Tuesday, October 30, 2007

World Series Thoughts

This is going to be a short entry because I'm pretty tired but I wanted to put something here about the Sox and their awesome run to another World Championship. I was so glad to be home for the final three games of the series and I got to experience the win with family and friends in the place that bred my love for baseball and this team. When Seth Smith flailed at the final Jon Papelbon fastball, I rejoiced and did something that I didn't even do when the Red Sox won in 2004.

I cried.

It has been such a long grind of a season, a team made up of unproven rookies and hungry veterans, some who far exceeded or fell far below expectations and still found a way to win 96 regular season games, come back down 3-1 to the Indians and then dispatch the Rockies in the blink of an eye. I was with them from the first pitch of spring training all the way until Sunday night, and the release of emotions came following seven months of holding my breath with this team. I was there earlier this month when Josh Beckett, the Ace of Aces, pitched his heart out for nine innings and brought the Fenway Faithful to their feet one strikeout after another. That night I could tell that something special was happening. They lost their way for three games against Cleveland, but they found it again at just the right time. They needed to be tested if they were going to be champions, and they passed the test to show all of us what the collective power of team and unity can accomplish just as they did three Octobers ago.

Mike Lowell was a deserving MVP, considering he was the MVP of the team over the course of the entire season, but there was a bevy of players that could have laid claim to the trophy. The Red Sox rookie trio (Jacoby Ellsbury, Hideki Okajima, Dustin Pedroia) could not have taken to the spotlight better in the World Series. All four of the Red Sox starters turned in solid showings, including Jon Lester's inspirational outing in the clincher that put the entire series in perspective. Throughout the playoffs, Manny was Manny, and Papi was Papi. Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew overcame the difficulty of their regular seasons to become integral parts of the Sox playoff success. And finishing the games was the wild-eyed closer, Jonathon Papelbon, rested from the regular season and able to go 6 1/3 innings over the final five games. As a friend of mine suggested, the Red Sox don't have a franchise player, they have a franchise team.

The Sox are built up to get back to the Fall Classic many times in the near future. Given the makeup of this team and its ownership, I can't imagine why they won't do it. It's imperative the Sox keep Lowell this offseason. It's not my money, and if it takes four years, screw it. At least we know the effort will always be there. Let some team out West take on 10 years of A-Rod. I won't have anything to do with the guy after the classless display his agent put on Sunday night.

Mostly, I think my emotions came out because I care so deeply about this team, and in effect, the game itself. If it wasn't for baseball, we wouldn't have been subject to Pedroia's inner fire, to Youkilis' unstoppable drive, to Papelbon's burning energy (and killer dance moves). We'd never know about Big Papi's smile, Beckett's glare, and Manny's flowing locks. We could never learn about Tito's calm, Schilling's nerve, and Lester's courage. If it wasn't for baseball, all of our lives would be that much less enriched. And while the tears came down early Monday morning, all I could think was how blessed I was that I had been born with baseball running through my veins, that the one thing I cared about most when I was six can still dominate my thoughts all these years later. As a Red Sox fan, we all feel like we're a part of what's happening. And I can honestly say that being a part of the 2007 Red Sox was a blessing that I'll never forget and never take for granted.

Stay tuned to this blog all winter, because starting next week you will start getting my opinions on all the happenings of the Hot Stove.

Red Sox report to spring training in 107 days. Just thought you might like to know.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

World Series Preview

On the eve of the 103rd World Series, I present to you my preview of this year's Fall Classic. The Nation is rejoicing after yet another October comeback, while the Rocky Mountain gang will have eight full days to rest for the World Series. The Red Sox and the Rockies will face off Wednesday night at Fenway to decide this year's World Champion. As I've done in the past, I'm going to break down the series with each aspect of each club and then give my prediction. But I'll break the suspense for you right now: the Sox are winning this series. Big shock to all of you I'm sure.

Starting Pitching: I'm about to start sounding like a broken record with this for the rest of my preview, but the Red Sox certainly win out in the experience department over the Rockies with starting pitching. Josh Beckett has cemented himself as the best big-game postseason pitcher of his generation, carrying the Sox in a must-win Game 5 in Cleveland to continue the series. Following Beckett will be Curt Schilling, who also continued to live up to his postseason reputation with a great Game 6 at Fenway. I'm a little leery of him pitching on four days rest in Game 2, but he should be alright. I'm more worried about Dice-K going in Game 3 at Coors Field, but the spotlight should hopefully continue to bring out the best in him. Looks like Jon Lester will get his first postseason start in Game 4, but he pitched well in his one relief outing in Cleveland should be good to go. As long as he has confidence in his fastball and Varitek can guide him through six innings, Lester should do well.

As for Colorado, Jeff Francis has been the second best pitcher this postseason behind Beckett. The first matchup between Francis and Beckett is interesting because at one time they were each the top pitching prospect in baseball, and now find themselves as the aces on baseball's two best teams. The Sox hitters cannot underestimate Francis, who won 17 games in 2007. After Francis this Rockies' starters have been great of late but haven't had to face an AL offense yet. Ubaldo Jimenez and Josh Fogg have been strong but no one knows how they can do on the big stage with so much rest. Aaron Cook will throw in Game 4 and he hasn't pitched in a game since August 10. Although this Rockies rotation has a chance to do well against Boston, I must defer to the rotation with big game experience and momentum heading in. Edge: Boston.

Offense: Both clubs are terrific in this department, and both teams have given forth full team offensive efforts to get here. Right now, the Red Sox are firing on all cylinders unlike they have at any point in the season. Kevin Youkilis was completely on fire in the ALCS, Dustin Pedroia came alive, and the 1-2 punch of Papi and Manny continued to make opposing hurlers throw fits. Mike Lowell has cooled some since the mid-point of the ALCS, but is fully capable of turning it on again. When J.D. Drew hit what Bill Simmons is calling the "$14 Million Grand Slam" in Game 6, it erased a miserable first season in Boston and since he's facing the NL again I expect him to continue hitting. Jacoby Ellsbury keep producing in place of Coco Crisp, and I don't think the Red Sox will turn back now. The Sox will lose one of either Ortiz, Youkilis, or Lowell in Colorado, and even though they'll lose some offense it won't get to the point where it will hurt the team that bad. Expect Ellsbury to lead off if Youkilis sits.

Colorado has historically been an offensive powerhouse and this year is no different. They are led by the likely NL MVP in Matt Holliday, a horse of an outfielder that can do no wrong with the bat. Todd Helton is the stalwart who gets on base just as much as he ever did. Super rookie Troy Tulowitzki and emerging stars Garrett Atkins and Brad Hawpe compliment Holliday and Helton. They are balanced by the speedy Willy Taveras and Kaz Matsui. Few of the Rockies' hitters actually have high batting averages so far in the playoffs. The layoff will affect the offense more than the pitching, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Rockies don't get back on track until they return home to Denver on Saturday. The bottom of the Red Sox order is probably better than the Rockies have, but the depth of their firepower is unmistakable. I think the Boston pitchers can take care of them, but going into this series they deserve the advantage. Edge: Colorado.

Defense: I can't help but feel that this is where the biggest mismatch in this series lies. The Red Sox are a fine club on defense, but they can't compare with the Rockies. Colorado beat the 2006 Red Sox all-time highest fielding percentage and showed their prowess in the postseason to this point. I'm so excited to watch Tulowitzki play, as his glove work is considered tops in the game and seeing his highlights thus far in the postseason has been astounding to watch. They have no weakness here. Between Ellsbury/Crisp and the Sox entire infield, they should hold their own but the Rockies clearly are better. Edge: Colorado.

Bullpen: Once again both teams are strong in this department, yet the Rockies once again lack experience here. Brian Fuentes and Manny Corpas have created a strong combination for late game success, but it does not rival the Red Sox combination of Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon. I can't say I know that much about the rest of the Rockies bullpen other than their complete dominance of the NL clubs since mid-September. The Red Sox have bizarrely chosen Kyle Snyder over the seasoned Julian Tavarez and the stronger Brian Corey to replace Wakefield on the World Series roster, but I guess I have faith that Terry Francona and John Ferrell have made the right choice. Mike Timlin, Javier Lopez, and Manny Delcarmen should prove to be important parts of this series. And with the way Eric Gagne pitched in a totally non-pressure situation on Saturday, I actually have some level of confidence in him right now. Again, some level. That's all I have to say. Edge: Red Sox.

Manager: Clint Hurdle has become a star over the last five weeks, and I personally think it's long overdue. Since he became the Rockies manager the club has actually produced very well and the team has responded to his offbeat style. I am so happy for him because I have always liked him since he took over the club. A team does not win 21 of 22 games without a manager that knows what he is doing. It's also pretty obvious the Rockies are confident in his ability to lead them.

On the other side, Terry Francona in my opinion has done about as good a job as possible since I ripped him in September for mismanaging his bullpen. He deals with people as well as anyone that has ever managed in Boston, and I appreciate his sincerity in disclosing his decision making process with the fans and media. He made the right call in going with Jacoby Ellsbury in center field when the ALCS shifted back to Boston, and I know it wasn't because of the public pressure to do so. It was just the right move, and it paid off. I'm not saying that Francona can do no wrong, but I believe that between John Farrell (who I'm now positive will be entering his final games with the Red Sox and will take the managing job in Pittsburgh, and I speak for all of Red Sox Nation in wishing him the best of luck), Brad Mills and Francona, the Sox have an extremely bright and thoughtful braintrust making all the important decisions. And having been here three seasons ago also helps. Edge: Boston.

Intangibles and Loose Ends: Every year there always seems to be the "Team of Destiny," I've talked about it a lot. I think the Rockies, having lost exactly one game in the last month, would qualify as that team this time around. They are a fantastic story, right on par with the story of the Red Sox in 2004. But this is the World Series, and they are going up against a hot team on a real mission. I really believe the eight days off between the NLCS and tomorrow night's game will hurt them badly, especially in the first game against Beckett. From there, the Rockies rotation is not that imposing to an AL lineup, and despite losing the DH, if the Red Sox take the first two games of this series you can pretty much lock up a second World Series crown in four seasons.

I'm ready to watch this Sox team, which has labored through a long, arduous, and at times very trying season come home with the hardware. Because of 2004, Red Sox fans now expect good things to happen. After being down 3-1 to Cleveland, I knew that if Beckett could come through they could take the final two games back at home, and it happened. I was barely worried at all. I know this Rockies team is good, but I'm going to make a bold prediction as far as the outcome of this series: the Rockies will take Game 3 against Dice-K at home, and that's it. This series will not come back to Boston for the final two games. After Thursday night, the next time the Red Sox set foot in New England will be with the World Series trophy in hand for another winter of all things Red Sox Nation. And like I said, I'm ready.

PREDICTION: Boston in 5.

See you next week.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Gearing Up for the ALCS

As some of you know I attended Game 1 of the ALDS, certainly an experience I won't soon forget. Josh Beckett put on a performance that sticks with those in the stands for the remainder of their days, completely dominating the hapless Angels bats. Perhaps Beckett put the hex on the LA hitters for the series, because they could only muster four runs off Sox pitching following the Game 1 shutout. Yesterday afternoon, the Red Sox dispatched an over-matched Angels team to advance on in this year's playoffs. I'd have to think that either Cleveland or New York would be scared to come to the Hub on Friday night, similar to how scared the Diamondbacks must be about welcoming the Rockies to Arizona on Thursday.

What we saw in this series against the Angels was a team ready to go deep into this month and return to Boston with its second World Series crown in four seasons. It was nearly impossible to pick a star of the ALDS for the Red Sox. Even when Matsuzaka struggled in Game 2, the resilient Sox bullpen bailed him out big, with four pitchers busting through 4 1/3 innings of hitless relief. David Ortiz proved nearly impossible for the Angels to deal with as they only retired him twice in the three games, and also came up with two big home runs. Dustin Pedroia had difficulty in his first ever playoffs series, including jamming his shoulder in Game 2. But he played through the pain, turned in some big defensive plays, and delivered a double in the 8th of Game 3 to begin the clinching rally. Curt Schilling, the postseason master, turned in yet another October gem in Game 3, providing a gusty seven innings and pitching through some major jams with his no mediocre stuff. And Manny Ramirez was reborn, blasting two towering shots including the jaw-dropping walk-off in Game 2 that sent a Nation into a frenzy.

Much like the '04 team, the Red Sox are winning in October of 2007 not because of the contributions of a few but with the combined effort of many. Terry Francona has these guys believing in the collective power of unity that drove them to the 2004 crown. All of the problems leading up to their eventually clinching of a playoff berth have been erased, and the team seems to be hitting its stride at just the right moment. It is my firm belief that with two dominant playoff starters, an untracked duo of Ortiz and Ramirez, and a consistent Timlin-Lopez-Okajima-Delcarmen-Papelbon bullpen, the rest of the team will rally around these factors and there's just about no chance this club won't bring home the hardware yet again.

The Indians can sport a relatively inexperienced yet dominant postseason duo themselves, but I can see the Sox pitchers taking care of the Tribe hitters fairly easily. The Yankees don't seem as invincible as they were at the end of the season, and I'd feel pretty good about an ALCS against them in which the Sox have homefield advantage. The Red Sox are a seasoned playoff team, with about a dozen members sporting at least one World Series ring. I feel confident in their ability to get through the next series, and while Arizona and Colorado are both dangerous clubs, I can't help but feel the Red Sox are the odds on favorites to be World Champs again.