Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Ok, Panic If You Want

Light your hair on fire, spray paint the furniture, toss all babies out with bathwater. It's an ugly Red Sox loss, and you can panic if you'd like, but do it for the right reasons. Losing the first playoff game, especially on the road, means very little. Someone has to go up 1-0, and it might as well be the home team. Consider how much trouble Chicago would be in if the decision went the other way last night and understand why they had to win that game and not Boston. A missed opportunity yes, but a tragedy no. The Red Sox win this evening and all is well.

Don't get those visions of sugar plumbs dancing in your heads quite yet though. While a 1-0 deficit means little, the pitching problem it revealed does not. Matt Clement missed spots like he was allergic to them yesterday, and showed the rare combination of terrible stuff and location. A lot of pitchers can hang sliders, but you've got to really have the magic to do it up and in to right-handers. He was terrible, and I'm not sure how you can send him to the mound again under any capacity. Were this a one-time I event the Ninth would give Matt a pass, but he's been lousy since July. The obvious choice would be to tab Bronson Arroyo your Game 5 starter, but as we discussed yesterday he could be an invaluable member of the bullpen. Could Clement take over his role? Sure, if you want to lose another game by 12 runs. On top of this, Contreras was vicious. Sox batters called it the best stuff they've seen all season, and I believe it. His split finger looked more like a fork ball, but had something approaching knuckle-curve movement. It's pretty hard to hit a pitch you don't know exists. So Boston is facing as big a mis-match in Game 5 as possible, or a huge hole in their bullpen. Now that's something to be concerned about.

What does this mean? The next 3 games just got enormous for the Red Sox, as the best bet would be to avoid a fifth game altogether. Let's see if Boomer can get them started tonight.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Tuesdays With Ozzie

Well, they made it. Too bad Cleveland let the air out of the balloon and robbed us of a shot at the division. Hey, don’t say I didn’t warn you. But do the Red Sox really have a chance to repeat? Well, let’s talk about it. Ok, fine, I’ll begin.

You’ll remember that about this time last year (who am I kidding, you don’t remember) The Ninth insisted that Boston was as good as any team in the playoffs. Because I lack bravery I didn’t say they would win, but I said they could. This season, I’m not so sure. Let’s compare the two clubs. Are the Red Sox better in any way than they were in ’04? Maybe, MAYBE, you can say their rotation is deeper. Derek Lowe going into the playoffs was a disaster. So much so that he didn’t throw a pitch in the ALDS. This year, Boston may lack an ace, but they do have 5 “pitchable” men in their rotation. It’s a stretch to call that an improvement, but we’ll go with it. On top of that, they have a more useful bench. Dave Roberts’ heroics notwithstanding, Boston’s backups last season were solely defensive replacements. Pokey Reese and Doug Mientkiewicz had no use before the 8th inning, while John Olerud and Alex Cora can actually play. Hyzdu and Kapler are a wash and Machado is in the neighborhood of Dave Roberts (ok, it ‘s a pretty big neighborhood). But other than this, Boston is a worse club. The front of their rotation, the back of their bullpen, the quality of their defense, the bottom of their lineup: all worse. Theo Epstein took a real gamble this trading deadline by not going for it. Last year, he told us of the inability of the team “as built” to contend for a championship. He said that, of course, as if someone else built it. So Epstein sent Nomar away, sacrificed a bit of hitting for a lot of defense, and we won it all. But no one asked Theo about this year’s team. Are we ready to contend “as built”? Was this club really just a Tony Graffanino and Chad Bradford away from the big hot dog? Of course not, but Epstein gambled that we wouldn’t mind. Imagine this club with AJ Burnett or Adam Dunn, or, for that matter, Pedro Martinez. A lot better, right? Perhaps even a favorite. But Theo looked at our competition, took a glance at what we did in ‘04 and the studs we have coming in ‘06, and figured he could get away with what we had. Why overpay when you don’t have to? And The Ninth is not saying he should have, but understand this: in a year with no dominant teams Boston could be a lock for the Series. They could have a real ace and a true closer and a shot at back-to-back, but Epstein wouldn’t bite. So now Boston has to hope they have just enough. Enough to edge other flawed teams and get hot for a couple weeks. It’s not impossible, but it could’ve been a lot easier.

So let’s get to that possible. Quit being such a negative, Nelly. The White Sox are a great match-up for Boston because of their lineup. Chicago is almost entirely right-handed, with AJ Pierzynski being the only impact lefty on the club. This gives the Red Sox a second dominant bullpen option in Bronson Arroyo. The way to beat Boston is to make their starters work and force a reliever in before the 8th. Papelbon and Timlin are a solid end of game tandem, but before that the Sox are a mess. But Bronson is so strong against righties (.659 OPS against) that he can neutralize that approach. Chicago has some decent hitters, but they’re inflated by their ballpark and hindered by Guillen’s obsession with small ball. Against a staff with righty killers like Arroyo, Clement (.653 OPS against), Bradford (.626), and Timlin (.676), they should have trouble. So if Boston can hit, The Ninth gives them edge. Ortiz and Manny have perhaps never been this hot at the same time before. As Gordon Edes tells us, they’ve combined for 21 home runs in the last two weeks. They hit each of Chicago’s starters well, with the exception of Ortiz vs. Garcia, and could carry Boston into the next round. The biggest game in a 5 game series is the third one, as it either ends the thing or puts one club in pole position, and the White Sox are going with Garland. Manny and Ortiz average an OPS over 1.300 against Garland. This series could be the tale of two sluggers.

These playoffs should be a great test of the baseball axiom: pitching wins playoffs. The Houston Astros have as good a starting rotation as any playoff team has in a long time. Clemens, Pettitte, and Oswalt - youch. And Brad Lidge closes it up. If they don’t win, I don’t want to hear about playoff pitching ever again.

The question for today’s game is pretty straightforward: which Contreras comes to play? He has been as owned by Boston as one man can, but was also the pitcher of the month in September. Can the Sox spook him and lay off the splitter, or do the playoffs brush off Jose’s back and let him dominate? The Ninth thinks he pitches well, but Bobby Jenks gives it up late. Don’t forget, Chicago is the only team with a worse closer than Boston. Look for Boston to take this one late.