-hole but with his and Pedroia's total lack of speed at the top of the order, I could easily see myself ending the 2007 season by writing a kids book for my newborn son entitled "Everybody Poops... On His Team By Killing Innings With the DP". His performance will be a key to the series.
And why is that? That is because the 7-9 spots in the order can be devastatingly awful, like having three consecutive pitchers hitting. Only Crisp has shown any signs of life. Lugo and Varitek have combined since the ASB to put together the worst offense this team has seen from two players since the days of Buford and Lewis. The most amazing part? Lugo's September was worse than his April. I know I wasn't the only one hoping for him to blow a hammie on order to get Lowrie some September ABs and onto the 40-man. I've held out hope that he would figure it out for a long time, but I think it's time we accept Julio is a little too emotional for Fenway. On the plus side, much maligned iceman JD Drew definitely cometh, and not a month too soon.
So. At this point we've spent months watching a team that has been more frustrating than impressive in most cases. The blown 14.5 game lead, the LOB-fests, the bizarre management decisions - it's been a roller-coaster ride. But now it's a new season: the Post-Season. Manny's back, Schill's back, and despite a myriad of other question marks, you have to acknowledge that this team has a chance. I've moved from the ledge to a small portable camping chair a few feet away from the ledge, and I hope to stay there for a few days at least.