Why the Indians will beat the Red Sox

Next up for the Cleveland Indians is the Boston Red Sox, a team that mirrors themselves: a stellar pitching staff, and a good offense. There are subtle differences between the rosters of both teams (which I’ll explore later), but nothing that really jumps out. I think this ALCS will come down to the individual performances of the players, and not any big talent advantage. The most interesting matchups occur between Boston’s and Cleveland’s top two starters:

Game 1

Boston’s ace is Josh Beckett, one of the front runners for this year’s Cy Young award. Beckett rebounded from a disastrous 2006 season, slicing his walks, increasing strikeouts, and halving his home runs allowed. This is the guy Boston thought they were getting from Florida after the 2005 season. In his ALDS start, he shut down the Angels, pitching a complete game four-hitter.

Cleveland counters with its own Cy Young candidate, C.C. Sabathia. C.C.’s been building towards this season for a couple years now, getting better with control while at the same time missing more bats. This season is the culmination of that process; he made 34 starts, averaging seven innings per appearance. He threw 241 innings this season, and lead the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.65). So it was very surprising when Sabathia barely got through five innings in his ALDS start against the Yankees. He walked six, and had to throw 114 pitches just to qualify for a victory. Sabathia’s wildness may have had to do with a small strike zone, but Boston’s lineup drew the most walks in the AL this season, so he’ll have to throw more and better strikes to stick around longer than his last start.

Game 2

The Red Sox started Daisuke Matsuzaka in Game 2 of the ALDS, but for the Championship Series opted for Curt Schilling instead. Curt’s not a power pitcher any longer, but he’s successfully made the transition to finesse artist without too much trouble. He’s been especially good in September, allowing nine runs in his four starts (3.16 ERA). He also had little trouble with the Angels, shutting them out over seven innings in the ALDS clincher.

Facing Schilling is Fausto Carmona, who allowed the Yankees just one run and three hits in nine innings of work. He may have the best pitch in baseball right now: a mid-90s sinker that moves drastically down and in to right handed hitters. Carmona is also a Cy Young candidate, and just missed winning the ERA title.

The above matchups are critical to the Indians’ success; offensive production won’t come as easily to the Indians in this series, and I like Boston’s back of the rotation better than Cleveland’s. So Sabathia and Carmona need to have good performances to keep the series within reach.

The schedule

The structure of the series is such that the Game 1 starter could start three games in the series if he goes again on three days’ rest in Game 4. I don’t see either starter doing that unless the opposing team was up 3-0; it’s too much of a risk outside a must-win game. So we should see a repeat of Game 1’s match up in Game 5, and the Game 2 combatants should meet again in Game 6.

If the two teams go with their fourth starters in Game 4, the Indians will go with Paul Byrd, while the Red Sox are likely to tab John Lester, who pitched well against the Tribe in his season debut. Paul Byrd mesmerized the Yankees last Monday, and he’ll get almost as difficult a challenge, facing a lineup just as patient as New York’s.

Relief pitching

Red Sox relievers ranked first in the AL in ERA, so Cleveland’s bullpen will have little room for error. Due to Boston’s right-heavy lineup, I’d expect to see more of Rafael Betancourt and Jensen Lewis than Rafael Perez. Betancourt’s been, as relievers go, extremely consistent since his arrival in the majors, but he’s had a career year in 2007, boasting a 8.89 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The Indians have an excellent foundation to their bullpen, but their capstone, Joe Borowski, has accomplished in the same season the singular feat of leading the league in saves and gaining a total lack of confidence in his abilities from outside observers. In the world of saving games, he’s done well; in the world of run prevention, not so much.

The three off days during the series also helps the bullpens. Because at no point in the series will the teams play on three consecutive days, I’d expect both managers to use the front end of their bullpens sparingly. Most of Cleveland’s top setup men can be used for multiple innings, and don’t need pulled if a pinch-hitter is used.

The offense

Indians pitchers will be facing a Manny Ramirez completely different than his regular-season statistics indicate. Manny torched the Angels, hitting .375/.615/1.125 for the series, including a mammoth home run over the Monster to win Game 2. The Indians’ top slugger, Travis Hafner, is also hitting closer to his career numbers than his season stats; he hit .316/.414/.551 in September. But these two are the best of good ensembles, not offenses unto themselves; Boston lead the league in walks, and finished third in runs. Cleveland’s lineup boasts seven hitters with at least 10 home runs, and five with at least 20.

Conclusion

I believe this is going to be a very competitive series. Neither team seems to have a huge advantage in any one area. This series is probably going at least six games—that means four games in which either C.C. Sabathia or Fausto Carmona pitch. Because of the off days, the Indians can stick to a short bullpen, and minimize the outs their lesser arms have to get. Their offense is coming off an impressive performance in the ALDS, with almost everyone in the lineup having a good series. Winning the pennant isn’t going to be easy, but the Indians have the talent in place to do it.

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