ALCS has drama, NLCS mystery

Red Sox vs. Indians creates more buzz

October 11, 2007|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,Sun reporter

The Boston Red Sox are supposed to be playing in October, and no one should be surprised that the Cleveland Indians also made it to the American League Championship Series.

Both are 96-game winners. Both looked impressive in the postseason's first round. Both aren't just happy to be there.

Then there's the National League Championship Series, which begins tonight and pits two of the league's most recent expansion teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies.

Sports fans nationwide aren't exactly frothing over that one. It's not getting a lot of attention in Arizona, either - the first two games in Phoenix weren't sold out as of yesterday afternoon.

Baseball fans want to see Boston sluggers David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez face Cleveland's pair of aces, C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. They want to see whether the sport's next matinee idol, Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore, and his supporting cast can overwhelm pressure-tested Boston starters Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

They want to see history made by teams they have spent years loving or hating or at least empathizing with. They've got that in the AL.

But what the NLCS has is two emerging clubs featuring a whole lot of good players whom few people outside Denver and Phoenix can recognize. The series has perhaps baseball's best starter, Arizona sinkerballer Brandon Webb, and one of its best young hitters, Colorado outfielder Matt Holliday. For Orioles fans, there's even a "next Cal Ripken" type featured here, the Rockies' 6-foot-3 rookie shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki.

Both series should be competitive - and worth watching. Here's a look at the matchups, and who will win.

ALCS

Playoff baseball is supposed to be about pitching, defense and clutch hitting - and this series should have it all.

The Red Sox (second) and Indians (fifth) were among the majors' best in team ERA, with Boston tops in the AL in bullpen ERA (3.10) and Cleveland No. 1 in the AL in starters' ERA (4.19).

Beckett, Schilling and Matsuzaka lead the Red Sox rotation and could be baseball's best trio. Beckett and Schilling rolled through the Los Angeles Angels' lineup last week while Matsuzaka, the much-ballyhooed Japanese rookie, struggled in his first U.S. postseason game, lasting just 4 2/3 innings. He has been dropped to third in the ALCS rotation but has pitched in big games since he was in high school.

Boston's bullpen, with Jonathan Papelbon as closer, is excellent and, thanks to a complete game by Beckett and seven strong innings from Schilling, is well rested.

On offense, the Red Sox have a nice mix of power and speed. But what makes them stand out is the middle-order punch of Ortiz and Ramirez. It's precarious to walk Ortiz to get to Ramirez - as the Angels saw in Game 2, when Ramirez crushed a game-winning homer.

The Red Sox won the season series with the Indians, 5-2, but that's not the fault of Cleveland starters Sabathia, Carmona and Paul Byrd. In three games against the Red Sox this year, the trio combined to allow two earned runs in 21 innings. Jake Westbrook, Cleveland's Game 3 starter, surrendered five earned runs in six innings in his only start against Boston in 2007.

The Red Sox scored more runs and got on base at a higher clip than the Indians this season, but Cleveland hit a dozen more homers. Defensively, Boston gets the edge. The Red Sox made just 81 errors this year, second fewest in the AL behind the Orioles. The Indians had 92 errors (sixth in the AL), but their efficiency improved when rookie Asdrubal Cabrera, a converted shortstop, took over at second base.

Ultimately, these clubs are even and it could go either way. But the Red Sox's pitching is a tad deeper, and they have home-field advantage.

Prediction: Red Sox in seven.

NLCS

Entering this season, both teams were overlooked in the underrated NL West after going 76-86 and tying for last place in 2006.

They both have stressed development - 14 of the 25 men on each roster are homegrown. Their payrolls reflect that. Starting the season, only Tampa Bay, Florida, Washington and Pittsburgh had lower payrolls than the Diamondbacks ($52 million) and Rockies ($54 million).

On paper, anyway, the Rockies, who won 10 of the 18 regular-season matchups, are the superior team.

And that starts on the defensive end. No club made fewer errors (67) or had a higher fielding percentage (.989) this season. Conversely, the Diamondbacks (106) had more errors than any other playoff team. They also were second to last in the majors in batting average (.250) and on-base percentage (.321) and 26th overall in runs scored (712).

The Diamondbacks, statistically speaking, have a better pitching staff. But, surprisingly, not by much. Arizona finished fourth (4.13) in the NL in ERA, and the Rockies were eighth (4.32).

Equally surprising, the Diamondbacks and Rockies hit the same number of homers despite the Rockies playing half of their games at Coors Field.

The Rockies have three young starters, Jeff Francis, Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales, who helped the club win an incredible 17 of its final 18 games. But that one loss came Sept. 28 to the Diamondbacks and Webb, who outdueled Francis for his 18th win.

Webb was 1-3 with a 5.77 ERA against the Rockies this season, but he was 7-4 with a 3.16 ERA lifetime against the Rockies before 2007.

Webb is the key. If the Rockies can beat him tonight in Phoenix, they should have a much easier road against lefty Doug Davis and veteran Livan Hernandez, even though Hernandez allowed just six earned runs total in five games against the Rockies this year.

Prediction: Rockies in six.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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