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October 13, 2007
ALCS Game One Report
BOSTON-Terry Francona sat in his office about an hour after the conclusion of the first game of the American League Championship Series and smiled. No team in baseball takes the sabermetric approach to hitting quite like his Red Sox. They make the pitcher work, running up starters' pitch counts ,and then teeing off on them when they begin to tire, and then continue their assault on the bullpen.
That once again proved to be a winning formula Friday night as the Red Sox rolled to a 10-3 victory over the Cleveland Indians at cold and damp Fenway Park. "Our guys were relentless, weren't they?" the manager said, sounding like a proud papa. "That's exactly the way you want to attack one of the best pitchers in the game. You couldn't do it any better than our guys did. That was really impressive."
Indians starter C.C. Sabathia had led AL pitchers in VORP and was fourth in SNLVAR in the regular season, but the Red Sox battered him like none of that had happened. The Red Sox tagged the big left-hander for eight runs and seven hits in 4 1/3 innings. Sabathia also walked five and hit a batter while striking out only three. Only once in his previous 222 major-league starts, including three in the postseason, had Sabathia ever given up more runs, and that also came against Boston, when the Red Sox scored nine against him in 4 2/3 innings on June 20, 2005.
The Red Sox had a good feeling that they were going to get to Sabathia in the first inning. Dustin Pedroia led off and hit a screamer back through the box that Sabathia caught only as a means of self-defense. Then Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, and Manny Ramirez hit consecutive singles up the middle, tying the game at 1-1 (Travis Hafner had homered off Josh Beckett in the top of the first for the Indians). "That first inning was a good sign," Pedroia said. "Against a guy like Sabathia, you really have to take what he gives you. You can't be going up there trying to hit the ball out of the park because his stuff is too good. The approach you have to take is just to worry about hitting the ball up the middle. You're not going to pull the ball against a guy with that kind of stuff. When we hit that many balls up the middle early, I know we had a chance to do something special. I didn't expect to score eight runs but I thought we would have some success."
Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek echoed that point, noting that using the center of the field is really the only chance a team has to beat Sabathia. "He pitches to both sides of the plate so well that you're not going to have success trying to pull the ball or hitting it the other way," Varitek said.
Sabathia came back to strike out Bobby Kielty, Varitek and Coco Crisp in succession the second inning, and seemed to be on his way to shrugging off his rough start. However, the Red Sox never wavered in their approach; they swung at the first pitch in only five of their 24 plate appearances against Sabathia, and he threw only 44 of his 85 pitches for strikes. The patience paid off as the Red Sox scored four runs in the third inning to take a 5-1 lead and effectively put Game One in the win column. Julio Lugo led off the big inning by bouncing a book-rule double into the right field stands; he then moved to third on Pedroia's sacrifice bunt. Sabathia followed that up with a walk to Youkilis, then hit Ortiz with a pitch to load the bases before walking Ramirez to force in the go-ahead run. Mike Lowell bounced another double into the right field stands to drive in two runs before Varitek brought home the final run of the inning with a ground out.
Pedroia could sense a change in Sabathia's demeanor as the inning unfolded. "You could see he was starting to get frustrated," the rookie second baseman observed. "He was giving us his best stuff and we kept battling him. Eventually, he started to try to do too much. He started overthrowing and giving us some pitches to hit."
The Red Sox finished Sabathia off with a three-run fifth that pushed their lead to 8-1, as he walked two more batters in the inning before the seldom-used Bobby Kielty chased him with a two-run single. Francona had made perhaps a small surprise move in starting Kielty over $70-million man J.D. Drew in right field. Kielty had been brought in as a free agent pickup in August after being released by Oakland, and had the benefit of hitting .310/.375/.655 in 29 career plate appearances against Sabathia prior to Friday, while Drew had struck out in all three plate appearances.
Kielty provided the knockout punch, but that was just a sidelight on a night when the Red Sox's two most feared hitters, Ortiz and Ramirez, combined to reach base in all 10 plate appearances. Ortiz was 2-for-2 with a double, two walks, a hit by pitch and two runs scored, while Ramirez was 2-for-2 with three walks, two runs scored and three RBI. Big Papi & Manny continued their amazing postseasons after terrorizing the Angels during a three-game sweep in the American League Division Series. Ortiz is 7-for-9 with eight walks in four games while Ramirez is 5-for-10 with eight walks.
Again, patience is a virtue, according to Ortiz. "We know they're going to pitch us kind of carefully," Ortiz said. "That was the talk night in and night out before the series. So, we keep that in mind and stick with whatever they give us. We still have to take advantage of it because in the playoffs when you walk somebody, sometimes you've got to pay for that later."
While Sabathia kept paying, Beckett cruised after Hafner's first-inning home run into the first row of seats in right field. Beckett gave up just one other hit, Casey Blake's leadoff double in the sixth, in six innings, while allowing two runs, walking none, and striking out seven. Francona lifted Beckett after six innings, even though his pitch count was only 80. However, the Red Sox skipper dismissed the idea that he lifted Beckett early in order to set him up for the rest of the series in which he could start Game Four on short rest, and then come back and pitch Game Seven on a full four days of rest (there is an off day between the fourth and fifth games).
It would be understandable if Francona wanted Beckett to pitch every game in this series after the way he dominated the Indians in Game One. Beckett was fourth in the AL in VORP during the regular season, and eighth in SNLVAR and he'd pitched a four-hit shutout against the Angels in the first game of the ALDS sweep. "Josh pitched tonight just like he has all year," Varitek said. "His pitches had a real explosive quality to them and it's really been that way in just about every start he's made."
Unlike Sabathia, Beckett stayed in control and made the Indians' anxiousness work against them. "They've got a lineup full of guys who can hit, and they're aggressive after you show them you are going to throw strikes," Beckett commented. "I tried to throw strikes early and establish all my pitches, then I could throw balls when I needed to and try to get them to chase some pitches."
Pedroia said he couldn't help but enjoy the show from his vantage point at second base. "His fastball was electric and he really had the curveball working," Pedroia said. "When you see hitters ducking their heads on the curve and it's being called a strike, you know he's on and nobody is going to get much off him. It's fun to watch."
It wasn't fun for the Indians to watch Sabathia struggle for the second time in as many postseason starts. He beat the New York Yankees in the opener of the Indians' four-game ALDS victory, but he'd had a hard time getting through five innings in that game as he issued five walks and threw 114 pitches. Sabathia has now walked 11 in 9 1/3 innings in the postseason, an alarming figure under any circumstance, and even more so considering that Sabathia gave up just 1.38 free passes per nine innings during the regular season, the second-best mark in the AL to teammate Paul Byrd's 1.31.
Sabathia has now pitched 250 1/3 innings this season and thrown at least 100 pitches in eight of his last 10 starts. At 6'7" and 290 pounds (or so), Sabathia has the classic workhorse's frame-or that of a defensive end-but at 27 he's never pitched more than 210 innings in a season during his previous six seasons. That begs the question of whether Sabathia could be wearing down. However, Indians manager Eric Wedge doubts that: "He's strong. He's really strong. I don't think fatigue is a factor. I think sometimes C.C.'s heart gets in the way. It's one of the many reasons why he is such a great pitcher and teammate, but sometimes he tries to do more than he is capable of doing. He's one of the best in the game but he just wasn't able to put it all together today."
Of course, the Red Sox wouldn't let him with their patient, pesky, but also powerful approach.