As we continue with the third installment of our playoff previews, I had hoped to be able to hold the Red Sox until last. But the Tigers and Rockies haven’t been able to close out their races, and the AL Central and NL wild-card spots remain very much in doubt as this goes online Wednesday morning. So a little earlier than I had planned, we’ll look at the two teams headed for their fourth Division Series collision in six years, the Red Sox & Angels.
Being this blog’s home team, our regular readers aren’t going to see anything here that hasn’t been said already. But I like to use the same format to evaluate the Red Sox that I use to look at other contenders. When you follow one team exclusively, there can be a tendency to exaggerate their flaws and/or overestimate their virtues, often forgetting that both are matched by other teams. From a lineup standpoint, the Red Sox have everything it takes to win a third World Series title in six years. Victor Martinez, J.D. Drew, Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis are on-base machines and all hit for power. That’s almost half the lineup that can beat you both small and big. Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia are pesky at the top of the order. Alex Gonzalez is pesky at the bottom. And Mike Lowell and David Ortiz provide some more muscle in the middle.
The pitching is excellent for a short series. The problems at the #5 spot become irrelevant in the postseason. Beckett, Lester, Bucholz and Dice-K can match up with any top four in baseball. And in the LDS one of them can go to the pen. Which isn’t exactly in need of extra help. Billy Wagner and Jonathan Papelbon are a lights-out combo at the end of games, and Ramon Ramirez, Daniel Bard and Hideki Okajima give plenty of options for getting to them. The only question is this—why can’t this team, that looks so good on paper, beat good teams or win on the road? As a wild-card in the playoffs, that’s not exactly optional. By this point in the season, you are what you are. So the Sox have to dominate their home games and hope to steal just enough road wins to survive.
For better or for worse, these are not the same Angels that the Red Sox beat 9 of 10 times in LDS games in 2004 & 2007-08. Those teams played small-ball and had a lights-out bullpen. This year’s team has some serious muscle in the lineup, but the pen isn’t quite as stable. Torii Hunter and Kendry Morales are the leading offensive weapons. Howie Kendrick is a good supporting player in the lineup. They get added pop from Vlad Guerrero, in roughly the same spot in his career that Ortiz is. Mike Napoli is also a deep threat. At the top of the order, Chone Figgins is an outstanding leadoff hitter, with an OBP hovering around .400 and a big base-stealer. Bobby Abreu continues to get on base with proficiency. This Angel team can get into a slugfest with Boston for the first time in their postseason history.
LAA’s also got the starting pitching, although there isn’t anyone as lights-out as teams like Boston, New York or Philadelphia have at the top. John Lackey has that capability, but has had a merely good—rather than great year in 2009. Jered Weaver has been the best pitcher start to finish, but again nothing dazzling. This is where the acquisition of Steve Kazmir comes in so huge. Though his season-long numbers are poor, Kazmir has found his old form since being traded west. In five starts with the Angels he has a 2.01 ERA. If that’s a sign of things to come, this team has the stopper they need to go the distance. Mike Scoscia will need the bullpen to step up. Brian Fuentes has 45 saves, but a bloated 4.13 ERA for a closer doesn’t make you feel good about him if he has to pitch in a tie game, something that comes up more often in October. Remember Mariano Rivera’s three shutout innings in Game 7 of the ’03 ALCS that set the stage for Aaron Boone? Or Keith Foulke’s yeoman’s work for the Red Sox in extra-inning marathons in Games 4 & 5 of the ’04 ALCS? Those are situations a closer in October has to thrive in, and Fuentes is a big question mark. The setup crew relies on Jason Bulger and Darren Oliver. They aren’t bad. But this relief corps is a long way from its halcyon days of Justin Speier and Scot Shields giving way to K-Rod.
Based strictly on the record, the Redskins season didn’t end with that 19-14 loss in Detroit on Sunday. The running game was again non-existent, as Clinton Portis had only 42 yards. I don’t blame Portis, whose ability is well-established, but the offensive line, whose mediocrity is just as well-established. At 1-2, with a home game against Tampa coming up, there’s time to turn things around. I realize that given the way the ‘Skins have played, telling us there are 13 more games to watch seems a mixed blessing at best. But while I’m realistic, I’m not giving up just yet.
Let’s continue to call attention to the play of Jason Campbell, who is not at fault for the problems we’re having. Campbell threw for 340 yards and only one interception in 41 attempts on Sunday. Back in my original hometown in Wisconsin, the debate rages over the merits of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. Go look up the stats and take note that Campbell is at least as good as either one, and he plays with less support. And the brightest spot of this day was the emergence of Santana Moss, who had 10 catches for 178 yards.
I’m as discouraged as anyone by the Redskins’ play thus far, but we do have to remember this—just because the Lions were 0-16 last year and the loss was embarrassing, doesn’t mean that Detroit will be as bad this year. Consider another lesson learned by the people of Wisconsin—the Packers lost to the Bengals in Week 2 and it was seen as a disaster. Then we see Cincy turn around and beat Pittsburgh too and suddenly a loss to them isn’t so bad. If the Lions are going to turn around and become a 7 or 8 win team, a loss to them on the road, while disappointing, is not the end of the season. We just have to let it play out and see if we can get our ship back on track.