BY MARK SAMBURG
For those of you who have come to HLS from far beyond New England, welcome to Massachusetts October-a cold, dreary, and wet season redeemed only by the magic of playoff baseball and, in years past, the beginning of yet another Patriots juggernaut.
Unless you’ve been reading for class way too closely, you know that the Patriots dynasty has been put on hold by all-world quarterback Tom Brady’s Week 1 knee injury and that the Red Sox will return to the playoffs for the fifth time in the last six years.
So? What are their chances? Will this be another Bucky Dent-Bill Buckner-Enos Slaughter-Luis Aparicio-Grady Little postseason implosion, or will the 2008 Sox keep the pace with the Dave Roberts, Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, Mark Bellhorn, Dustin Pedroia, Bobby Kielty, Jacoby Ellsbury teams of ’04 and ’07? Here’s a short look at the impending postseason for those of you new to the Sox:
What we know:
? With the possible exception of the Heathcliff Slocumb trade [for catcher and captain Jason Varitek and closer-starter Derek Lowe in 1998], shortstop Julio Lugo’s mid-season injury is the single luckiest thing to happen to the Red Sox organization. Ever.
? Jonathan Papelbon is nasty. There’s nothing else that needs to be said. You’ll hear people talk about how Angels closer K-Rod is better-and that might, in fairness, be true. But know this: Jonathan Papelbon is a tremendous postseason closer, and we can count on him.
? Dustin Pedroia should be the AL MVP. His season has been one for the ages, and he probably isn’t done yet. This kid’s going to play the best baseball we’ve ever seen during the playoffs-I’d put money on that here and now.
? The Sox are never going to give up, no matter how bad it looks. They’ve got guys in leadership spots, (Tim Wakefield, David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, and Kevin Youkilis) who achieved the greatest comeback in Major League history by overcoming a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, and a host of guys who came back from a 3-1 hole against Cleveland last year.
Where the difference between an early vacation and another trophy will be made:
? Which Josh Beckett is going to show up for October ball? Beckett, incorrectly denied the Cy Young award last year, has begun to establish himself as one of the best hurlers ever to take the ball in the postseason. The guy’s been flat-out dominant in postseason play with both the Florida Marlins and the Sox-and carried both teams through World Series runs. Overall, in ten postseason outings, Beckett is 6-2 with a 1.73 ERA. But injuries and other problems have nagged him all season. Beckett has been good, but not stellar. The Sox need him to be the 3 runs in 4 starts guy who stopped the Indians resurgence and the Rockies winning streak last year. If he shows up with the lackluster stuff we’ve seen a bit of this year, we’re in trouble. If he’s the stopper we know and love, the Sox can ride that arm all the way to the title.
? Take a look at the names I mentioned as part of the 2004 and 2007 teams. With the exceptions of Pedroia and Ellsbury, most casual fans won’t recognize them. Last season, however, when Ellsbury and Pedroia came up huge in the World Series they weren’t superstars. Bobby Kielty still isn’t, and never will be. The heroes of the 2004 championship run: Mark Bellhorn, Dave Roberts, Kevin Millar, and Bill Mueller? Not exactly superstar material. But these are the guys who propelled the 2004 and 2007 teams to success, coming up with huge contributions when we needed it most. We’ll never see another moment as dramatic as Dave Roberts’ steal in ’04, but for the Sox to make it out of the ALDS, let alone win another title, some role-players are going to have to come up big. So, who should fans keep an eye on: above-all, 24-year-old shortstop Jed Lowrie. Look for Lowrie to come up big for the Sox over the next few weeks, further cementing his place in the hearts of Red Sox fans.
? Kevin Youkilis. Due to an injured hip, reigning World Series MVP Mike Lowell will be limited throughout the postseason. Lowell’s injury, coupled with the loss of Manny Ramirez, has left a major hole in the middle of the Boston lineup. David Ortiz will undoubtedly have another stellar postseason, but one big bat can’t carry a team to a title in modern baseball. With J.D. Drew (back) also a big question mark, the offensive burden is going to fall to Youkilis. He’s shown that he can hit for power, hit for average, bring guys home, and do it all in the postseason-he needs to do that again this year.
Despite the deep pessimism of any life-long Red Sox fan, I think they can pull this thing off-the Angels are a good team, but the Sox have a lot going for them. Jon Lester has been a beast this season, and if his RBI single in Game 3 of the World Series was any indication, Daisuke Matsuzaka has shaken off his postseason jitters. Even with Beckett slated to pitch Game 3 of the ALDS due to an oblique strain, the Sox should be able to win the series on the arms of Lester and Matsuzaka. And if the Sox can continue their winning ways against Los Angeles in October (they have won nine straight against the Angels dating to 2003), I think a second consecutive World Series title (and third in five years) is theirs for the taking.