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October 12, 2009

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game Three, Red Sox versus Angels

by David Laurila

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When Terry Francona addressed the media on Saturday afternoon, he had the following to say about the noon start time for Sunday's ALDS Game Three: "We'll show up tomorrow and do what we always do on early games, have 12 pieces of bacon, a Red Bull, and go get 'em." The game proved to be a good one, and over the course of the day, a lot of opinions were offered both on the field, during batting practice, and in the press box as the Angels and Red Sox did battle. Here is a sampling, from mid-morning until moments after the Angels' thrilling come-from-behind 7-6 victory-courtesy of a three-run ninth-that eliminated Boston from post-season play:

9:30 a.m.

Peter Gammons of ESPN, on the series thus far: "First of all, I think the Angels' starting pitching has been very underrated going into this series, considering what it was at the beginning of the year compared to what it was at the end of the year. The four guys starting in this series were 49-25 during the regular season for the Angels. Weaver and Lackey are great in that ballpark. And another thing is that so much was focused on the Angels' running that I think people overlooked how much deeper the team is than they've ever been before. There is just how much Aybar has come on, how much Izturis has improved… it's a pretty deep lineup."

Gammons on Bobby Abreu's influence on the Angels' improved OBP this season: "It's been huge; .330 to .350 is a remarkable event. Alex Cora called me and said, 'You read about Bobby Abreu's influence, but his first two at-bats against Lester were just classics.' That one was what, about eight pitches that he extended right before Torii Hunter hit the home run? It amazes me that one guy could change a lineup, but I think that he really did. I think that the public image of the Angels is that it's Vladimir Guerrero's team, but in fact, in his last 19 post-season games, he has one extra-base hit, while Abreu has sort of become the poster boy for how they do things."

Gammons on if Brian Fuentes replacing K-Rod in the closer's role may ultimately prove to be the Angels' Achilles heel: "We don't know yet. It's hard to replace Rodriguez, and Fuentes has had his problems in this ballpark, both in 2007 for the Rockies, and then pitching here at the end of the season, but he hasn't been given the chance to prove if he can or can't do it."

Gammons on if the playoffs are basically a crapshoot, given that anything can happen in a short series: "I think it is, but it depends on who is hot, and who isn't hot. And things change. It might be different if you have a team like the 1998 Yankees, or maybe even the 2009 Yankees, but it is true-you can get hot but then end up losing. Look at a team like the 1987 Twins. They won 85 games and caught the Tigers at the right time, then they had home-field advantage against the Cardinals and won four games at home, and ended up winning. So it's absolutely true. So many weird things happen. Think about the '85 Royals and the '88 Dodgers. It just proves that once you get in there, anybody can win."

9:45 a.m.

Mike Butcher, Angels' pitching coach, on the series thus far: "Basically, John [Lackey] started it all off. He went out there and set the tone for us. He worked ahead in the count, and threw all of his pitches for strikes, but the biggest thing was the 0-0 count, working ahead and putting hitters away as early as he could. Then Weaver went out there and did the same thing. It was basically just strike one, and he mixed his pitches in there. He did a nice job. Both of those guys did."

Butcher on the adjustments his pitchers made in the first two games: "I don't know who made adjustments, really. I mean, we're just going to go out there to execute a game plan against a very tough hitting team. They're very disciplined hitters, and they can hurt you in a lot of ways. They have power; Ellsbury has a lot of speed. Right now, we're matched up, and the biggest thing is that we're just going out there and executing pitches. That's the biggest thing that we're doing right now."

Butcher on lefties pitching at Fenway Park: "I think that what it boils down to is matching your stuff up. Our guys, Kazmir and Saunders-their stuff is pretty good. It's very good, actually. They're going to go out there and pitch to their strengths. You can't pitch to any ballpark, you know. If a guy is on top of his game, he should have a good chance to win."

Butcher on Joe Saunders' stuff: "Joe has very good stuff. He was hurt for most of the year, really, and tried to battle through it. Then he got the cortisone shot, had 10-12 days off, and he came back throwing the ball real well. Stuff-wise, he's a ground-ball pitcher for the most part. He gets a lot of double plays. There are some punch outs in his game, but he's not going to be a high-strikeout guy."

10:45 a.m.

Bill Shaikin, Los Angeles Times, on the 2009 Angels: "They have patience at the top of the order. They had really been a swing-at-everything, hit-a-lot-of-things, steal-a-lot-of-bases team, but Chone Figgins has become one of the American League leaders in taking pitches; Bobby Abreu has always been very good at that, and he's brought that skill to the Angels. So they've had one or two more guys on in a lot of innings this year to set the table for Torii Hunter, and Vladimir Guerrero, and Kendry Morales, and Juan Rivera."

Shaikin on Bobby Abreu's influence, vis-a-vis Mark Teixeira last year: "Remember, Teixeira was only there for the last couple of months, so he had a limited window to make an impact, where Abreu has been with this team since spring training. Some of the younger hitters, even if their numbers may not show it, have had a chance to work with him, and learn from him, rather than a guy like Teixeira, who you knew was only going to be there for two months and then be off for free agency."

Shaikin on Mike Scioscia's and Mickey Hatcher's impact: "They have both talked about the importance of on-base percentage, and also about taking pitches, but not so much for the number of walks, and I think that's where they differ with some of the statistical analysts, who just pull out a stat sheet and evaluate a hitter by his number of walks. That's not what the Angels are all about. What they talk about is taking pitchers' pitches, so that they can be in a position to hit a hitters' pitch. If somebody throws a fastball down the middle on the first pitch, the Angels are just fine if you hit it. If you work a count to 3-1, and somebody comes with a fastball, the Angels are fine if you hit it. They want their hitters to get on base, and get to second base, as much as they can, because their prime stat in evaluating hitters is runners in scoring position."

11:30 a.m.

Marc Topkin, St. Petersburg Times, on the series thus far: "I was in New York, but watching from a distance the thing that strikes you so much right now is the way the Angels have shut down the Red Sox lineup. Having seen the Red Sox play 18 games this year, and knowing how they grind out at-bats, and knowing how effective that lineup can be, it's been kind of surprising that the Angels have done that good of a job. One run in two games-you never would have imagined that."

Topkin on how this series is being viewed outside of the Northeast: "Living in Florida, you get the sense that there's always this expectation in the Northeast, that it's going to be the Yankees, and it's going to be the Red Sox. It's entitled that that's how it's going to be. Now, the Angels haven't been able to get over that hump before, so obviously taking a 2-0 lead has opened a few people's eyes, and the Angels finishing it off would certainly get them noticed, but there has always been that expectation of Yankees versus Red Sox."

Topkin on how the 2009 Red Sox differ from the 2008 Red Sox: "I think they've done a good job at the back end of the bullpen, so their bullpen might be better than it was last year. But the age has shown up on some of their hitters. Lowell has battled injuries, Varitek has obviously dropped considerably, and Ortiz had the slow start, although his numbers at the end of the season are still pretty good. Pedroia didn't have as good of a year. So there have been a few guys who have come back to earth a little bit."

Topkin on how the 2009 Angels differ from the 2008 Angels: "I don't see them very often, but I have the great insight of Joe Maddon, who knows them so well, and he has said many times that the offense they have this year is so different. It's just not what the Angels have done before, and I think that Bobby Abreu has been a big part of that, listening to what the Angels people say. It's not only adding the impact that he has, but changing some of their approach and becoming more selectively aggressive."

11:45 a.m.

Ken Fidlin, Toronto Sun, on the series thus far: "Well, I think it's pretty obvious that the Red Sox have not hit the ball like they normally do, and like they probably will at some point in this series. Historically speaking, I think the Angels probably came into this series with a little bit harder of an edge. I think they've kind of gotten sick of being the patsies in this-what? Rivalry, I guess. They've certainly played each other enough in the playoffs to consider themselves rivals, and having lost nine of the last 10 games, coming into this series, probably gave [the Angels] a lot of enthusiasm."

Fidlin on what he expected coming into the series: "I thought I'd see quite a few more runs scored. I also thought that the Angels would really press the issue, because they're an aggressive offensive team to start with, as are the Red Sox. So I expected to see a little bit more high-scoring games, but certainly the pitching has prevailed so far. The Red Sox haven't played well, but they've pitched fairly well."

Fidlin on how the 2009 Red Sox differ from the 2008 Red Sox: "They just don't seem to be able to deliver in the clutch quite as well as they have previously. I don't know if statistics bear that out or not, but they just don't seem to have had that edge this year. I don't know where that failing is, but it probably starts with Ortiz not being the dominating player that he once was. I'm not sure. But there's something missing in their offense."

Fidlin on how the 2009 Angels differ from the 2008 Angels: "I think it's just been another year's experience. They also have so many good parts now in their offense. Kendry Morales has turned into a nice ballplayer and kind of stepped into Teixeira's spot. And their manager might be the best in baseball. He knows how to manage the parts on his team, and he gets the most out of them."

1:15 p.m.

Gordon Edes, Yahoo! Sports, on the first two games: "I don't think, going in, that anybody thought that Lackey/Weaver would get the better of Lester/Beckett, but they pitched very well. You probably saw the stat that there has only been one team that has had more consecutive playoff games with four or fewer hits, and that was the hitless wonders, the 1906 White Sox."

Edes on the first two innings of Game Three: "The one thing that has struck me about today is the crowd. They seem to be sitting on their hands a little bit; you can really sense the level of apprehension here. I mean, there have been situations, like when Buchholz has had two strikes on a hitter-people are up cheering, but with nowhere near intensity you hear when things are rolling. I wonder, too… last year, the fans accepted that [the Red Sox] were knocked out by Tampa Bay. But I wonder about this year, especially if they get swept, while being relatively healthy, if that's something that's going to go down pretty hard-particularly if people are watching Manny and the Yankees in the World Series."

1:55 p.m.

Lou Merloni, Comcast SportsNet/WEEI.com, on the first three innings: "I think [the Red Sox] are just more comfortable at home. They struggle hitting on the road, but this is what happened in '99 and '03, the two [Red Sox] teams I was on. You struggle offensively, then you come back to a field that you're comfortable with, and I think you see better approaches at the plate, and a lot more confidence, and those are the types of things that get these guys back in a series. But Clay Buchholz, to me, has been the key, putting up three zeros in the first three innings, and allowing his offense to get going, He's been the key thus far."

Merloni on Scott Kazmir in the early going: "I don't think he's throwing nearly as well as the other guys. He's leaving the ball up, over the middle of the plate. I thought that Weaver and Lackey both did a great job of hitting the corners, and when they missed, it was off the plate; they didn't miss anything down the middle. His velocity seems to be down a little bit, and I just think he's getting beat with balls up an awful lot."

2:35 p.m.

Amalie Benjamin, Boston Globe, on Daniel Bard's performance: "Very impressive. He showed a lot of poise for a guy who hasn't been in this situation. For a rookie, he's mixed his pitches well. Obviously, we know about that fastball, but he's brought in that slider. He was just really impressive in a situation that is foreign to him, so it's a good sign for the Red Sox going forward. I think that they have a lot of confidence in what he can do."

5:00 p.m.

Tony Massarotti, Boston Globe, on the intentional walk to Torii Hunter: "I wasn't that surprised by that, in all honesty. I think the Red Sox have a high level of confidence against Guerrero. So I was not totally taken by surprise, but any time you do that, in that situation, the question comes up because you're putting your reliever in a tough spot. Guerrero jumped on the first pitch, and that's a credit to him. But as for the intentional walk, to be honest, I had a feeling they might do it."

Massarotti on what did surprise him: "I thought that Buchholz was pretty good, and I was not expecting that strong of a performance from him, quite honestly. Given the fact that he had never pitched in the postseason, and he's a guy who has shown some tendency to get rattled, I think that he handled himself quite well. I think we did see him get a little rattled in the sixth, but to me, five innings is what they needed out of him, so they got what they needed to win the game. And they were in total position to win the game. They wanted to be able to hand a lead over to their bullpen, and he gave them that."

Massarotti on Bobby Abreu: "He's just a tough out. If you make mistakes out over the plate, he's going to hit them. He doesn't have quite the power that he used to have, but he doesn't get himself out. Those are the kinds of guys that scare the life out of you in big situations, because you have to make good pitches to get them out. He forces you to do that every at-bat."

Mike Scioscia, Angels manager, in the post-game press conference: "A win feels good. We knew going into it that one of their big strengths was their bullpen, and you're not going to get [Papelbon] very often. But we did this afternoon."

Terry Francona, Red Sox manager, in the post-game press conference: "I think we're disappointed. The season doesn't wind down. It just comes to a crashing halt."

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