Red Sox leave baggage at door

October 13, 2007|By RICK MAESE

BOSTON -- When star-crossed teams cross paths, on a brisk October night that just feels like playoff baseball, something has to give. The Red Sox and Indians had their own separate baggage, years of failure and misfortune, but they also had their respective aces going to the mound.

While the talk leading up to last night's Game 1 of the American League Championship Series surrounded the anticipated pitching duel, something indeed was about to give.

The Indians' C.C. Sabathia enjoyed a regular season that they will talk about in Cleveland for years to come. But he had the unenviable task last night of opposing a lineup that was specifically designed for the next couple of weeks.

His Red Sox counterpart, Josh Beckett, was also Cy Young Award-dominant these past six months, which makes it all the more surprising to realize that he doesn't actually bloom until the fall. In last night's 10-3 Boston win, we saw why the Red Sox might be impossible to beat this postseason.

In four playoff games, the Red Sox have outscored their opponents by a combined 29-7. To say they're hot would be an understatement - which is fine by them. This isn't like the 2004 group, where every feat was worth a celebration. This group is a favorite, with big stars, a big payroll and big expectations. But it's difficult to assign hyperbole to their dominance because players and their manager are so reluctant to acknowledge what's really happening each time they take the field.

Last night, Beckett allowed only four hits, the first four batters in the lineup combined for eight runs, and every starter had at least one hit. So, skipper, whaddaya think?

Manager Terry Francona surveyed the damage and said, "I thought it was a real professional approach tonight."

The Indians have already sent their 19-game winner to the hill and they'll try again with Fausto Carmona tonight against Curt Schilling in Game 2. But right now, the Red Sox are showing no signs of letting up.

In Game 1 of a playoff series, your ace is the pace-setter. In the division series against the Angels, Beckett pitched a complete-game shutout. A couple of games later, the Red Sox had swept their way into the ALCS.

Last night, Beckett again stayed ahead of hitters, mixed his pitches and showed exactly what separates a regular-season phenom from a postseason conqueror. One of the beauties of October baseball is that as a team digs deeper into the year, players have to dig deeper into themselves. And Beckett keeps coming up with more.

"You don't want to say it's like there's no tomorrow, but that's kind of how you have to approach these games," Beckett said.

He spoke with a dour look and a businesslike demeanor. He talked about "executing pitches" and "trying to get outs" as casually and straightforwardly as the rest of us talk about weeding the garden or changing the oil.

Before the current postseason run, we last saw Beckett on a playoff mound in 2003. He was just 23 years old when he pitched a complete-game shutout in Game 6 of the World Series, leading the Florida Marlins over the mighty Yankees, a feat that sounds even more amazing today than it did then.

Even more impressive, though, is that he trails only Christy Mathewson with three postseason shutouts. That's in eight playoff appearances. In his 166 regular-season starts, Beckett has just two.

Last night, Beckett lasted six innings, giving up two runs on four hits. He threw only 80 pitches - 53 for strikes - and the Red Sox offense was so dominant that their ace was able to leave early and watch much of the game from the dugout.

What he saw was every aspect of the Red Sox game coming together at the perfect time. If there were any worries about Boston's offense heading into the playoffs, those were lost in the weeds of September.

If Manny Ramirez's leaping and diving (rolling?) catches in left field weren't inspiring enough, just consider this: Their two best hitters - Ramirez and David Ortiz - reached base 10 times last night.

"I've never seen anything like it," Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell said. "They're unbelievable."

Even more impressive: In his past eight games, Ortiz has made only six outs.

"We're seeing the ball good," he said.

The humility - sincere or forced - is worth a chuckle. This is, after all, a franchise long poisoned by a curse. They're not about to be jinxed by confidence.

At this point, though, there doesn't seem like much else that can slow the Red Sox. Sure, they'll need other pitchers to match Beckett's performance, they'll need to keep swinging the bats and making plays in the field.

But for the most part, things are looking up for the Red Sox, which might be the biggest understatement of the night.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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