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Believing on the Bayou: a Sox/Tigers Narrative

The whys and hows associated with extraordinary happenings in sports can only be thoroughly assessed with the assistance of hindsight. That’s the beauty of The Moment: it rips you from reality, sweeps you up, and spits you out in a state of euphoria. Reflection is not possible when living The Moment. Only realization. Realization that wherever you are and whatever the circumstances, The Moment will always be with you.

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It was Saturday morning, October 20. Curt Schilling was approximately eight hours from throwing the first pitch of Game 6 of the ALCS at Fenway. I was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, priming myself for what I knew could end up being the most intense sports experience of my life. Not only was I preparing for another Game 6 with the Sox in the midst of another furious ALCS comeback, I was preparing to miss it.

Friends of mine had come through with dynamite tickets to the completely sold out LSU-Auburn game. A game, for LSU-faithful, that was equally as important to the Tigers as Game 6 was to the Sox. One loss for either squad meant no championship in ’07. Of course, the predicament these two odds-on favorites had to contend with was a result of their own doing. The Red Sox played uninspired baseball for three straight games against Cleveland, pushing them to the brink of elimination. LSU, meanwhile, a week after pulling a cat out of a hat against the defending-national champs, Florida, lost a back-breaker in triple overtime to Kentucky. Just like that, two teams that had visions of perfection were left with the disturbing actuality that seasons so full of haughty expectation were improbably teetering on the brink.

By mid-afternoon outside Tiger Stadium all you could see were purple tents; all you could hear was classic rock and all you could feel were Tiger-fans zoning themselves in for a showdown with…the Tigers (of Auburn). Then there was me. I was, you might say, a fish out of water. But not to most of the tens of thousands milling around me. Garbed in a yellow-LSU t-shirt and Red Sox cap, I tacitly fit in. No matter how much I appeared to belong, the ritual I was engulfed in was like nothing I had ever been a part of. Baking under the scorching southern-sun, I drank beer, ate gumbo and jambalaya, and did my best to engage the Fighting Tiger-faithful.

However, as the hours passed and the bodies multiplied, the angst started to take form. As I wrote before, a Sox-Indians ALCS was nowhere near as angst-inducing as another Sox-Yankees would have been. That said, with the way my heart was palpitating around 7:00 pm, my future cardiologist thanks Cleveland for ousting the Yankees. Because I literally could no longer sit still, I decided to make some rounds.

I crossed the street outside the stadium, and as I was peering through a steel fence into one of the cavernous tunnels that marks a point of entry, I heard a voice that seemed to be addressing me. I was already toasty enough to not really care about acknowledging the belligerence around me, but next thing I knew a guy was in front of me, asking if I knew how to traverse the fence and get to the tunnel. Before my synapses had a chance to fire, I was doused with an affront that made me see New York.

“AWWWWWW,” the guy said. “You’re a Red Sox fan!?”

“Abso-(expletive)-lutely,” I retorted.

Typical of a Yankees fan, he threw a few more barbs about my allegiances before again asking me for directions. I wish I had known where he was trying to get, so I could have then sent him in the exact opposite direction. As we were parting, I on my own and he with another couple, he turned.

“Later bro,” he said. “I’m going to meet my ex-girl and her new guy so I can beat his ass.”

“Sounds good pal,” I returned. “Maybe he’s a Red Sox fan. At least it’ll be worth it.”

Chuckling at the fact that Sox-Yanks beef really does invade all environments, I decided to test out my new headphones and old-school AM/FM walk-man, which beginning in about thirty minutes, was going to be my lifeline to Schil and the Sox. I had already researched the ESPN Radio affiliate in Baton Rouge, which was AM 1300. Tuning into the station expecting to hear some ALCS pregame, I instead heard LSU pregame. I wasn’t worried, since I knew that the LSU games were broadcast on FM. I received a call from my friends, who said they were heading into the stadium. I told them I was going to try and catch the beginning of the baseball game on TV and I’d meet them for kickoff.

I began gravitating in and out of various tailgates, accepting beers and talking to different people while waiting for some piece of Red Sox bait that I could gobble up and parlay into a first-inning viewing. Opportunity presented itself when I found myself inside a tent the size of a tractor trailer. I got talking to a guy who quickly noticed my hat, and conveyed his support for my team. He had given his tickets to his sons, so he would be sedentary for the duration, which made him one of few not attempting to imminently enter the stadium. I asked him if, by chance, I could take in the first forty minutes of the Sox game. He obliged, told me to take a seat, handed me a 22 ounce can of Natural Light, and we exchanged formal greetings. SCORE.

The game began, and still a bit wary about the lack of any pregame coverage on the radio, I decided once and for all to locate the broadcast. For the entire first half inning, during which Schilling set down the Indians, and throughout the bulk of the Red Sox half of the first, I desperately tried to find the right station, to no avail. When Manny came up with nobody out and the bases loaded, I resolved to the fact that the first inning would be it for me because this game definitely wasn’t being broadcast in Baton Rouge. An early score had never been so imperative.My palms were drenched as Manny pin wheeled the bat, while my host (whose name I had long forgot) popped open another Natty Light. Strikeout. You’ve got to be kidding me. Mike Lowell the run producer was next up. Pop out.

Kill me now.

J.D. Drew was up with two outs and the bases loaded. I was about to see a microcosm of his entire Red Sox season as my final send off into Tiger Stadium. Then, without me even knowing it, the seeds of The Moment were planted.

“Now that J.D. Drew is a ballplayer,” said the guy.

I cringed. Luckily I was too frozen in place to produce any identifiable reaction, because had I been able to, it would not have been a very polite reciprocation of my new friend’s hospitality. Drew worked the count to 3-1, which helped me temporarily emerge from my comatose state.

Just a walk, J.D. Puhhhhh-leeeease, J.D.!!! Do the one thing we’ve paid you $14 million to do this year. Just take ball fou—

—CRACK!!!!!!

“There it goes,” said the guy.

No way.

No EFFING WAY.

GRAND SLAM!!!!!! J.D. DREW!!!!!!!!!

I don’t know what I did next; that’s usually how it goes when you encounter The Moment. I think I ran around a few tents screaming at the top of my lungs before returning to my new best friend.

“THAT J.D. DREW IS A BALLPLAYER!!!!!!” I bellowed. “HE PLAYS BASEBALL!!!!!!!!”

All I needed to do before jigging my way into Tiger Stadium was solidify one piece of information for my official recollection of The Moment.

“What’s your name again, sir?” I asked the guy.

“Bobby,” he said. “Bobby Sage.”

“Thank you, Bobby Sage!” I said. “I will never forget you, Bobby Sage!!”

On that ecstatic note I headed into the stadium, visions of Drew rounding the bases consuming my mind and prickly chills stinging my spine. What greeted me was an abyss of purple and gold, over 92,000 strong, packed into an imposing structure, aptly deemed “Death Valley”. The noise level was so high even my thoughts were deafened. Our seats were in the North endzone, next to the student section. Mayhem.

Unfortunately, the ensuing Tiger-performance bore no resemblance to what inhabitants of Death Valley know to be the norm; namely dominant football. Auburn moved the ball on a seemingly-porous LSU-defense. The Tigers offense turned the ball over; receivers dropped passes. By halftime, the deficit was 17-7, and LSU fans started resembling Red Sox fans after Game 4. Specifically, there was a pervasive sense of frustration bordering on incredulity. Never, however, was there a sense of defeat among the fans, which made me feel right at home as a Sox fan.

Sure enough, the Tigers battled back, and led in the fourth quarter, 23-17, until Auburn scored a touchdown with 3:21 remaining. With the extra point, it was a 24-23 deficit for LSU. As was the case in the game against Florida (when LSU converted five out of five fourth downs), the Tigers played their best with their backs against the wall. An authoritative drive led by quarterback Matt Flynn culminated with the closest a regulation-football game can come to a walkoff victory: Flynn threw a touchdown pass to Demetrius Byrd with one second remaining to end the game.

And in the dwelling of Baton Rouge, a place that feels its heartbeat determined by the play of its Tigers, The Moment took over.

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Only after the campus of LSU stopped shaking sometime Sunday morning, and after the Red Sox formally clinched their 12th pennant later Sunday night, was I able to start to reflect on the weekend that was. The Moment, which had officially spanned more than 24 hours, three historic games and two sports, ultimately subsided. In its place came the whys and hows. Why is it that the Red Sox become unbeatable only when they’re at their most beaten? How is it that the Tigers never say die in Death Valley?

The latter is an easier question to answer: teams get scared when darkness descends on Tiger Stadium. In their last 25 Saturday night home games, the LSU Tigers are a perfect 25-0. While the Tigers have been a force in college football for the last five years (a cumulative 51-9 record and national champions in 2003), the home-field advantage on a Saturday night in Death Valley goes way back and is unparalleled in college football. Whenever 92,000 people flow into Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night, they are determined to emerge victorious; so too are the players and team they support. Many times the games are laughers. A handful of nights turn magical. What stays unchanged is a collective assertion of will over the adversary and the constancy of winning under the Louisiana stars.

As for the Red Sox, the transformation this team has undergone since 1999, from uncanny chokers to torchbearers of comebacks, is both glorious and amazing. It’s also completely impossible to diagnose. As you’ve probably read or heard somewhere by now, the Red Sox are 14-3 in their last 17 elimination games, and have seemingly instilled trepidation in the opposition to such a degree that in the future teams are actually going to dread getting up in a series against this team. Beginning in ’99, continuing in ’03, culminating in ’04, and returning in ’07, the Red Sox have changed the face of playoff baseball. Since ’99, they’ve played .823 baseball when each game could be their last, and .438 baseball (14-18) when it’s just another meaningless, non-life-or-death battle in October. Wow.

Now it’s time to look ahead. With triumph again born from tribulation, the Sox and Tigers are each ready to resume pursuit of all that matters in the eyes of their faithful: hanging a banner in ’07. Great moments are often the impetus of and the driving force behind what ultimately become great teams. On the weekend of October 20, the towns of Boston and Baton Rouge officially started believing; believing that for their teams, greatness was indeed again on the horizon.

Thoughts from the Nation

One swing away from going up 2-0 and suddenly down 2-1.

That’s October baseball. That’s the Red Sox 2007 ALCS summed up in a single statement.

But there’s more, much more, inside why the Sox are now facing an uphill battle in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. (Note: For the purposes of this column I am going to eradicate the Red Sox 2005 “postseason” from relevance in present matters. For the record, they were swept in the ALDS by the White Sox after trotting out Matt Clement in Game 1.)

The first explanation for this abrupt shift of Sox-momentum is the Angels. They were a banged up team that had no shot of beating the Red Sox, and they knew it, which only made it more painful. The trouncing the Red Sox finished in Disneyland on the 7th of October gave way to Game 1 of the ALCS, in which they pummeled Indians ace, C.C. Sabathia, the front-running candidate for the AL Cy Young. That’s reason number two: the Nation was immensely confident, and understandably so, after four successive wins out of the gate in October. Perhaps overconfident. The “humble pie” that’s been the Patriots fare of choice down the road in Foxborough definitely wasn’t being offered by the Fenway vendors before Game 2; just boiled franks, greasy sausages and lots of good October vibes on Lansdowne Street.

My buddy took me to the game, which marked my first appearance at a Sox playoff clash since Game 5 of the 2003 ALCS against the Yankees. It was a weird feeling; a pennant on the line without the Yankees. Since the playoffs expanded to eight teams in 1995, each of three Red Sox appearances in the ALCS has been against New York (1999/2003/2004). The acute queasiness in the pit of your stomach and typical angst of a Sox-Yanks series weren’t there. Those feelings were replaced by a giddy buoyancy, and inside the ballpark, the sensation was palatable.

Throughout the beginning of Game 2, which ended up becoming the most thrilling, punch-for-punch, see-saw (albeit anti-climactic) affair thus far in the playoffs, there was an electricity in the old ballyard that I had never felt. It wasn’t the normal “desperation buzz” that, for the last half-century, has characterized, defined, and enshrined Fenway as the ultimate October experience. No, this was different. The fans were enjoying themselves. Being situated in left field almost within ear shot of Manny, our section was obviously enamored with the aloof man of power as he defended the Great Wall of Fenway that loomed over his hulking shoulders. Shoulders which, of course, he chose to stretch out not during pregame warmups nor in the dugout before taking the field, but as Curt Schilling’s opening pitches were being thrown to Grady Sizemore. When Sizemore lined a ball to the left-center field gap and Manny “sprung” into action, it was evident that again he was arriving fashionably late.

However, no one even flinched when the Tribe jumped on Schil in the first for a quick run. In fact, two guys to our left, between participation in “Let’s Go Red Sox” chants, found time to muse about the TBS division series coverage of the Sox, which they rightly asserted was “intolerable” (or phonetically, “in-taw-lah-rubble”). Though they did point out that the new TBS late night show, Frank TV, looks “phenomenal” (“fah-gnaw-mun-al”). It was in this spirit that Game 2 played out; 38,000 wildly excited fans, having a ball watching their team exchange sucker punches with a formidable opponent, and merely waiting to see how an imminent victory would transpire. It would take an aligning of the stars or Terry Francona being out-managed to lose this one.

As it turned out, it was a little of each.

It wasn’t that Francona made the wrong moves, because he didn’t. He made the right move by bringing in Papelbon in a 6-6 game in the ninth. He made the right move by pinch-running Jacoby Ellsbury for Dustin Pedroia in the bottom of the ninth. Ellsbury stole second, which set the table for Kevin Youkilis to win the game with a hit and send the Sox to Cleveland with the assurance of the series returning to Fenway for Game 6 if necessary. Youk had an epic at bat against Rafael Betancourt, fouling off six 3-2 pitches, all with Fenway primed to explode, before sending a liner to center field that Sizemore had to slide to one knee in order to secure. And finally, Tito made the right move by sending Papelbon back out for the tenth with the heart of the Red Sox lineup due up in the last of that inning.

By the time Tom Mastny had retired Ortiz, Manny and Lowell in succession it was blatant that Francona had managed the perfect ten-inning game that was now going eleven. On the other side, you had two relievers (Betancourt and Mastny) who had played with Fenway-fire and miraculously, somehow emerged unscathed, and a manager (Eric Wedge) who ultimately managed a superior game simply by refraining from using his eminently-beatable closer (Joe Borowski). Certainly an odd juxtaposition of managerial maneuvering. And all this skipper-jousting came after Betancourt very nearly had his name stamped on the dubious list of those who have exited the wrong side of a postseason walk-off at Fenway. (Rich Harden, Jarrod Washburn, Paul Quantrill, Esteban Loaiza and Francisco Rodriguez would gladly welcome some more company.)

The great escape by Betancourt and Wedge’s calculated non-insertion of Borowski until the game was secured were the unique recipe for downing the Red Sox in Game 2. Granted, Borowksi did protect a two-run lead in Game 3 back in Cleveland, but the Sox laid a monumental egg in that contest, and all that matters now is one thing.

Get this series back to Fenway.

There’s a reason I’m writing just prior to Game 4, which has been billed by many as a “must win” for the Sox. It’s no coincidence that those same people have advocated starting Josh Beckett on short rest for Game 4. The reality is Tuesday is not must-win. The reality is one of these next two games is, and if the Red Sox have proven anything over their recent history, it’s that if you’re playing a five game series it’s the first team with three losses that’s eliminated, and if it’s a seven game series, you guessed it. Four losses and out.

The 2004 Red Sox did what we all know they did, under manager Terry Francona. They lost three straight to the Yankees, then won four one-game eliminations in a row and said good riddance to 86 years of baggage. Yes, only seven guys remain from that team, but don’t let “experts” and “analysts” undersell the Fenway-mystique, and how it has certainly transcended different Sox ballclubs over the last nine years.

Since 1999, the Red Sox have played eight elimination games at Fenway Park. They’ve won six of them (two against Cleveland in the ’99 ALDS, which led to a comeback from down 0-2; two against Oakland in the ’03 ALDS, which turned into another 0-2 comeback; and two against the Yankees in the ’04 ALCS, which were the first two blows in “The Comeback”).

That 6-2 record includes a loss in Game 3 of the now-eradicated 2005 ALDS against Chicago. The only other loss came at the hands of the ’99 Yankees, who were a vastly superior team and in the middle of a run of three consecutive titles. Of the six wins, three of them the Sox walked off. So I reiterate: Game 4 is not a must-win; it’s a should-win. What the Red Sox must do is get back to Boston, preferably up 3-2, but all that really matters is seeing more baseball in Beantown. The outcome of Game 2 has thrust that original “certainty” into short-term peril, but I can assure you the Red Sox players are not panicking, nor is their manager.

They’ve been here before.

Only seven of them of them were toasting at Yankee Stadium three Octobers ago, and only two (Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek) were there when Pedro Martinez led the waterfalls of Cristal at Jacobs Field five falls prior to that. But these Red Sox and these Indians alike know too well the mystique of Fenway; whether they’ve seen it on TV or felt it in the flesh, they are aware that baseball games become more when the Red Sox are on their last breath in their house.

For these Indians, they want nothing more than to exorcise the Red Sox ghosts from ’99, within the breezy confines of the Jake. For these Red Sox, they want nothing more than get this series back to Fenway.

And this time, instead of starting a comeback, it’ll be their chance to finish one.

Manny Becoming Manny

It was just another pop foul, but Manny’s career must have flashed before his eyes.

With the Red Sox trailing, 3-2, in Game 2 against the Angels, Manny was up with Dustin Pedroia representing the tying run ninety feet away. His partner in crime, David Ortiz (aka Senor Octubre), had been intentionally walked. The Angels wanted Manny. In the heyday of this prolific tandem, a Papi free-pass was about the only thing that could make Manny’s blood boil. Little else could evoke such a palpable sense of anger and disdain from the goofy and benign slugger. In the heyday, the instant four fingers were held up from the dugout, Manny was simultaneously “locked in”. You could always feel it; feel the Manny-brainwaves buzzing: You serious? You want Manny?? I’m one of the best hitters in the history of the game! And you want me!? You loco?? More often than not Manny would step to the plate, peering down the line at Papi, and hit the first good pitch he saw square on the seams. And it would usually go far, very far.

This was the case again in the fifth inning of Game 2; Mike Scioscia had decided he’d seen enough of Ortiz beating his club, and concluded he’d rather take his chances with Manny. After the first intentional ball was thrown to Papi, like a slow roll of thunder, the Fenway-chant began: Manny-Mannnny-MAAAANNNNNNNYYYYY. By the time Ortiz was trotting down to first, the entire Nation was on its feet; the chorus echoed from coast to coast. He stepped to the plate, and appeared to be “locked in”, just like the old days.

Then came the pop foul, followed by a collective, incredulous sigh from the Nation. Then came the first web gem in playoff history by a 17-year old kid (aka the anti-Bartman), who stole the ball away from Angels’ catcher, Jeff Mathis. Manny parlayed his new life into a walk, which allowed Mike Lowell’s fly ball to tie the game.

That moment represented more, though. For Manny, who this year has been as un-Manny-like as we’ve ever seen, that moment represented clarity. After that at bat he was locked in for the first time in ’07. Despite the ongoing struggles of mind versus body, preparation versus timing, Manny was finally able to rediscover himself. It was a feat he couldn’t accomplish while healthy early in the season, nor while ailing late in the season. Like everything with Manny, his swing and swagger were things only he was going to find again, and on his terms.

When Papi came up in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and Julio Lugo as the winning run on second base, there was little doubt that the game would be Manny’s to stamp. Scioscia held up four fingers; Manny started to stew. As the guy on deck for each one of Senor Octubre’s playoff walk-offs at the Fens, Manny might just have begun to feel a sense of history. Here he was, one of the great run-producers of all-time, just shy of 500 home runs, second-most postseason homers in MLB history, a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer with a World Series MVP to boot, yet eleven years removed his last walk-off home run.

Manny’s “legacy” is something that probably never held much water in his proverbial cup of tea. He is, and has always been, a studious and artful baseball mind, dedicated to mastering every conceivable aspect of hitting a baseball. For a guy who at times doesn’t even know the count when he’s up at bat, to say that his legacy was ever a matter of personal concern would be to greatly overestimate what is most important to Manny. In Manny’s world, the concepts of “time” and “history” are less significant than those of “routine” and “consistency”. By following routine and maintaining consistency, over time Manny ultimately impacted and changed history. That’s his career in a nutshell: 13 full seasons, 11 of them with 30+ home runs and 100+ RBIs; .313 career average; 490 home runs; 1,604 RBIs; nine playoff appearances; one title (and counting).

Manny’s body of work itself is history. However his mode of thought and workmanlike nature simply never allowed that notion to register. His production was a constant; time and years didn’t pass, merely at bats and games. Until this year. This year Manny never found his stroke; never settled into his trademark groove. For the first time in his career Manny went an entire season without being truly, undeniably, “locked in”.

By the time he came up in the ninth against K-Rod he could’ve been about to pilot the space shuttle and still wouldn’t have been as locked in as he was in that batters box. The Manny-stare was back. The Manny-swing followed suit. And once the ball cleared the coke bottles above the seats on top of the Green Monster, with Manny’s (plus another 38,000) hands raised towards the heavens, the entire baseball universe was shown that the Manny-swagger had returned as well.

And then he spoke.

Players concerned with and aware of their image are talkers. Those select few who contain greatness and are thus concerned with and aware of their legacy are illustrators. They’ll achieve greatness on the field before using the media to mold and re-craft it in such a way as to maximize its magnitude and staying power. Manny has forever epitomized the “silent star”. He didn’t need to talk in Cleveland (guys like Roberto Alomar, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome handled that) and never really desired to talk in Boston (minus, of course, “Media” Manny of 2003). Other than an interview he gave before the 2006 season, the last we heard from Manny was during the 2004 playoffs. That was when he talked about how the Sox “took it to another level” against the Yankees, explaining that “it was destination”.

Frank and sincere; witty and at times lost in translation, whenever Manny has spoken it has always been from the heart and informative. No spin. No slant. Just Manny being Manny (where have I heard that one before…). The microphone was Manny’s after Game 2. He gave an on-field interview to TBS, then he granted an exclusive to Peter Gammons for ESPN. To cap it off he made his first appearance in a post game press conference since I-don’t-know-when.

When Manny speaks he doesn’t embody the aura and potency of his track record. He’s just a guy, who knows he’s the best at what he does, talking about doing what he’s great at, with injections of humor. His personality lies in his sense of humor, which is pointed, but sometimes difficult to decipher because some jargon is tough to translate from Spanish. We do know that Manny’s “train doesn’t stop there” and that he is indeed “a bad man”, regardless of how he’s feeling.

The Nation got some reassurance in Game 3 that Manny seems to be feeling perfect at the ideal time of year. In his first at bat, Jered Weaver threw him a 3-2 changeup, which Manny just barely got a piece of. He stepped out of the box and took another look at the swing on the scoreboard replay, almost refusing to believe that he came so close to missing the pitch. The ensuing pitch was ball four. In his next at bat, following an Ortiz-home run, Manny fouled off two 3-2 pitches before sending a hanging breaking ball way over the left-center field wall. This was the same pitch that he’d been fouling straight back all year, but no longer. A game after hitting a walk-off home run for the first time in his playoff-career, he went back-to-back with Papi for the first time this season.

Recently there have been quite a few “firsts” for a guy who, over 13 years, has been one of the steadiest the game has ever seen. For as long as Manny has been Manny, he’s been the complete hitting package. We all know Manny’s train will stop in Cooperstown.

As for his legacy, if Manny stays as hot as these unseasonable October nights, sky’s the limit.

MLB Playoff Points (and Picks)

With three of the four divisional series set, let’s use a Q+A format to assess each team and its opponent in the first round of the playoffs.

Yankees at Indians

How did the Indians get here? With pitching. There was a lot of speculation that the Indians pitching staff would be woefully insufficient for a prospective contender in 2007. Then C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona combined to win 38 games with a 3.15 ERA, and finished the season as the indisputable top-two in the league. Rafael Betancourt posted a 1.47 ERA in 68 appearances as the primary setup man to closer Joe Borowski, who saved 45 games in 53 chances. As a staff, Cleveland gave up the third-fewest runs (704) in the AL, and was ranked third in team ERA (4.05).

How did the Yankees get here? By bashing. The Yankees offense produced 968 runs in ’07, by far the most in MLB, while also leading the AL in home runs (201) and batting average (.290). In the middle of a lineup where every guy hit for power and average, Alex Rodriguez had one of the most prolific across-the-board individual seasons of all-time. The Yankees pitching staff cleaned itself up over the course of the campaign, but it was the Bombers bombing that represented the impetus of their dominance from mid-summer on.

Who are the X-factors in this series? There’s no question that Cleveland’s offense and New York’s pitching staff will be on the clock in this ALDS. Remember, the Indians were supposed to be scoring runs in bunches this season. However, their two key cogs, Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore, both experienced major drop-offs in production from a year ago. If Cleveland is to stand a chance going swing for swing with the Yanks, Hafner and Sizemore will have to step it up. On the flip side, if those left-handed hitting sluggers decide to turn it on the Yankees are going to need guys coming in in big spots to get them out. For this reason the pressure will be on Joba Chamberlain (who’s been nasty since his call-up) and Ron Villone (the Yanks’only lefty in the pen) to get the ball to Mariano Rivera, something the Yankees have had difficulties doing the last few postseasons.

Who wins and why? Yankees in five. I’m just not sold on the back end of Cleveland’s staff in any kind of series with the Yankees bats. Sabathia and Carmona will give the Indians a chance to win games in the late innings but against the Yankees it’s the last six outs that are always the toughest to get. There are too many good and patient hitters in that lineup to allow Cleveland’s aces to be throwing into the eighth and ninth inning, which means Borowski (and his 5.07 ERA) will have to play a deciding role. That’s not a good thing for the Tribe.
Angels at Red Sox

How did the Angels get here? By playing their ball. They score quite a few runs (822; fourth in the AL) given their lack of power (123 home runs; 28th in MLB). What they do is move runners; steal bases; stretch doubles into triples; hit and run. In a word, they’re manufacturers. By being aggressive and forcing the issue they mass-manufacture runs and are good at it. They win close ballgames because they have the ability to hit a single, steal a base, advance on a grounder and score on a fly ball. They’ve shown this style to be uniquely theirs in the AL, which is how they consistently win games.

How did the Red Sox get here? With starting pitching. Josh Beckett has been superb, and the Cy Young of the American League if I had a vote. As a whole, Dice-K’s first season in the bigs was successful. Most were predicting him to be in the neighborhood of 200 innings and 15 wins and he won 15 games in 204 innings. 13 of those wins came before August 11, which would indicate that he ran out of gas down the stretch. But he also may have been pacing himself, as his last three starts were solid after a month during which he got hit very hard. Curt Schilling spent some time on the DL but always gave the Sox a chance to win ballgames. And Tim Wakefield matched his career high with 17 wins.

Who are the X-factors in this series? The Angels are going to need John Lackey and Scott Shields more than ever. They are a banged up team right now offensively. Lackey is their ace and Shields gets them to Francisco Rodriguez. Both have been battered by the Sox this year (Lackey’s ERA against Boston this year is 8.38; Shields’ is 8.10), and if that doesn’t change the Angels will be headed home quickly. For the Red Sox look no further than Manny Ramirez. During Manny’s vacancy David Ortiz came alive and certainly appears like he’s going to carry that into October (especially in light of the cortisone shot he received in his ailing knee). If Manny regains his power stroke and thus re-assumes his role as half of the fiercest hitting-tandem in baseball, the Sox will coast.

Who wins and why? Sox in four. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not fond of starting to set up a playoff rotation and resting key personnel for postseason play a full two weeks before clinching anything. BUT…it sure looks like Terry Francona knew exactly what he was doing when he put eight and nine days between starts for his horses while giving days off to virtually every regular player, all with the Yankees breathing down the Sox’ backs. Through his moves Tito basically said: “screw it, if we have to sacrifice the division in the name of lining up our staff and getting key guys healthy, gimme that wild card and we’ll run with it.” Turns out they not only achieved their long term goals but still managed to eek out home field throughout the playoffs. That really kills Anaheim’s chances, because their brand of baseball is not conducive to Fenway Park.
Cubs at Diamondbacks

How did the Cubs get here? Lou Piniella. I said it before the season, that Lou would not let the Cubs fail. Sure, they had a nice Cubby-swoon out of the gates, prompting a vintage Lou-meltdown on June 2nd. After the loss to the Braves on that Saturday afternoon the Cubs stood at 22-31; seven and a half games behind Milwaukee. From that day on they played .577 baseball (63-46), and stormed past the Brewers in August. Carlos Zambrano knocking out Michael Barrett surely helped the ball club come together, but it was the fighting spirit that Piniella injected right from spring training that hoisted the Cubs up and propelled them to division champs.

How did the Diamondbacks get here? Brandon Webb. His surreal late-summer run of 42 scoreless innings, which included shutouts in three straight starts to begin the month of August, had the Dbacks playing with an air of invincibility and allowed them to distance themselves from the pack in the NL West. Their lineup is deep (five guys have hit at least 15 home runs) but lacking a true slugger in the middle. Jose Valverde saved an MLB-best 47 games this year, which helped maximize Webb when he wasn’t spinning complete game gems.

Who are the X-factors in this series? For the Dbacks it’s undoubtedly Livan Hernandez. He’s the only Arizona pitcher who’s ever experienced postseason play. He’s a good “one guy” to have, having pitched in two World Series (including the 1997 World Series with the Marlins, when he notched the MVP). If the Dbacks are going to have a fighting chance, they’ll have to pitch well, which will require Livan to assume the role of leader. For Chicago I’m looking squarely at Alfonso Soriano. He’s been scorching all of September, setting the Cubs record for home runs in the month (14), and has been itching to get back to October since he left the Yankees after the 2003 season.

Who wins and why? Cubs in four. If Webb doesn’t win Game 1 I could see a sweep. Ted Lilly and Rich Hill are solid lefties who can strike guys out and the Cubs bullpen is serviceable (particularly setup men Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol). However, the series will be decided by the offenses, and in my opinion the three best bats are all in the Cubs lineup (Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez).

The Picks

NL Wild Wild Card Rockies over Padres

ALDS Red Sox over Angels in 4; Yankees over Indians in 5

NLDS Cubs over Diamondbacks in 4; Phillies over Rockies in 5

ALCS Red Sox over Yankees in 7

NLCS Cubs over Phillies in 6

World Series Red Sox over Cubs in 6