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October 17, 2007

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Four Report

by John Perrotto

CLEVELAND-Jhonny Peralta stepped into the batter's box, took a pitch for a strike, and shook his head. "The pitch moved like a foot," the Indians shortstop said. He decided to swing at the next pitch and missed badly. "That pitch moved even more than the first pitch," Peralta said. "I thought it was going to be a really long night."

For four innings Tuesday night, it seemed the Red Sox had found the answer to slow down the Indians and regain momentum in the American League Championship Series-knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. However, the Red Sox quickly found out that even the only active flutterball pitcher in the major leagues isn't the antidote to stop the Indians, who are taking on the role of giant-killers this October after first dispatching the Yankees in the American League Division Series. The Indians chased Wakefield during a seven-run eruption in the fifth inning that snapped a scoreless tie and sparked their 7-3 victory in Game Four of the ALCS at Jacobs Field. The Indians have won three straight games to take a 3-1 lead in the best-of-series after being shellacked 10-3 in the opener at Fenway Park.

After today's off day, the Indians can wrap up the series and their first berth in the World Series since 1997 with a win Thursday night in Game Five. The Indians' sudden blitz against Wakefield and reliever Manny Delcarmen was nothing short of stunning. Wakefield had allowed just one hit through the first four innings (a double by Peralta in the fourth), while striking out six. His performance was conjuring up memories of 1992, when Wakefield was a rookie sensation with the Pirates, and who stymied Atlanta twice in a NLCS that the Braves won with a memorable ninth-inning rally in Game Seven.

Two of the switch-hitters in the Indians' lineup, Victor Martinez and Asdrubal Cabrera, even tried a unique approach to solved Wakefield. They eschewed the platoon advantage and batted from the right side after the right-hander pitcher. "It was Victor's idea, because the way a knuckleball breaks, it moves away from a left-handed hitter instead of into the body," said Cabrera, the rookie second baseman. "You actually see the ball better by moving over to the other side." The numbers suggest that their changing gears was a good move-right-handed batters had a 780 OPS against Wakefield in the regular season, while lefties had a 716 mark; during Wakefield's 16-year career, the splits are 765/722, again slightly worse against hitters stepping in from the right side.

Playing those percentages paid off from the start during the Indians' big inning, as Casey Blake, a right-handed batter, led off with a home run. Franklin Gutierrez followed with a single, and then Kelly Shoppach was hit by a pitch. Grady Sizemore grounded into fielder's choice, forcing Shoppach at second and moving Gutierrez to third, but Cabrera then singled off of Wakefield's glove to plate Gutierrez as the second run. After Travis Hafner, a left-handed batter, struck out for the third time on a night in which he earned the golden sombrero, whiffing in each of his fourth plate appearances, Martinez stepped in. He grounded an RBI single to left to make it 3-0 and chase Wakefield.

At this point, Red Sox manager Terry Francona called on hard-throwing Manny Delcarmen to relieve. The choice couldn't be faulted-Delcarmen was third in the Red Sox's bullpen with a 1.652 WRXL. Furthermore, Delcarmen routinely throws his fastball 95 mph, providing quite a contrast to Wakefield's knuckleball. Peralta took the first pitch for a strike and was once again left shaking his head. "It seemed like it a 1,000 mph after facing Wakefield," Peralta said. But Peralta then took the next two pitches for balls before hitting an opposite-field three-run home run that just cleared the fence in right, and extended the Indians' lead to 6-0. Blake later capped the inning with an RBI single.

"It was a big adjustment facing Delcarmen and I was late with my swing on the home run," Peralta said. "I was lucky to get it out of the park." However, Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore said there was no luck involved with his team eventually getting to Wakefield and making a rapid adjustment to Delcarmen. Sizemore said it was the result of preparation, something he believes has been a key to the Indians' success throughout the season. The Indians had not faced Wakefield this season; other than veteran Kenny Lofton and seldom-used reserve infielder Chris Gomez, the rest of the Indians had combined for just 35 plate appearances against Wakefield in their careers.

"We were prepared from a mental standpoint," Sizemore observed. "You can't really practice facing a knuckleballer because they are so few of them around. So, you have to make the mental adjustments and we did that. We were well aware that it was going to be a different kind of game for us. Even though he was getting us out in those first four innings, we were taking a good approach and we weren't getting down about it. We also knew once Wakefield was out of the game, we were going to have to make another adjustment and speed our bats up against a harder thrower. One of the real strengths against this team is our approach and our ability to adapt. It's something you don't really see in the box score but it's really important."

Putting up a seven on the scoreboard gave the Indians a big enough cushion to withstand three consecutive home runs by the Red Sox in response in the top of the sixth, as Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz connected off starter (and winning pitcher) Paul Byrd, followed by Manny Ramirez doing likewise off of rookie Jensen Lewis. Before that, Byrd did his own style of baffling Sox hitters through the first five innings, shutting them out on four hits.

Byrd's fastball rarely gets past 85 mph; his success comes from his deceptive arm-swinging windup. However, Byrd registered 91 mph on the Jacobs Field radar gun in the first inning. Shoppach, who serves as Byrd's personal catcher while Martinez shifts to first base, felt that made a big difference. "Hitting 91 gave him a shot of confidence," Shoppach said. "I don't care who you are, everyone has some kind of ego and I'm sure it made him feel good to top 90." Shoppach then stopped and laughed. "When I'm warming him up in the bullpen, I have a running joke where he'll throw a fastball and I'll fall over backward. I thought about doing it when he threw 91, but I didn't think the American League Championship Series was the right time for it."

Indians manager Eric Wedge recognized enough of a good thing, though, in quickly lifting Byrd after the back-to-back home runs. Rafael Betancourt finished with two perfect innings, as Wedge eschewed going to closer Joe Borowski in a non-save situation in the ninth with a four-run lead to keep in a pitcher whose 6.845 WRXL this season was second in the major leagues to Seattle closer J.J. Putz (7.419).

Betancourt is only the best pitcher in a solid bullpen, one that has allowed just five runs in 17 innings in the series for a 2.65 ERA. "Everyone is just pitching with so much confidence right now," Betancourt said. "The Red Sox have a great lineup and everyone knows that but you can't back down from them. We're just trying to attack them and make our pitches until this series is over."

The series could be over Thursday, which would be a surprising development since the oddsmakers made the Red Sox the favorite despite both teams tying to lead the majors with 96 victories in the regular season. The Red Sox have some history on their side, as they became the only major league team ever to come back from a 3-0 deficit when they rallied past the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. However, history only means so much; only eight Red Sox players remain from that team. "Basically, it's a one-game season for us now," third baseman Mike Lowell said. "You can analyze it and dissect it all you want but that is what it comes down to. We have to win the next game before we can even think about anything else."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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