In what has become an annual postseason matchup, the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox (95-67) head out west to battle the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (100-62). The Angels dominated the season series, taking eight of nine games culminating in a sweep of Boston at Fenway in late July. Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, surrounded by questions concerning the mindset of Manny Ramirez, the health of David Ortiz's wrist, and the overall effectiveness and reliability of the bullpen, knew an overhaul was drastically needed. Never shy nor reluctant to deal a disgruntled star (in 2004, he dealt Nomar Garciaparra at the deadline for Orlando Cabrera & Doug Mientkiewicz), Epstein traded the productive yet unpredictable Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a three team swap with Boston receiving LF Jason Bay from the Pittsburgh Pirates. This bold move saved Boston's season (61-48 before trade, 34-19 after) and set up a rematch of the 2004/2007 ALDS with the Sox sweeping both series. Boston has won nine straight playoff games against the Angels, which dates back to the 1986 ALCS.
Without Manny, the Sox lose one of 7 players in MLB history to record a career BA .300, 500 HR & 1500 RBI (Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Frank Thomas are the others). As erratic and unpredictable as his behavior could be, there is no denying the production and protection he provided DH Ortiz. The Ramirez-Ortiz tandem has been one of the most feared and productive 3-4 hitters and was rivaled only by Roger Maris-Mickey Mantle combination for the Bronx Bombers in the 60's. Subtracting one of the best hitters in the history of baseball does not strengthen your lineup. Also, Ortiz has not been healthy all season long and remains a question mark heading into the series. Bay has been more than adequate since joining the squad, but this is his first postseason appearance. American League MVP candidates 2B Dustin Pedroia and 1B/3B Kevin Youkilis are each coming off breakthrough years and anchor the lineup with Ortiz ailing from the wrist injury. Pedroia has come on strong, particularly of late, finshing 2nd in the AL in batting average and tied for first in total hits with Seattle Mariners OF Ichiro Suzuki. CF Jacoby Ellsbury led the team with 50 stolen bases and is back after getting a taste of the playoffs last year. SS Jed Lowrie and C Jason Varitek both have struggled at the plate but provide solid defense up the middle. Varitek is still the Captain and there is no one better behind the plate, analyzing each batter's weaknesses and providing his pitchers with the proper gameplan and how to execute it.
The Halos signed CF Tori Hunter in the offseason and acquired slugging 1B Mark Teixeira from the Atlanta Braves in a blockbuster trade deadline deal to give RF Vladmir Guerrero much needed protection. Now teams cannot pitch around the dangerous Guerrero, who remains one of MLB's best hitters for the last decade or they must deal with Hunter or Teixeira with runners on base. Teixeira has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball since the trade, batting .358 with 13 HR and 43 RBI in 54 games for Los Angeles. LF Garrett Anderson, one the few players left from the 2002 World Series team, always seems to go unnoticed as he racks up big hit after big hit. 2B Howie Kendrick and SS Erick Aybar can produce when given the opportunity and are becoming an excellent double-play tandem quickly. Versatile 3B Chone Figgins is finally healthy this year after being hampered by injuries last year and had a nice bounce back season. Backup C Mike Napoli hit 20 HR in split duty with starter Jeff Mathis to form a nice one-two backstop combo.
With the oblique injury pushing SP Josh Beckett (12-10, 4.03 ERA, 174.1 IP)back Game 3, the pressure is on Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka to pick up the slack. Lester (16-6, 3.21 ERA, 210.2 IP) has been the Red Sox most consistent pitcher all season racking up quality start after quality start. Dice-K (18-3, 2.90 ERA, 167.2 IP) is a mystery man on the mound. He led the AL in walks, but his opponents batting average was .211, which put him in the top 5. His record is solid, but he has been the beneficiary of solid run support from the offense. If Beckett is healthy, he is the best big game pitcher in the majors right now. The problem is that he has not been healthy all season long as he is slated for the ball in Game 3 at Fenway Park.
John Lackey (12-5, 3.75 ERA, 163.1 IP)takes the ball for the Angels in Game 1 and has plenty of postseason experience on his resume. Another key member of the 2002 championship team, he closed out Game 7 of the 2002 World Series and is more than battle tested. Erving Santana (16-7, 3.49 ERA, 219 IP)had a great comeback year after struggling with control issues last season and made the All-Star team. Joe Saunders (17-7, 3.41 ERA, 198 IP) was a 1st time AL All-Star as well and is scheduled to go Game 3. Santana and Saunders are quickly becoming front-line starters and battled each other all season long for the title of team's best pitcher.
Both ballclubs have excellent bullpens anchored by two of the best closers in Major League Baseball. Francisco Rodriguez (62 Saves, 2.24 ERA) broke Bobby Thigpen's single-season saves record of 57 and was nearly unhittable in doing so. His filthy slider remains unhittable and is as dependable as it gets. Scot Shields and young phenom Jose Arredondo are responsible for bridging the gap to K-Rod as all 62 saves were 3 outs or less. Watch Arredondo closely, he has a nasty splitter to go with a 94-98 fastball.
Jonathon Papelbon (41 Saves, 2.34 ERA) has been dominant ever since becoming closer for the Red Sox in 2006. His strikeout to walk ratio (77K/8BB) is remarkable. Hideki Okajima has rebounded nicely late in the season after struggling earlier in the season. Rookie Justin Masterson has become a key, making the transition from starter to setup man. He throws strikes and is not afraid of inheriting baserunners because his heavy sinker results in double plays via ground balls.
Mike Scoscia and Terry Francona are two battle-tested, world series champion managers with different philosophies. Under Scoscia, the Angels have always played scrappy baseball consisting of manufacturing runs by stealing bases and timely hit-and-runs while the Francona-led Bosox relied on patient, disciplined at-bats and momentum changing 3-run home runs. Based on the lineups each are dealing with, the roles seemed to have reversed in this year's series. Francona has had to juggle his lineup back and forth due to key injuries to Drew and Lowell. The loss of Ramirez here also cannot be overstated. Bay is a good player, but can he come up clutch like Manny's walkoff HR in Game 2 of ALDS against 62 save K-Rod? With the acquisitions of Hunter and Teixeira, as well as the emergence of Napoli as a HR threat (20 HR in 227 AB), to go with Guerrero gives Scoscia weapons he has never had when facing the Red Sox in the post season. It will be interesting to see how aggressive he will be on the basepaths knowing any one of these guys can knock the ball out of the ballpark.
The Anaheim Angels have been the best team in baseball all season long on their way to 100 wins. The Red Sox are the defending champions with a new identity and struggling with injuries at key positions (Lowell at 3rd and Drew at RF) while the Angels are as healthy as ever. In what should be a great matchup, I expect this series to go the distance with the Red Sox winning in 5 games. Series MVP: Jon Lester