Tuesday, October 6, 2009

From The Fens: Sox-Yanks Not a Slam-Dunk

Red Sox Nation member Bob Ekstrom has written us his thoughts about this year's playoffs. Ekstrom, a good friend of the Squawkers, takes a look at what's happening in the web each week on the Boston Sports Media site. He is also a contributor at Boston Dirt Dogs. Here are Bob's surprising thoughts on this year's postseason:

Thankfully, baseball’s lame ducks have gone home, and all the stat-piling in Boston and New York has ended. For the next week, we can devote our attention to divisional playoff series, or – as they’re thought of in both the Nation and Empire – the prelims before an imminent Sox–Yankees headliner.

It’s a fait accompli, right? After all, Boston is 4-0 in playoff series against the various incarnations of the Los Angeles Angels, winning 13 of 17 postseason games, including 12 of the last 13 going back to 2004. And for the Yankees, the fairytale season where everything has dropped into place continues. They’ve won 12 of 13 against the opponents in tonight’s A.L. Central play-in, and the only ALDS threat they face has been mitigated by the Twins, who have taken out Justin Verlander’s chances of starting two games by forcing him to pitch on Sunday. Of course, the Twins may wind up taking out the Tigers altogether, and what can brighten the Bronx outlook more than thoughts of Joe Nathan trying to hold a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth at Yankee Stadium?

So, clear the calendar in the third week of October for baseball’s greatest rivalry to play out. Or not.

Either a Boston or New York no-show would create an abyss on America’s stage more profound than Jon’s split from Kate Plus Eight, so I have to proceed cautiously in suggesting such blasphemy. Who, exactly, will Kanye up our big moment?

Quite possibly, the Los Angeles Angels.

Truth be told, that sounds like nonsense to most of Red Sox Nation who argue that Boston is better this October – their lineup includes a healthy Lowell and a catcher who can hit, and Josh Beckett’s even-year/odd-year issues align in his favor - while the Angels haven’t improved much autumn-over-autumn. This is no slam on Kendry Morales, but he can’t fill Mark Teixeira’s void. Sox-killing Scott Kazmir may be a slight plus over Jon Garland, but Bobby Abreu is a break-even for Garret Anderson and Brian Fuentes is no K-Rod. The Angels’ lineup has aged while their bullpen is unseasoned.

Then, too, there’s that 12-of-the-last-13 thing. Hey, if the Angels managed only one win last postseason after beating the Sox eight times during the regular season, what shot do they have this year?

But here’s the thing: when you punch an opponent in the mouth enough times, he’s eventually going to punch you back.

Boston may have punched the Angels in the mouth one time too many after that mid-September series at Fenway Park in which they took two of three. The crowning moment was their grand theft of the middle game when, trailing 8-7 with two outs in the ninth, pinch-hitter Nick Green drew a bases-loaded walk on strike three and Juan Rivera lost all heart on Alex Gonzalez’s short fly to left that dropped in for the game-winner.

Something slapped the Angels in the face that night, the kind of slap your wife gives you when you’re sleeping off a hangover after making a fool of yourself the night before and she has to get you up because it’s a work day and – well – you’re down to your last strike with the boss as it is . . . I’m just saying.

Anyway, there’s something else bothersome about this Angels series. The Red Sox haven’t acted like they believe they can beat the Yankees. The fans see it, but it’s the elephant in every living room across New England. We have a pact to never mention the late September sweep in Yankee Stadium without an obligatory reference to it being meaningless.

Granted, salvaging a series split after getting off to an eight-game head-start has proven meaningless, seeing that a divisional tie-breaker wound up as useful as a team of canvassers in an Iranian presidential election. However, this series originally represented the difference between a two-game deficit and mathematical elimination, one in which Boston manager Tito Francona slotted 22 regulars into his three starting lineup cards (the Yankees used 24). The Sox went into Yankee Stadium winners of 12 of their last 15, yet the Yankees determined to dial up a sweep and clinch the division at their expense, and Boston obliged.

For now, the Red Sox must keep New York out of mind and stay focused on an Angels squad hell-bent on retaliation. That job will fall on Francona, and it may be the most important he’ll shoulder this autumn. It’s also the one he does best. If Boston can make it that far, another classic showdown for the much-coveted American League pennant could loom. My only advice would be to avoid spotting the Yankees the first three games this year.

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