By Sterling Pingree
The Major League Baseball playoffs truly begin today when Justin Verlander toes the rubber and throws the first pitch to the Red Sox lead off hitter. I’d love to say who that batter will be, but Farrell has juggled the line up so much, there’s a chance anybody not named Hanley Ramirez could dig in first. This mystery over who will lead off for the Red Sox, represents perhaps a greater uncertainty as it connects to the bigger picture. This Red Sox team has been hard to figure out all year, but now that it’s a win or go home scenario and the inherent intrigue that comes with the playoffs that excitement is palpable.
A year ago, Red Sox fans were confident, even over confident at the start of the ALDS with Cleveland. Boston had the highest scoring offense in the game led by a major MVP candidate in Mookie Betts and a pitching staff anchored by the eventual Cy Young winner, Rick Porcello and rounded out with former Cy Young winner David Price. Cleveland was decimated by injuries, nobody knew if ace Corey Kluber would even pitch or who else the Indians had in their rotation after losing Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar to injuries.
We all know what happened, Porcello didn’t make it through the 5th inning of game one, gave up three home runs and the Sox were stifled by the Tribe bullpen. The next afternoon (I LOVE afternoon playoff baseball games) Kluber dominated the Sox as within the span of less than 24 hours, the Red Sox had a 2-0 deficit and their two best pitchers had been beaten. The team seemed to crumble under expectations as they were swept by a team that was very close to winning their first World Series since 1954.
This year, predicting the Red Sox fate is like predicting the Maine weather in April but the one thing that we know for certain is that the Red Sox this year are decidedly NOT the favorites to win the AL pennant. The Indians unleashed one of the longest winning streaks in baseball history and saying the Astros were hot in September would be like calling Kate Upton moderately attractive; it’s an incredible understatement. I choose to look at the Sox current situation as they’re playing with house money, everybody is betting on an Astros vs Indians ALCS but as the great Bill Simmons once said: “If everybody is betting one way, you can almost guarantee that whatever that is, is NOT going to happen.” In this case, why would Houston vs Cleveland not happen? Here are a couple Sox-centric, glass is completely full, pie in the sky, unicorns, show ponies, “where’s the beef?” reasons to be optimistic about the Red Sox at the dawning of the playoffs.
- Chris Sale in the playoffs. The only thing I like more than playoff games during the day, is watching dominant pitchers in the post season. I’m talking work horses tossing complete games, going on three days rest and winning series clinchers. I’m talking about guys like Bob Gibson, Jack Morris, Dave Stewart, Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson and more recently hurlers like Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter and Madison Bumgarner. I’ve always thought that Chris Sale was cut from similar cloth as these October warriors, but because his teams have never qualified for the playoffs, we’ve never gotten the chance to see it. Without question, this is my favorite storyline of the post season; “Is Chris Sale a big game pitcher?” There’s only one way to find out, but his demeanor leads me to believe there’s a chance he is. Oh and also this quote from Sale on Wednesday when he was asked about pitching on short rest:
“Three days’ rest, I’m in. I’ll throw until my arm falls off.”
- The pressure is on Houston. The Astros almost led the American League wire to wire. It took a historic win streak for Cleveland to catch them. In a way, the Astros this year are a lot like last year’s Red Sox team. The league’s best offense, a pitching staff that hasn’t come through in big games before (perhaps Keuchel aside) and an untested bullpen. The Red Sox are coming into this series hitting the least amount of home runs in the American League. For crying out loud they hit 70 less than the Astros did and they didn’t hit a grand slam the entire season! If the Astros struggled to score runs off Sale (who they haven’t faced this year) and Drew Pomeranz, who shut them out for 6 innings on Saturday, we could see not only the momentum shift but also a lot of the pressure to perform.
- The Red Sox bullpen was the reason I was skeptical of this team heading into the season. I thought that they would win the division, but most of that confidence was based around the offense being good, the top of the rotation being very good and the rest of the AL East regressing from last season. I was right about the division, besides the Yankees, and somehow I was wrong about the bullpen. Farrell patched things together for almost the entire season with names like Hembree, Barnes and Abad, but notice that none of those guys are likely to make the ALDS roster. Just as these guys were falling apart, the team traded for Addison Reed, Carson Smith finally got healthy and David Price was brought into the bullpen. The smoke and mirrors bullpen that kept the Red Sox afloat for most of the season finally evaporated, but you have to give credit to Dave Dombrowski as it appears that they planned for this eventuality and the results are better than what they started with.
- Craig Kimbrel was historically good this season. 35 saves, 5-0, 1.43 ERA and struck out 126 while only walking 14 all season. The 126 k’s are one shy of his career high and also just less than 50% of the batters that he faced this year. (Which is insane.) The 14 walks are also a career low. One thing to keep an eye on is that Kimbrel threw 69 innings this year, which is the most he’s pitched since 2011 when he was just 23-years old.
This is going to be a really fun 24 hours, the Red Sox play game one vs Houston at 4pm, immediately followed by the Patriots vs Buccaneers at 8:30pm and then a quick nap, breakfast, work for a few minutes before we watch the Red Sox game two of the ALDS. Three potentially great games in less than 24-hours, what more could you ask for?
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.