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October 5, 2004
Boston Red Sox vs. Anaheim AngelsIn a postseason with no clear favorites, you can argue that the best two teams in baseball right now are matched up in this series. The Angels went 36-21 after July 31, and won seven of eight games from their division rivals to clinch the division with a day to spare. The Red Sox were even hotter: 42-17 after the trade deadline, a stretch that had as much to do with their offense and pitching--and regression to the mean--as with the improved defense.
The Sox come into the series with the advantage of having set up their rotation over the season's final week. There's no research that shows this to be an edge, although it's easy to remember cases of recent teams--the '00 A's, the '98 Cubs--who were certainly hurt by the need to play meaningful games all the way through the end of the regular season. Given a choice between being on-rotation or off, you would choose to be on, and preferably the way that the Sox were able to manage their final week of the regular season.
Boston Red Sox
CF-L Johnny Damon (.304/.380/.477/.295/52.4)
2B-B Chone Figgins (.296/.350/.419/.276/33.7)
Gabe Kapler will get some run in Game One against Jarrod Washburn, with Nixon sitting down. You might see Francona, who's been moving guys around all season long, deviate from the above lineup once or twice. Doug Mientkiewicz could get a start against one of the Angels' right-handers, especially during a Bronson Arroyo or Derek Lowe start.
It's a very good lineup, of course, one that has actually improved in-season as Nixon returned, Mueller got healthy and Millar found his batting stroke, all of which helped make up for the offensive gap between Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra. The Red Sox don't have to score eight runs a game to win…but they can.
The Angels can score, too. They were fifth in the AL in EqA this year, and feature the same approach as they did back in '02. Given that the Sox starters don't walk many , this might be a good matchup for the Halos, who destroyed the Yankees two years ago by taking advantage of a brutal defense. They won't be able to do that as well against the Sox, who get to more balls, especially now with Cabrera, than that Yankee team did.
Because he's down a starting outfield in Jose Guillen, and is dealing with nagging injuries to several of his players, Mike Scioscia could have to do some shifting on the fly. In his favor is the Sox' lack of left-handed starters, which will keep DaVanon in the lineup and on his good side. Overall, the injuries, the absence of Guillen, and the edges the Sox have at catcher and in the middle infield give them the better lineup.
Boston Red Sox
C-R Doug Mirabelli (.281/.368/.525/.300/15.8)
C-R Jose Molina (.261/.296/.374/.238/3.6)
The Sox have a strong bench, if one that's a little shy of power. At least three of these guys will see significant time as defensive replacements. With the Angels having no left-handed pitchers other than Washburn, Kapler will not have much pinch-hitting value, so you can expect Nixon to stay in games until Roberts relieves him. Mirabelli catches Tim Wakefield.
Where the Angels' injury problems show is in their bench, as what was a very good collection of backups has been pressed into regular duty, leaving a much less impressive group of reserves. Amezaga may take time from McPherson depending on Scioscia's desire for more defense. Jose Molina may get a start behind the plate as well. No one else figures to play very much, save perhaps by pinch-hitting for Los Dos Molinas against the Sox bullpen. For that reason, the addition of Kotchman to the roster is an inspired choice, despite his unimpressive major-league stats.
Boston Red Sox
There's a huge edge for the Sox here, with two of the ten best pitchers in the AL, even in an off-year for Martinez, as well as one of the best pitchers no one knows in Arroyo. Francona made the correct decision to not start Derek Lowe, but couldn't get to the next step of leaving him off of the playoff roster. It probably won't matter much, and with so many short relievers, having a starting pitcher in the bullpen isn't such a bad idea.
The Angels went to a four-man rotation down the stretch with mixed results, and watching out for possible effects will be a sidelight. Be careful about assigning blame for poor performances to the extra work; the Sox can make rested pitchers look bad. This is the one area where the Angels could lose the series quickly; the Sox are capable of burying all of these guys early, just as they did in August in Boston.
Bullpens (IP, ERA)
Boston Red Sox
There aren't many matchups in which the Red Sox wouldn't have the best bullpen, but this is one of them. Awesome relief pitching has been a hallmark of the Mike Scioscia Angels, and this year is no different. Even Percival, who's long past dominance, has been very effective over the last month. This team doesn't blow many leads, so if they can get ahead of the Sox, they'll be in great shape.
The Sox have a lot of guys who can't go more than about 25 pitches, which makes getting innings from the starters very important. Francona has to commit to using either Foulke or the Timlin/lefty combination in the eighth inning. If he goes back and forth, he'll set himself up for failure. Leskanic has been suprisingly good in September, but isn't much of a pitcher. Francona has to keep from exposing him or Myers, two very limited pitchers, to situations they can't handle.
A big part of the Angels' 2002 championship was a defense that sucked up balls like…boy, that went south in a hurry. They played good defense, how about that? This team doesn't do that, doesn't come close. The Angels were an average defensive team this year, the natural outgrowth of an intentional downgrade in center field and a lot of injuries that put part-time players in full-time roles. Figgins was a valuable player, but he's not a good defender at any position.
Defense was a big storyline for the Red Sox this season. The midseason upgrades have been overrated, however. Mientkiewicz and Roberts don't play much, and while Cabrera is a disinct improvement over a hobbled Garciaparra, there's only so much an upgrade at shortstop will do for a team. The Sox are about average, but with a wide range of abilities individually. Cabrera, Damon and Mueller, along with the defensive replacements, are very good. Bellhorn, Ramirez and Millar are please-don't hurt-anyone guys. Nixon has been a good right fielder, but hasn't shown that this year due to his injury.
Neither team is going to win or lose this series on defense, but the Angels rely on theirs more than the Sox do, so edge: Boston.
Terry Francona isn't Grady Little, but it's hard to point to anything he's done during his tenure than marks him as a significant baseball mind. He was using Keith Foulke a bit more liberally at one point, but that seemed reactive--during a period in which Timlin and Embree were ineffective--rather than a strategic expansion of Foulke's role.
Mike Scioscia plays the right guys, which is a big part of the job. He's willing to hit for the bottom of the lineup, although his reconstructed bench leaves him without many dangerous options. He starts runners all the time, which keeps his contact-hitting team out of double plays. The only mistake looming for Scioscia is that he keeps taking Rodriguez out of games and bringing in Percival in save situations, and only for that reason. Every time he does that, he increases the chance that the Angels could lose the game, if only by a small amount. Playoff baseball is about putting the odds in your favor, and Scioscia doesn't do that by using his pitchers according to their experience.
I would have picked the Angels over five, maybe six of the other teams in the postseason. Unfortunately for them, they've run into the team I think is the best in baseball right now. The Sox have enough offense to jump ahead on the Angels' so-so starters early, and the pitching to keep a good Angels' offense from getting back in the game. The Angels made an amazing run to get here, but would have been much better off had the Twins won more game. Red Sox in four.