Red Sox's hopes riding on Martinez

How A's deal with ace may be decisive in series

AL Division Series

October 01, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. -- There has been a lot of talk about history as the Boston Red Sox battled their way into the playoffs. Everybody knows about the Curse of the Bambino and all of the other ghosts of postseason past.

It makes good sports bar conversation, but the American League Division Series that opens between the Red Sox and Oakland Athletics tonight at Network Associates Coliseum isn't about the Bambino or Bill Buckner or the star-crossed legacy of one of baseball's most fascinating franchises.

It's about Pedro Martinez.

The A's have some issues, too. They have to beat the best-hitting team in baseball without one of their Big Three starters -- Mark Mulder -- and they've gone from proving that you can win on a tight budget to irritating the rest of the baseball world when Billy Beane came off too arrogant in a book about it.

It's still about Martinez.

When the Red Sox ace takes the mound in Game 1 against A's right-hander Tim Hudson, it might as well be Game 5. The A's have the home-field advantage. The A's have the deeper starting rotation. And the A's have the superior bullpen.

If Martinez doesn't win Game 1, the chances of the Red Sox advancing to the AL Championship Series diminish so dramatically that the negative intervention of the Bambino might not even be necessary.

No. 2 starter Derek Lowe could still out-duel 2002 Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito to shift home-field advantage to the Red Sox, but the A's would go forward with a decided edge in pitching depth and quality.

"He's a stud," Hudson said of Martinez. "He's been one of the best pitchers in the American League every year since I've been here. He has dominating stuff. He's a guy I always looked up to coming up. He has his reputation for a reason. He's going to be tough, but I like our chances anyway."

The Red Sox opened the season with a much-debated closer-by-committee arrangement that put young general manager Theo Epstein and manager Grady Little on the spot right from the outset. The system didn't work, and the Red Sox tried to correct it with a series of bullpen acquisitions that resulted in a more orthodox approach to late-inning situations.

The bullpen remains unpredictable, even with experienced closer Byung-Hyun Kim going through September without giving up a run or failing in a save situation (5-for-5).

Mike Timlin is the only other Red Sox reliever who finished the season with an ERA under 4.00, but Little insists there are enough capable arms to do a passable job in the postseason.

"I have confidence in our bullpen," Little said. "We've got a lot of good pitchers out there for a lot of situations. We're going to be fine."

That might be true, but it will be a whole lot easier to maintain that confidence if Martinez can hold onto the ball for at least eight innings tonight.

If Little had displayed a little less confidence in his bullpen earlier in the season, Martinez, the AL's ERA champion, probably would be in line for another Cy Young Award. He got no-decisions in five games in which he left with the lead and three others in which he pitched at least five innings and gave up one run or none.

The A's endured no such late-inning uncertainty. Closer Keith Foulke was so efficient that Beane said he had the best relief season by an A's pitcher since Dennis Eckersley was the dominant closer in the game.

Foulke saved 43 games in 48 opportunities and finished with a 9-1 record and 2.08 ERA, vindicating the decision by Beane last winter to deal former closer Billy Koch to the White Sox for Foulke in what was perceived at the time as a cost-cutting deal.

"To me, if we wouldn't have had this guy at the end of the game, we wouldn't be where we are," A's manager Ken Macha said. "He's pitched two-inning saves, got five outs. The guy comes in and gets guys out in the middle of the order."

In a season when the A's had to weather the late-season loss of one of the most overpowering starters in baseball, it was Foulke who kept the pressure off Hudson and Zito. If he can do that for a few more weeks, the A's could end up in with a title.

But only if they can deal with Martinez tonight.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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