Here it is again: the most wonderful time of the year. October playoff baseball is upon us, and our beloved Sox are back in the mix. We almost take that for granted now. But we shouldn’t.
I don’t know why I have such a bad feeling about this series with the Angels. I shouldn’t. The Sox have the edge in almost every aspect of the game, and they man-handled the Angels last month. Still, it’s almost like the Angels are due, which scares me.
Anyway, here are my playoff picks:
Red Sox def. Angels – The Angels will run like crazy, but you can’t steal first. The Sox rotation and bullpen are insanely deep, and their bats are stacked. I’d pick the Sox to sweep, but my heart says in four.
Yankees def. Twins – The Twins have a ton of momentum, but they could sure use Justin Morneau right now. They haven’t won a game in New York since July of 2007, which means they could be due. But I think the Yankees are too much and should sweep them.
Red Sox def. Yankees – Of course. The playoffs usually come down to pitching, and the Sox have a deeper rotation and bullpen. I think they win in six.
Phillies def. Rockies – This is BY FAR the toughest series to call. I went back and forth on this several times. I like the Rockies, and they’ve been so strong in the second half. I also think Ubaldo Jimenez is a great up-and-coming ace. But the Phillies are very well-rounded. Ultimately, I think whoever wins this series wins the National League, and I don’t want to see the Sox and Rockies in the Series again. So I picked the Phils in who knows how many, although I’m leaning toward 4.
Cardinals def. Dodgers – I’m not terribly impressed with either of these teams, and the Dodgers really struggled down the stretch. Cards should win in 4.
Phillies def. Cardinals – I haven’t been a believer in the Cardinals all season, and even though they’ll make it to the NLCS, I still am not a believer. The NL Central was a HORRIBLE division this year. Phils in 5.
Red Sox def. Phillies – Sure, call me a homer. But the fact is the Sox are the most well-rounded team in baseball. And the National League is the junior division. Sox take it in 5 games.
(MVP – Jason Bay)
Is it me, or are the clouds beginning to break?
I don’t want to do this. After the way this rollercoaster season has gone, after all the streaks of joy followed by streaks of gut-wrenching disappointment, my brain warns not to get too invested in this team again. But my heart . . .
The fact is, however you want to slice it, as we stand here today things are starting to look mighty good for these Boston Red Sox. After most of us wrote off his 2009 season as a bust (and many wrote him off all-together), Daisuke Matsuzaka last night turned in the most dominant performance of his Red Sox career . . . and against the team Boston will face to start October. That was the Daisuke we had expected to come to Boston a few years ago (minus a 96-mph fastball, which looks like it will never come). And it’s a performance that comes at a time when Boston’s ace – Josh Beckett – looks like he’s starting to gets his legs under him again, and two other pitchers – Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz – are now pitching like aces. I know it’s just one start, but if the Daisuke we get the rest of the year is anything close to the one we saw last night, a rotation with that guy, Beckett, Lester and Buchholz will be untouchable.
These Sox have now won 6 in a row, and they’ve put 5 1/2 games between them and the Rangers now, all but wrapping up the Wild Card with last night’s win. Meanwhile, Papi is doing his best to make us all believe that he really is Papi again. And, with the addition of Wagner, the Sox now have superior arms to close out opponents for the last three innings of the game. In fact, as Tito makes out his playoff roster, his biggest challenge will be squeezing all that bullpen talent onto the team. Some will be left off, but it’s a nice problem to have.
The bottom line is, as we wake up this morning, the Boston Red Sox all of a sudden look like the best team in all of baseball again. And, being the middle of September, they got here just in time.
Sox fans have a reputation of living game to game. Sox win, everything is good; they lose, their season is collapsing. I try to sit back and look at the big picture of the season — when they started the season 2 and 6, I said don’t worry; when they went 8 and 0 against the Yanks, I said don’t get too excited.
But this season feels like it has been an up-and-down season like no other in recent memory. After a good spring – despite weak performances by Papi and their starters – this team looked like a force. Come June, they went through a stretch where their problems started to show through, and we became justifiably worried. Then they went into the break strong while the Yanks scuffled, and we were cruising toward October again. But for much of the second-half, they’ve looked troubled, being torched by the Yankees, and looking vulnerable in the wild card race. Then, just when things looked bleak, they run off an 8-2 stretch and start September in command of the wildcard. And, then, last night Beckett struggles again, they blow it late, and both the Rangers and Rays pick up a game and worry begins to creep in.
I can’t do this.
As a Sox fan, stress is part of the game. And each season has an ebb and flow. But not like this. In 2004, the team was mediocre until August, and then took off like a champ. Not a whole lot of back and forth. In 2005, they struggled around the “good enough” line through the season. Next year, they were great til August and then nose-dived. 2007 they were great most of the year, watched their division lead shrink in September, but were still strong enough. And in 2008 they spent the year consistently being good, but not good enough.
But this season has had peaks and valleys that would even make the most level-headed fan feel motion-sickness.
Now we sit in early September, in the middle of a full-blown playoff race, and who knows what to expect from this team game to game, never mind the rest of the season. I don’t know how much more of this I can take . . . but I’ll try.
Remember how it felt when the Red Sox clinched the Wild Card in 2003? The excitement of playing October baseball for the first time since ’99; the feeling that we finallly — FINALLY — had a team that had a real shot at winning it all? Remember Lowe, Kapler and company running around outside the stadium after the celebration, even going in to pour drinks for fans at a neighboring bar; how the players celebrated harder than the fans (hard to do in Boston)? Remember how Kevin Millar had to be scratched from the lineup the next day because of his hangover?
My how times have changed.
After Boston’s success in recent years, the joy of a Wild Card birth is gone. Anything less on the heels of last year’s championship would have been seen as underachieving. This season seemed like a long, meandering march toward the inevitable: October baseball. But this year, clinching the Wild Card is tinged with disappointment. There’s a feeling the Sox should have won the division; they certainly had their chances. Maybe it would be easier to take if the Yankees had won the division; we’re used to them being a powerful rival. But the Devil Rays? Anyone who has followed baseball knows Tampa is an excellent team this year. So why is that so hard to except? Don’t know . . . but it is.
Nobody is dancing in the streets of Boston today. The Wild Card birth is just another day at the office. The real contest starts next week.
-Check out this poll question from CBSSportsline’s SPIN: If MLB were to expand, where would the first NON-NORTH-AMERICAN franchise be located? The potential answers are -Japan, -Europe, -MEXICO, -South America, -The Caribbean. Does Mexico know it has been kicked out of North America? Is this part of our new immigration policy? Does that mean Mexico is out of NAFTA? Once again, geography takes a hit. Remember: Without geography, you’re nowhere.
-I found it disturbing this week when MLB ran a poll on its homepage asking if the number of wildcard teams should be expanded. Last I checked I believe it was around 52 percent for this, 48 percent against. I am passionately opposed to expanding the number of playoff teams. One of the great things about baseball is the regular season means something. In hockey and basketball, the regular season is almost completely meaningless. It is like watching a season of spring training games. If your team is elite, there is no drama; you are just waiting for the playoffs. If your team is mediocre, you know they aren’t winning a title. And are fans really hoping their team clinches one of the bottom three playoff spots? Wouldn’t they rather miss the playoffs and get a good draft pick? Smart fans (and most team owners) would prefer that. Baseball is exciting now, exciting for most teams and the fans. That’s because the regular season means something, including fighting for that sole wildcard spot. Let’s keep the season exciting and meaningful.
If you haven’t seen it yet, the Boston Globe has a gallery ranking every manager in Red Sox history. (Check it out.) Terry Francona ranks first, of course, with two rings to his credit while managing in arguably the game’s most difficult environment. Meanwhile, it is a mystery to me how Grady Little (Number 20) ranks behind John McNamara (Number 19), who was every bit as bad in the playoffs as Grady, and was much worse overall. Even more of a mystery to me is how Kevin Kennedy ranks Number 10.
Dead last: Joe Kerrigan. How bad was he? The Sox were two games out of the wildcard when he took over on August 16 of 2001. By the end of the season, they were 19 1/2 games out of the wildcard.
A few years ago, while Joe Kerrigan was a pitching or bullpen coach for the Phillies, they played a friendly exhibition game against the D-Rays at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown. There was polite applause for all the coaches when they were introduced, except Kerrigan, who received a few loud, boisterous, hateful boos from a couple of the fans in attendance . . . fans that just may have been my brother and I. It was a proud, proud moment.