Thursday, July 17, 2008

Red Sox make formidable repeat threat

Boston features hard-to-top rotation entering second half
By Tom Singer /

Baseball's recent World Series champions have had feet of clay. Their fall glory has faded into the ensuing summer's fall.

It should not come as a surprise that the Majors have not had a repeat Fall Classic winner since the New York Yankees wrapped up their three-peat in 2000.

After all, there hasn't even been a repeat World Series participant since those Yankees in 2000-01. And you can't win it if you're not in it.

Do the Boston Red Sox now have the "might" stuff? A few years after breaking the shackles of a since-forgotten 86-year curse, are the Sox poised to take their new identity to the next level? Will the Red Sox be able to make it two in a row?

Better question: Who is going to stop them?

There could be no answer to that. In a new age of big league parity, the Red Sox may be the least flawed team. They have versatile and talented players, a tunnel-visioned manager and an activist front office.

Can the Red Sox be kept out of the World Series?

By the Yankees? Not likely. This doesn't mean that it won't happen -- this is The Rivalry, and logic is always being defied -- only that it shouldn't happen.

By the Rays, perhaps past their expiration date? The Angels, Boston's proven postseason patsies? The imperfect White Sox or Twins? Even less likely.

Once back in the World Series, can they be kept from winning it? Especially now that they'd again have home-field advantage because of their league's fantastic win in a 15-inning Midsummer Classic -- the American League World Series team has not lost a home Game 7 since 1979, when the Orioles were vanquished by the Pirates, 4-1, at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.

The biggest challenge would come from the National League West, whose two probables are both built for short series. The D-backs (Brandon Webb, Dan Haren and the Randy Johnson of late) and Dodgers (Chad Billingsley, Derek Lowe and Hiroki Kuroda) have Big Three starters who can throw a blanket over a lineup.

A Classic foe from the Central wouldn't faze Boston. Milwaukee, whose CC Sabathia would love another crack at Boston after his ALCS experiences of last year with Cleveland, would pose a problem. And, of course, if the Cubs actually reached a World Series, a papal order might come down that they win it.

But first, of course, the National League representative would have to figure out a way to win a World Series game from the Red Sox, which has not happened since 1986, when the Mets took them in seven.

Beyond the fact that the Yankees are dealing with more injuries than is Boston, consider the teams' relative fortunes and depths in the one area that invariably is decisive, starting pitching: While the Red Sox ship out Clay Buchholz because there's no room in their rotation for the young upside righty, the Yankees bring in recycled veteran Sidney Ponson out of desperation.

"As well as we're going to pitch is how well our team is going to do," Boston captain Jason Varitek said.

Not to mention that now New York has got Boston mad. The Big Apple fans totally ignored All-Star protocol, which calls for suspending animosities in favor of league solidarity, by mistreating Red Sox players and staff for two days.

That won't be forgotten, and the Red Sox will spend the rest of the season trying to send a response through the Yankees, particularly livid closer Jonathan Papelbon.

The Tampa Bay Rays? Last week's threat. Before you get upset by that slight, Florida, bear in mind this is precisely what has made -- and could keep -- the Rays one of the year's most uplifting stories, the mocking of expectations.

The Rays' acid test comes early: Bouncing back from the precipitous free-fall in the last eight days before the break.

Said Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay's rookie All-Star third baseman: "We would have taken the spot we're in. We're in a great position. We just have to get back to what we were doing."

If they prove resilient, the Rays remain a force because they play with spirit, hit in the clutch, run defenses into mistakes and pitch well. Angels East, in other words -- no shock given Rays manager Joe Maddon's long tenure as Mike Scioscia's bench coach.

The authentic Angels can't deny a postseason complex about Boston: They have dropped nine consecutive postseason games against the Red Sox, getting outscored 69-27 in the process.

There's good reason for calling it postseason roulette. Still, Minnesota would lack the offense to match up with the Red Sox, and the White Sox playoff fate would depend on which of their starters showed up that week.

If the Red Sox play their total game, they are not going to be denied. That complete game plan includes restless general manager Theo Epstein, who keeps a wary eye on the left wrist injury that has kept designated hitter David Ortiz out of Boston's lineup since May 31.

Ortiz appears to be making a steady recovery from that tendon injury, but if there are any setbacks, Epstein is poised to engineer a deal for a big replacement bat, with Web reports that he's got markers on Atlanta's Mark Teixeira.

"I don't believe this team has hit a really good stride yet," Varitek said. "We've had to mix and put a lot of pieces together. We do miss the big man in our lineup."

They haven't, however, missed a big man in their rotation. Curt Schilling (right shoulder) appears to be Boston history, but Daisuke Matsuzaka has reached the Major League second-year heights predicted for him, Tim Wakefield has pitched some of his most consistent knuckleball at 41, Josh Beckett has been his typical ace self, Jon Lester has been inspiring and even Bartolo Colon has contributed greatly.

The sudden burst back to the top -- gaining 5 1/2 games in one week prior to the break -- could have given the Sox the ignition they needed for a dominant stretch and beyond.

An expert at foiling curses, Boston takes aim at the curse of reigning World Series champions and the attendant pressure.

"There is a little bit of that," allows manager Terry Francona. "You have to be ready to answer it every day, and I mean on the field."

The Red Sox have cleared their throats. They're ready for the daily answer, aiming to leave opponents with unanswered daily prayers.

Said Varitek, "I think we have some things to look forward to."

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