The Red Sox dispatched the Angels with ease because Los Angeles wasn’t completely healthy and matched up terribly with Boston.
The Red Sox aren’t a particularly bad matchup for the Indians in terms of what they do, they’re just a better team overall.
During the regular season, Boston scored 867 runs to Cleveland’s 811. The Red Sox also allowed 657 runs, compared to 704 for the Indians. Part of that difference in runs allowed came from the defenses, where Boston is second in the AL with a .712 defensive efficiency while Cleveland is seventh with a .693 mark. So while the tied for the best record in the AL, the Red Sox were fundamentally a significantly better team.
Of course, these games aren’t being played during the regular season. Cleveland’s offense is probably better now than it was for much of the season, as Asdrubal Cabrera is playing every day and Franklin Gutierrez is getting significant playing time, which means the Indians aren’t wasting any more at-bats on Josh Barfield and they’re wasting fewer at-bats on Trot Nixon.
The problem for the Indians is that Boston’s offense also appears to be better, and in a more dangerous way. While the Indians have upgraded from the terrible bats of Barfield and Nixon to the solid-but-not-spectacular bats of Cabrera and Gutierrez, the Red Sox seem to have upgraded from the good bat of hurt Manny Ramirez to the great bat of healthy Manny Ramirez.
After hitting .296/.388/.493 (a line that would have made him Cleveland’s best hitter, by the way) during the regular season, Ramirez destroyed the Angels in the ALDS to the tune of .375/.615/1.125. It was only three games, but it certainly looked like taking most of September off allowed Ramirez to go into the playoffs fully healthy.
With Ramirez back at full strength, the Red Sox once again have a lineup with two terrifying hitters in it. The Indians don’t have any free outs like Julio Lugo in their lineup, but unless Travis Hafner starts hitting like he did from 2004-06, they don’t have anybody you’re truly afraid to pitch to.
But having the less-impressive lineup isn’t new for the Indians, since they just won a series against the team that had the scariest lineup in all of baseball. The difference is that they no longer have the other advantages to offset the difference in the starting lineups.
Against the Yankees, the Indians clearly had a huge advantage with the first two starters. C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona combined for a 3.14 ERA during the regular season while Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte combined for a 3.89 ERA. And the difference was probably even bigger when you take home parks into account.
The gap is much smaller against the Red Sox. Sabathia’s numbers were essentially the same as Beckett’s during the regular season. The only advantage he had was in the 40-plus extra innings he threw, but that doesn’t matter in the playoffs. In fact, Beckett might get extra innings in the postseason if the Red Sox decide to start him on three days rest in game four. He already showed in the 2003 World Series that he’s capable of pitching on short rest, and the strange ALCS schedule would then have him available on full rest for a potential game seven.
Game 2 (and either 5 or 6) is where the Indians appear to have a real advantage as Carmona (3.06 ERA) was significantly better than Curt Schilling (3.87 ERA) during the regular season. But the mitigating factor there is that Schilling has always shown the ability to step up in the postseason (he’s now 9-2 with a 1.93 ERA in 16 playoff starts) and he looked fresher against the Angels than he had in a long time.
After that, the starting pitching becomes a crapshoot. Paul Byrd and Jake Westbrook are thoroughly mediocre for the Indians (as much as has been made of Byrd’s clinching win over the Yankees, two runs in five innings isn’t that great and he was very lucky that it wasn’t a lot worse), while Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield are thoroughly unpredictable for the Red Sox. It’s very likely that both bullpens make an appearance by the sixth inning for any games not started by Sabathia, Carmona, Beckett or Schilling.
That leads to another advantage for the Red Sox. Against the Angels, Boston’s advantage in the bullpen was that Los Angeles didn’t have as many quality arms to use if they needed to keep a game close. The Indians do have as many quality bullpen arms as Boston, but they’re going to allow Boston to have a huge edge at one crucial spot: the closer.
The group of Rafael Betancourt, Rafael Perez, Aaron Fultz and Jensen Lewis for Cleveland is a bit better than Boston’s group of Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen, Mike Timlin and Javier Lopez. But Joe Borowski (5.07 ERA) can’t even approach Jonathan Papelbon (1.85 ERA) at closer.
The Indians could make relief pitching a nice advantage for themselves if they decided not to use Borowski in a close game unless he’s the last option, but they’ve already shown they won’t do that. If there’s a save situation in the ninth inning or extra innings, Eric Wedge is going to call on Borowski even if Betancourt or Perez is still available. And that might be what ends up costing Cleveland this series.
When two teams are close in talent, as the Red Sox and Indians are, you need to search for any edge you can find.
The Red Sox have the edge in defense and on offense, and the starting pitching matchups are pretty even. If the Indians took Borowski out of the equation, like the Red Sox will almost certainly do with Eric Gagne, then they’d give themselves at least a small advantage in the bullpen. Opting to continue using Borowski as they have all season will likely cost Cleveland at least one win at some point in the next week and a half.
That’s why the Red Sox are going to win in six or seven games.