Playoff Previews

Boston vs. Chicago



STRENGTHS -- Boston led the league in runs scored. David Ortiz and Man ny Ramirez form one of the top 1-2 offensive punches in baseball history. This lineup is so deep that 2003 bat ting champion Bill Mueller hits eighth. With .316 hitter Johnny Dam on setting the table, the Red Sox have a collection of patient hitters who foul off pitches until they get one they like. First baseman John Olerud has been a shrewd pickup. He starts against many right-handers and can win games with his glove. Alex Cora is a useful backup infielder.

WEAKNESSES -- The rotation's aver age age is 37.5 years. Mike Timlin, an other veteran, has been acceptable as the fill-in closer, but the bullpen had a 5.19 ERA. Edgar Renteria's 30 errors led the American League, and his range is limited. Expect the White Sox to challenge Damon's arm. Catcher Jason Varitek may be wear ing down. He hit just .173 with one home run in 81 September at-bats. Scott Podsednik might run him into submission.

KEY TO THE SERIES -- With Bos ton's dominant hitting a given, the series will turn on its pitching. Can Curt Schilling regain his magic? Will Timlin hold up the sagging bullpen? Will Bronson Arroyo emerge as a val uable contributor? It's tough to exude the swagger of a defending champion when you're depending on a patchwork staff.


STRENGTHS -- Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia and Jon Gar land have held opponents to one run or fewer 49 times. The last two trips through the rotation, they went 6-0 with a 1.80 ERA. The bullpen's ERA is 3.26. Hard to believe, but the White Sox actually outhomered Boston 200-199. With 40 homers and 100 RBIs, Paul Konerko should earn some MVP consideration. Shortstop Juan Uribe has won games with his field ing and is a dangerous hitter at the bottom of the order. The White Sox also have the edge defensively in the infield and outfield. Chicago was the AL's best road team at 52-29.

WEAKNESSES -- The White Sox were rebuilt around a small-ball phi losophy, and their late-season slump paralleled the groin problems of leadoff man Podsednik. When healthy, no one is a better base steal er. But he has yet to regain his form. The White Sox are asking a lot of fire balling rookie Bobby Jenks as their closer. The offense is prone to going quiet for long periods. The bench is not deep.

KEY TO THE SERIES -- Two men: Jose Contreras and Ozzie Guillen. If Contreras remains in his second-half groove as perhaps the best pitcher in the league, he can win the all-impor tant first game and be in position for a deciding Game 5 if needed. But his 11.67 career ERA against the Red Sox is why the Yankees gave up on him. As for Guillen, the late-season slide seemed to wear on him. How will he handle postseason pressure?

Coming tomorrow -- Atanta-Houston series preview.

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