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October 25, 2007

Prospectus Today

From Fenway, a Beating

by Joe Sheehan

The slumping Colorado Rockies got blasted by the soaring Boston Red Sox last night, 13-1, to fall down 1-0 in the best-of-seven World Series. The Rockies haven't won in ten days, and were complely dominated by Sox ace Josh Beckett in the top half of innings, and obliterated by the Boston bats in the bottom halves. The Sox pounded out eight doubles and nine extra-base hits among their 17 safeties, taking an early lead against an overmatched Jeff Francis and putting it away in the fifth inning against rookie relievers Franklin Morales and Ryan Speier.

The Sox, as expected, were simply too good for Francis, whose repetoire screams "NL stuff," lacking any kind of dominant out pitch. His strikeout rate, 6.9 K/9, was barely above average even in the weaker league in which pitchers bat. His Stuff score, 20, marked the first time in his career he'd gotten that figure above league average. Those statistics were borne out early last night, when the Sox peppered Francis for five hits and three runs before he got his third out. In four innings, Francis allowed 10 hits, six for extra bases, and got the Sox to swing and miss just 11 times at 103 pitches (10.7 percent), four of those by J.D. Drew. By contrast, the Rockies swung and missed at 14 of Beckett's 93 pitches (15.1 percent), or 40 percent more often, and Beckett overmatched the Rockies out of the gate.

The Sox weren't overmatched. The hitters who lit up the Indians over the last couple games of the ALCS got started early. Dustin Pedroia yanked the second pitch he saw into the Monster seats to lead off the game for the Sox, quite an omen-the last player to lead off a World Series game with a homer was Johnny Damon, who did so on October 27, 2004, the night the Sox ended their championship drought. Kevin Youkilis, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek, and J.D. Drew all followed with hits to build a 3-0 lead, and effectively end the game.

The Rockies might have played a very long time and not reached four runs. Josh Beckett opened the game in overpowering fashion, striking out the side in the first on 15 pitches, 10 of them strikes, capping the inning by simply burying Matt Holliday. Conceding that I'm new to this "World Series" thing, the way Fenway Park sounded when Beckett closed out the inning was memorable, just an explosion of noise that carried the right-hander off the field.

He combined the great fastball he had in his first two postseason starts with the sharp, for-strikes breaking ball he featured against the Indians. I actually underestimated Beckett; yesterday on XM Radio, I told Chuck Wilson that I thought the key to the game was Beckett getting ahead 0-1, and the Rockies not letting him. Beckett started 13 hitters 0-1, and 11 1-0, but was dominant nonetheless.

The biggest question of the night centered on Beckett's staying in the game or not. He walked to the dugout after the top of the fifth having thrown 69 pitches, and holding a 6-1 lead. The Red Sox put up a touchdown in the bottom of the inning, inducing two pitching changes along the way. The combination of a big lead, a long inning, and an open question as to who might start Game Four seemed to lead to an obvious course of action-removing Beckett-but Terry Francona sent his ace to the mound for both the sixth and the seventh, and explained why after the game.

"With the weather potentially kind of hanging around, sometimes I think you can get in the way of a good game, and if the weather breaks like it had a chance to, no, suddenly we're stuck," Francona said. "Better to just stay out of the way."

Nate Silver, chatting during the game last night, brought up a more salient point. The idea of doing this, pulling your ace early in a blowout and getting him back on the mound on short rest, is something that statheads bring up all the time, but managers never seem to execute. Whether a failure of imagination, or simply a desire to stick to his plan, Francona never really considered the aggressive move, and instead went two more innings with Beckett. Now, Beckett still threw only 93 pitches on the night, not nearly enough to count him out of a Game Four start should that seem like a good idea come the weekend, so Francona's decision likely will have little effect on the series. I wonder, though; if this isn't a situation for the 11th man on the staff, why have an 11th man on the staff?

This is nitpicking, and admittedly so. The 2007 postseason simply hasn't given us enough tactical intrigue to build a good controversy around. Last night was another blowout in a long line of blowouts, where one team got ahead early and stayed there, leaving little in doubt but whether there would be a way to get home after the game. I'd like to think we'll do better than this, but the fact is, this Red Sox team is perfectly capable of repeating this performance a couple of times on its way to another dogpile. The Rockies simply haven't played a team this good in a very long time.

Game Two probably features the Rockies' best hope, as Ubaldo Jimenez is the closest thing they have to a shutdown starter. Jimenez, however, has at times struggled with his command, a deadly problem against the most patient team in baseball. Even in his two postseason starts, allowing two runs in 11 1/3 innings, he's walked eight men. With the Rockies having just seen Franklin Morales blow up in a middle relief stint, throwing 35 pitches to nine batters, allowing six hits and a walk, it's not clear if they have a good plan should they need to rescue Jimenez early. I would be shocked if he was able to get more than 16 outs tonight, which will put the game in the hands of Matt Herges, LaTroy Hawkins, and Jeremy Affeldt. The Red Sox are in excellent position to take the first two games of this series.

  • The rain, which came in fits and starts for the first five innings, was never bad enough to stop play or even affect the game. With an early lead for one team, I expect that the only way the game was going to be called was if the Atlantic Ocean made an appearance over the Green Monster, and even a delay was going to require something like a house landing on top of a witch standing on second base. Postseason baseball fever: catch it…and many other illnesses.

    Temperatures didn't dip too much, despite the length of the evening. Thursday night is expected to be clear, but a bit colder.

  • Any Game One result was going to be framed in the context of the Rockies' long layoff, but don't put too much stock into it. There isn't much difference between this game and the first game of the ALDS or ALCS, with Josh Beckett overpowering the opposition. This time, the Sox faced a pitcher who they could beat, and beat him they did. Neither of those things would have been less likely had they played this game last Wednesday.

  • So, Jacoby Ellsbury was supposedly playing because Coco Crisp banged up his knee in Sunday night's game. However, Crisp was healthy enough to play defense in a completely non-critical situation, subbing for Manny Ramirez with the Sox up 13-1 in the seventh. As I said yesterday, I think the knee injury is a convenient cover for the fact that 2008 has come early in Boston. Ellsbury is this team's center fielder right now. The fans certainly don't mind; Ellsbury got one of the biggest cheers during the lineup announcements.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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