Red Sox stacked to keep wild-card Series run alive

Boston peaking, has pitching to succeed Angels, Marlins

Baseball: Division Series

October 05, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Terry Francona passed his first test as Boston Red Sox manager this year, holding a potentially volatile squad together through some long stretches of mediocrity and getting it to play its best baseball at season's end.

The Red Sox won 98 games, their highest total in 26 years, and in some places that might be enough to gain a manager a little job security.

But not in Boston. Not with a franchise that hasn't won a World Series since 1918. Not with a fan base that's still scarred from watching former manager Grady Little leave Pedro Martinez in last year's Game 7 of the American League Championship Series for too long.

"Whatever we've done to this point is fine," Francona said Sunday at Camden Yards. "But it's not how we'll ultimately be judged."

Francona's second test starts tonight, and the Red Sox (98-64) enter their American League Division Series against the Anaheim Angels (92-70) looking like the favorites to win it all this time.

Granted, the Red Sox finished second to the New York Yankees in the AL East this season, but they secured the wild-card berth, and baseball's past two world champions - the 2002 Angels and 2003 Florida Marlins - were wild-card entrants.

Little had a formidable team last year, and Francona's is significantly better. Boston persuaded Curt Schilling to waive his no-trade clause last fall, and he'll take a 21-6 record to the mound tonight, opposite Anaheim's Jarrod Washburn (11-8).

The Red Sox also added former Oakland closer Keith Foulke, scrapping their closer-by-committee experiment from a year ago, which makes Francona's decisions a little easier. Foulke isn't overpowering, like Angels closer Troy Percival and setup man Francisco Rodriguez, but he's more reliable than the closer Schilling and the Arizona Diamondbacks had on their 2001 world championship team: Byung-Hyun Kim.

With Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz leading the way, the Red Sox scored 949 runs this year, compared with 836 for the Angels.

Besides Martinez, who has lost four straight starts for the first time in his career, this Boston team is clicking at the right time.

Francona, who posted a .440 winning percentage as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies from 1997-2000, also interviewed for the Orioles' job last fall before they hired Lee Mazzilli. At first some thought he was too nice to manage in Boston.

"The Philadelphia thing was really helpful, maybe more than I ever knew," Francona said. "Four years of losing in that environment can toughen you up."

Prediction: Red Sox in five

Yankees vs. Twins

Mike Mussina has never won a World Series title, and now the Yankees (101-61) are counting on him to be their postseason ace. His career postseason ERA is 3.06, compared with 3.59 for the regular season, so he's been at his best in these situations.

But Johan Santana has made the Twins (92-70) so confident, going 13-0 with a 1.21 ERA since the All-Star break, they're convinced they'll win Game 1. This confidence is critical because the Yankees are 20-3 against Minnesota since 2002, including the postseason.

Minnesota beat New York in Game 1 of last year's ALDS, and then lost three straight. This time for Game 2, they have Brad Radke, whose 3.48 ERA ranked fourth in the AL, pitching against fellow control specialist Jon Lieber, who looks miscast as the No. 2 man in the Yanks' rotation.

Both teams have terrific bullpens. The Yankees have the experience, the aura and the powerful lineup, but their starting pitching staff is in tatters. A healthy and confident Orlando Hernandez could have given them the edge, but his shoulder is tired, and now the Yankees may instead use gimpy Kevin Brown in Game 3, another sign of their desperation.

Prediction: Twins in four

Cardinals vs. Dodgers

This was an ideal draw for a Cardinals team that has some injury concerns, despite finishing with baseball's best record. Chris Carpenter (nerve irritation right biceps) won 15 games and probably would have been the Game 1 starter, but with his injury and Matt Morris' continued struggles, Tony La Russa decided to turn to Woody Williams and Jason Marquis for the first two games.

Third baseman Scott Rolen (strained left calf) missed 18 days before returning to the lineup early last week. But the Cardinals (105-57) are baseball's best team for a reason. They have three MVP candidates (Rolen, Jim Edmonds and Albert Pujols) and a former Gold Glove winner at every position.

A better pitching staff could put a scare into this team, but the Dodgers (93-69) shouldn't with Odalis Perez, Jeff Weaver and Jose Lima starting the first three games.

Prediction: Cardinals in three

Braves vs. Astros

Everything had to go Houston's way to finish with a 36-10 flourish and overcome a huge field to win the NL wild card. The Astros (92-70) get another break from the schedule, since this is the only series that won't start until tomorrow. That gives Roger Clemens an extra day to recover from his stomach virus, which forced the Astros to use Brandon Backe in Sunday's clincher.

With Clemens (18-4) and Roy Oswalt (20-10) pitching the first two games in Atlanta, the Astros love their chances, and then it's back to Minute Maid Park, where they've won 18 straight.

The Braves (96-66) have starting pitching concerns despite some terrific success in the second half. Game 1 starter Jaret Wright (bruised right ankle) is 13-3 with a 3.00 ERA in his past 24 starts. Game 2 starter Mike Hampton, the former Astro, could be the equalizer. He is 11-1 with a 3.02 ERA in his past 14 starts.

Game 3 starter John Thomson (strained side muscle) is 8-1 with a 2.45 ERA in his past 15 starts. And if Thomson's injury prevents him from starting, Braves manager Bobby Cox can tun to the slumping Russ Ortiz, who has won 36 games the past two years.

Prediction: Astros in four

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