Just another “summer” day at Fenway

I’ve had technical difficulties logging in, combined with work and my son’s birthday party preparations, so this post is coming late.

Current Conditions:

I heard an interesting portion of an interview with Red Sox manager Terry Francona yesterday.
He described how they try to emphasize that every game is important all through the year, so that when they get to the playoffs, the players won’t feel like they have to do anything extra or unusual compared to what they usually do. 

This is very important.  Playoff novices often "press" too much and fail as a result.  They want to put more effort into playoff games, but extra "effort" often comes out as throwing too hard (and losing control of where you throw) or gripping the bat too hard (affecting the path of your swing, causing you to miss the ball), or being too aggressive and going after bad pitches, or trying to catch balls in the outfield that you have little chance of catching, and thus letting the ball get by you instead of keeping it in front of you on a hop, or trying to throw a runner out at home when you have no chance, and you should be hitting the cutoff man and keeping the batter on first base.   Extra effort in baseball can backfire.   What you need is extra focus, extra confidence, extra resiliency, not letting a setback get you down. 

The only thing in the playoffs is that the marathon is over, and you’re now in a sprinting race.  It no longer makes sense to pace yourself.  You do what you have to to win today, and don’t save anything or anybody for the next day.  That’s the managing style that changes.  The playing style must stay the same, except for a little extra concentration and focus.

The Red Sox have the advantage of playing in a semi-playoff atmosphere for every home game of the season, and even in a lot of their road games, since their fans travel to see them when they can’t get into Fenway.  They especially have a playoff atmosphere the 18 or 19 games each year against the Yankees.  An extra advantage this year is that the Red Sox ended the season with a 6 game homestand and started the playoffs with 2 games at home.  That’s the first time that’s happened for the Red Sox in my recent memory.  The playoffs seem more like a continuation of the regular season. 

The weather here in Boston sure is helping that perception.  It’s unusually warm for October!  It feels more like summer, thus, more like a mid-season atmosphere than playoff weather.  By the time the cooler air moves in here on Sunday, the Red Sox will be in warm, sunny Anaheim.   They’ll only get a taste of playoff weather when they come back to Boston after game 4. 

One other team having a "continuation" experience is the Colorado Rockies.  Their run of winning 16 of their last 17 games is incredible, and the one game "playoff" on Monday, was like halfway between regular season and playoff, and was at home, immediately after a home series.  It was followed by travel to Philly on Tuesday and playoff games on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.  They didn’t have time to detect any "gap" between the regular season and playoffs.  It’s been intense for them for a couple of weeks, and they’ve learned how to perform well in that intensity. 

The Red Sox are in more of a "relaxed intensity" atmosphere.  They’re so used to intense atmospheres, that it’s just comfortable now. 

The Games

Game 1 was awesome for Red Sox fans.  Youkilis hit a homer, which erased some doubts as to whether he had gotten enough playing time after his injury to get back in the swing of things.  Papi had a 2 run blast.  Manny scored a run.  The offense seems ready.  The best opposing pitching is likely to shut down a portion of the Sox lineup, but not the entire lineup.  They can drive up the pitch count and get starters out early.   They can steal bases (only 2 or 3 of them, but that’s enough).  They can do what it takes to get past the dominant pitching and find the weak spots and take advantage for a few runs.

Beckett was dominant.  The Red Sox have another positive for the playoffs:  their 3 starting playoff pitchers all have a history of rising to the occasion for big games.  You’ve seen how Beckett (2003 with Florida) and Schilling (2001 with Arizona and 2004 with Boston)  have performed at their best in World Series games. 

This might surprise many, but you should add Matsusaka to that list.  Matsusaka looked nervous in some of his regular season starts, but his history at the World Baseball Classic, and in playoff and championship games in Japanese leagues going back to high school indicate that he tends to improve when the stakes get higher.  His last game of the regular season is indication that that trend is likely to continue in the big leagues. 

Forecast:

Matsusaka might get a little rattled if the Angels get Figgins or other fast runners on base.  He doesn’t like to pitch out of the stretch.  However, being at Fenway will give him a comfort advantage, and I think Varitek will take the extra time to talk with Daisuke and calm him whenever it’s needed.   Another advantage for Matsusaka is that the Angels have never faced him.  That usually benefits the pitcher.

As a result, it’s likely that the Angels won’t have many baserunners the first time through the order.  The key will be walks.  As long as Daisuke doesn’t walk more than 1 batter the first time through the order, he should be OK.  If the last start is any indication, walks won’t be a problem.   I doubt the Angels will do much with Daisuke until the middle innings. 

With an overly-rested bullpen and another day off tomorrow, you’re likely to see Francona be quick to go to the bullpen at the first sign of trouble.  They all need the work!   I think Francona would consider it ideal if he could get 4 or 5 relievers into the game. 

So expect an early small lead from the Red Sox, followed by a quick hook at the first sign of trouble for Matsusaka, followed by the Sox bullpen coming in to pitch 3 or 4 innings.  The question in the bullpen is how first-timers like Delcarmen and Okajima will handle it.  Timlin should be very helpful to them.  Also, Gagne is always a question mark.  Papelbon should be fine, even though he’s a first-timer in the playoffs, too.  Timlin might be the most reliable guy out there tonight, until the others get their jitters out of the way. 

I expect this game to be a close win by the Red Sox.   The home field advantage will allow them to win it.

I expect that the Angels will win their home game on Sunday.  Schilling has been reinventing himself the last 2 or 3 months, and it might take some time for him to get comfortable pitching a playoff game in his "reinvented" style of pitching.  Odds are in the Angels’ favor for Sunday.   Schilling also has had a lot of time off between starts.  He’s likely to be rusty.  I expect an early lead for the Angels on Sunday.  The only question is whether Schilling will settle down, and whether the Sox bats will produce enough to come back. 

Assuming the Sox don’t come back in game 3 for a sweep, and it goes to game 4, expect Beckett to shut the door for a Sox win of the series in 4 games.

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