Will The Sox Think Themselves Out Of October?

BOSTON—By any standard, the Red Sox should be the favorite to win the World Series.

They finished with the best record in baseball and led the AL East for the final 166 days of the season. They survived various valleys following a scorching start to hold off the Yankees in the AL East.

They have two of the best big-game pitchers of this generation starting within the first three games of the AL Division Series against the Angels. And Terry Francona should be able to field something close to his optimal lineup for tonight's Game One at Fenway Park.

So why does it feel as if something's not quite right? Why does it feel as if the Sox will be one of the seven teams that enter the winter disappointed instead of the one holding the World Series trophy aloft late this month or in early November?

Maybe it's because being the best over 162 games is no guarantee at all of postseason success. Since 1995, the first year of the wild card era, the team that finished with the best overall record has won the World Series just once—the 1998 Yankees, who won 114 regular season games and lost just twice in the postseason. The no. 1 seed in a league has made the World Series less than half the time—five times apiece in the AL and NL.

This year, only two games separate the four AL playoff teams—the smallest margin between playoff teams in either league in the wild card era. "I think the whole league is a lot closer than maybe it used to be," Francona said earlier this week. "I don't know that that's good for us, trying to win games. But it's good for baseball."

So with that in mind, it makes sense for the Sox to leave no stone unturned in their scouting and playoff preparation. Except lately it feels as if the Sox are searching beyond the stones and digging to China.

No one's harkening for a return to the seat-by-his-pants stylings of Grady Little. And the Sox should exploit every advantage presented by their almost limitless budget and Ivy League-educated front office minds. And as has been suggested on our message boards, the brevity of the ALDS means it might be a waste of energy to fret over the last couple spots on the roster.

Still: At some point, don't the Sox run the risk of paralysis by analysis? To watch the Sox over the last two weeks—and to hear the rationale over the last two days for the composition of the 25-man ALDS roster and the order of the three-man rotation—is to wonder if they're going to outthink themselves right out of the playoffs.

Kevin Cash hit .111 with 13 strikeouts in 27 at-bats. He caught 82 innings this year, the most by a Sox third-string catcher since 2001. His ability to catch the knuckleball is of no relevance now that Tim Wakefield isn't on the roster. Yet the Sox will carry Cash as their third catcher because a trio of backstops allows the Sox to maximize the value of the speedy Jacoby Ellsbury.

Except no playoff team stole more bases this year than the Angels (139). And Varitek was slightly better at containing the opposition's running game (he threw out 19 of 63 basestealers, a success rate of 23.2 percent) than Mirabelli and Cash combined (they threw out 12 of 56 basestealers, a success rate of 21.4 percent).

So to pull Varitek in anything other than a blowout would weaken the Sox behind the plate—and at it, where Varitek hit .255 with 17 homers and 68 RBI.

Then there's the decision to start Daisuke Matsuzaka in Game Two of the ALDS instead of Curt Schilling, who will start Game Three Sunday in Anaheim. There'd be no better candidate to start the pivotal Game Two than Schilling, who has a 2.06 ERA in 15 career postseason starts.

In addition, Matsuzaka's road splits (4.02 ERA and 126 strikeouts in 112 innings) are far better than his home splits (8-4 with 75 strikeouts in 92 2/3 innings). Francona said the Sox liked going with Matsuzaka in Game Two because the Angels haven't faced him this season and are unfamiliar with him.

Well, wouldn't they be just as unfamiliar with him in Game Three? And doesn't relying on an opponent's unfamiliarity with a pitcher run counter to the idea of extensive scouting and preparation?

As for Schilling, Francona said the Sox were comfortable with him in Game Three because he's pitched better on extra rest this season. That makes sense: Schilling is nearly 41 years old and he missed six weeks this season with shoulder woes.

But discounting his return from the DL Aug.6, he made one start this year on more than five days rest. And if he were to start Game Two on Friday, he'd be doing so on nine days rest. If two days of rest is going to make that big a difference for Schilling, can the Sox count on him for more than one start per series? Or are they more worried about his shoulder than they're letting on?

The over-analysis of the ALDS is symbolic of the seriousness that's enveloped the Sox all season. The Sox have played and acted much of the season like a team that's gone 86 years without a title instead of two years. These Sox are far more sensitive to enemies seen and, mostly, unseen—note to Dustin Pedroia: You're short, overlooked, underestimated but also the likely AL Rookie of the Year, so it's time to ditch the Rodney Dangerfield routine—than the 2004 edition ever was.

But who knows? Goofy and carefree won it all in 2004. Maybe it's time for stone-faced and surly to win a title. And if that's the case, I'll have been the one who engaged in foolish over-analysis.

Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752. To subscribe to Diehard or diehardmagazine.com, please CLICK HERE.

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