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The thousand-run team against the man who has put up possibly the best
single-season pitching performance ever, and a bunch of his friends. Is it a
lopsided matchup?

Lineups

The Indians have offense in spades, which made life considerably easier for
them over the course of 162 games. Now that we’re into a short season, a
thousand runs is no more than a nifty historical footnote, like the 1950 Red
Sox.

If Kenny Lofton is 100%, the top of the Indians lineup will keep
starters pitching from the stretch and have them laboring hard by the fourth
inning. Lofton, Omar Vizquel, and Roberto Alomar garner the
easy attention because they can all get on base, work long counts, have good
power and can run. The three of them are the major reasons why Manny
Ramirez
plated 165 men this year, although after leading the American
League in
Equivalent Average
(.339), his year serves as another nice
reminder of how good a player can be at that peak age of 27.

What makes the Indians such a great team offensively isn’t simply the top of
the order, it’s that they’re not sequentially dependent on the top of the
order to generate a big inning. After Ramirez in the cleanup slot, they’ve
got Jim Thome, Harold Baines and David Justice, all
with OBPs over .380. The only spot in the order where the Indians aren’t
automatically threatening a big inning is if the bottom two hitters, Travis
Fryman or the catcher du jour, lead off.

While Hargrove doesn’t have to take advantage of it very often, Lofton and
Vizquel can play the little man’s offensive game, setting up bunts or the
hit-and-run pretty well. The trio of left-handers lined up make a very
tempting target for Jimy Williams to use Rheal Cormier. How Hargrove
adjusts (or not) should be critical in the non-Pedro games in the series. If
Grover pulls them all in the sixth or seventh innings to get Wil
Cordero
or Richie Sexson into the outfield or DHing, he could
regret it dearly by the eighth or ninth innings against Derek Lowe.

The Red Sox have few offensive strengths that compare. They’re a
middle-of-the-pack team in terms of runs scored, EqA (.260, 16th in MLB and
8th in the AL at last count). They’re not a great power-hitting team, a
great on-base team, a fast team or a great bunt-and-grunt-for-a-run team.

They’ve got a nice leadoff man in Jose Offerman, but Jimy Williams
frequently elects to use one of his light-hitting center fielders (either
Damon Buford or Darren Lewis) in the #2 slot. Nomar
Garciaparra
is a great weapon in the cleanup slot, but hitting third
might be Brian Daubach, or maybe Jason Varitek, depending on
whether Williams gets a hot flash on one or the other. Hitting fifth is
Troy O’Leary, who can be charitably termed adequate. Mike
Stanley
is one of the team’s best on-base hitters, but he’s usually
batting sixth.

Essentially, the Sox are Nomar and his willingness to do anything to get
Offerman to home plate, five adequate guys, the punchless pair in center,
and John Valentin scuffling through a miserable year. He’s capable of
being much more, but if he sticks with what he’s done this year, he’s
effectively another zero in the lineup.

Bench

The Tribe really ought to have an advantage here. While Enrique
Wilson
is a fine utility infielder, the Indians probably won’t have the
roster space to carry a real backup for Fryman. Why not? They seem convinced
they need to keep Cordero, Sexson deserves a spot and Dave Roberts is
likely to make it lest Lofton pull up lame in-series. That and a second
catcher, and they’ve used up their roster space, so no Carlos Baerga
or Tyler Houston, let alone a really good alternative to Fryman like
Russ Branyan.

The cup is also half-full: Lofton does need a caddy, because no other
outfielder on the Indians’ roster can play center field. But who is Cordero
going to pinch-hit for? The pitcher’s slot won’t be coming up until the
World Series, and the Indians have more immediate situations to tackle now.

The Sox bench is basically pretty bad. Scott Hatteberg is a sturdy
backup catcher, but Buford’s only virtues are with leather, not wood. Either
Butch Huskey or Daubach should provide Williams one solid
pinch-hitter. Reggie Jefferson was dropped because the Sox need to
have room for a backup shortstop and a backup third baseman, thanks
to the health questions surrounding Valentin. Both Lou Merloni and
Donnie Sadler will suit up, but dropping one of them to keep
Jefferson’s lefty stick around would make more sense. Merloni or Sadler
could come in at third base if Williams pinch-hits for Valentin with
Jefferson, who could alternately take one at-bat per game from the center
fielders. With the Sox’s offense, they can’t afford to waste their
opportunities.

Starters

Like last year, there won’t be any threat of Martinez starting game four,
which means that the "everybody else" pile of people from the
non-Pedro universe are going to have to start three games. Worse yet, their
third-best starter on the year, Pat Rapp, has been so bad against the
Indians (10 runs and four home runs allowed in 8 1/3 innings) that he won’t
even be on the roster for this round. So when the Sox aren’t shutting down
the Indians in Games 1 and 5, they’ll have Bret Saberhagen for about
90 to 100 pitches, Ramon Martinez for about five runs and Kent
Mercker
for a few outs.

Saberhagen is the great hope here, but the lefty-heavy and patient Tribe
lineup should tire him out by the fifth inning, even in a good outing. Ramon
Martinez has beaten the Orioles twice, and gotten rocked by the Indians
once. There isn’t any reason to expect success. Although the Indians have
been weaker against left-handed pitching this season, Mercker has had
problems against just about everyone in both leagues and from either side of
the plate. Don’t expect a repeat of Pete Schourek‘s inspired outing
against the Indians from last year’s playoffs. With these three, Williams is
going to have to turn to his pen early. The question is whether he’ll do it
by design, or whether he’ll be forced to by too many runs being scored. If
he’s aggressive, he could really help himself and his team.

The Indians have three guys who are pretty decent starters in their own
right, in that these days people with ERAs under 5.00 are better than
average. Bartolo Colon has been strong down the stretch, but he has
had his problems with the Red Sox: a 4.44 ERA, with 41 baserunners allowed
in 24 1/3 innings over four starts this year, with no wins. (Admittedly,
he’s drawn Pedro a couple of times, which hardly helps.) Even in the two
bandboxes these teams pitch in, that’s a lot of baserunners.

Charles Nagy should start the second game, although there are
persistent rumblings about Jaret Wright getting the start, and he’s
generally been the Indians’ money pitcher in the postseason. Although he’s
had one bad start against the Sox this year, historically he’s owned Boston:
7-1, a 2.86 ERA and only five home runs allowed in 92 2/3 innings. Dave
Burba
has gotten very little credit for the season he’s had, putting up
a 4.25 ERA. While nobody gets called a crafty right-hander, he can throw
five different pitches, although the curve is usually just for show.

No matter what they choose to do with him, Jaret Wright will start
only once. While he’s already being hailed as a potential surprise, he’s
more likely to be exposed as a riddle. He tires quickly, and hasn’t gotten
his breaking stuff over in months.

Bullpens

One of the major strengths of the Red Sox, and something that is virtually
hidden behind Pedro or the misconception that they were critcally hurt by
Flash Gordon‘s long absence or helped by Rod Beck‘s recent
arrival. More than any frothy blather about closing and closers, the Sox
have lived on the old fashioned hard work of Derek Lowe, Rich
Garces
, Rheal Cormier and, to a lesser extent, John
Wasdin
.

Lowe has been the sixth-best reliever in MLB, giving the Sox lots of innings
in high-leverage situations, instead of merely logging one-inning saves when
the opportunities crop up. Cormier’s ERA belies his overall effect on the
staff: he’s done an outstanding job of preventing inherited runners from
scoring, not coincidentally by doing a great job of avoiding extra-base
hits. Since coming up at mid-season, Garces has simply been one of the most
unhittable relievers in the league; a comparison to the Braves’ salvage work
with Rudy Seanez is applicable, given that Garces was once upon a
time a top relief prospect, and may finally fulfill that long-forgotten
promise.

The Shooter, Beck, is also available, and as long as he doesn’t have to see
any individual hitter twice in the same series, he may even get out of the
jams he inherits or creates. The Sox obviously have a tough choice with
Gordon, and whether or not they can afford to let him work his way back into
a key role when they cannot afford a mistake. Wakefield has been valuable in
relief roles during the season, and given the potential struggles of Ramon
Martinez, Mercker or Saberhagen, he will probably be needed in a long relief
role during the series.

The Indians were supposed to have fixed all of their bullpen problems over
the winter, but just as picking up Jack McDowell never really worked out for
their rotation, neither did picking up Ricky Rincon for the pen. Overall,
Tribe relievers are a mere seventh in the AL according to
Michael
Wolverton’s RRE
. While Rincon has been much more effective of late, Steve
Reed
has been a bitter disappointment, Paul Shuey has alternated his usual
bouts of ineffectiveness, greatness, and injury, and Mike Jackson has been
terribly inconsistent. Worst of all, their best long reliever, Steve Karsay,
is still damaged goods after the brief experiment of returning him to the
rotation: his velocity is down, and while he’s saying his curve is back,
Indians pitchers have been ineffectively "hiding" injuries all
season long, from themselves, from pitching coach Phil Regan, and from any
interested watcher. There’s other bad news: Paul Assenmacher and his
eight-plus ERA will almost certainly make the postseason roster, thanks to
tenure. If the Indians’ pen has to go inning for inning against the Red Sox
pen, Tribe relievers can at least take solace that they’re facing the Sox
lineup, and not their own.

Defense

The Indians get plenty of press attention for their double-play combo, but
they’re not really an outstanding defensive team. Lofton is still an asset
in center field. Unfortunately, even in the best of times, Fryman isn’t one
of the better third basemen at guarding the line, Justice is an indifferent
defender in left, and Thome probably has more range at first than Hal
Trosky, what with Hal being dead and all.

Ramirez takes flak for some Canseco-style stumbles, but he’s got decent
range and an arm, if also a rep for having the flakes. None of these things
are so bad that it kills the Tribe over the long haul, but in a tight game,
there are plenty of ways their defense can hurt them. The Indians have done
a pretty good job of stopping the running game, at least as long as Doc
Gooden
isn’t on the mound. Most of that is to Einar Diaz‘s
credit: Sandy Alomar‘s bad knees prevent him from throwing well.

Fitting in with the team’s overall theme, the Red Sox defense is a composite
of varying positives and weaknesses. Garciaparra and Offerman aren’t
anyone’s dream combo on the deuce, but Valentin has talent at the hot
corner. The outfield is potentially outstanding, in that Lewis and Buford
can fly to the gaps, and neither Trot Nixon nor O’Leary have been
guilty of any infamous transgressions in the corners.

When Butch Huskey puts on a glove, he’s a menace to himself and others.
Varitek hasn’t been dominating as far as stopping the running game, but his
weak overall numbers in stopping the running game are considerably abetted
by the slow deliveries of Wakefield and Rapp. Overall, the only major
strength is when they bring in Buford and move Lewis to a corner.

Overall

The big-offense-versus-great-pitcher aspect of this confrontation is only
the top of the fight card. Equally interesting are the battles to be had in
games two through four. Will Jimy Williams forget what worked during the
regular season, and leave his mediocre starters on the mound because it’s
"their" game? Or will be Captain Hook, and get his great pen in
action early and often? If he’s playing to win instead of to satisfy
machismo, Sox relievers could end up tossing from 12 to 15 innings in the
three games.

The big challenge for Hargrove will be how he responds to Rheal Cormier: if
he settles for straight substitutions and has Cordero and Sexson at the
plate in the ninth against guys like Garces or Lowe, he’ll have been
tactically outmaneuvered.

In a pyrrhic victory, the Red Sox win in five, going into the ALCS without
having Pedro available until the third game. While it would be nice to
believe the Sox can keep their streak of World Series appearances up (once
per decade in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and now the ’90s), if it takes five to
get to the ALCS, they’re dead in the water.