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Ballpark figures: AL playoffs edition

As Jackie Gleason used to say when kicking off The Honeymooners live from Miami Beach, "And away we go!"

The American League playoffs get under way on Tuesday, although the most highly anticipated series around here — the Boston-Oakland match-up — does not begin until Wednesday (10 p.m. EDT for game one). Here are the late-September "Sporting Eye" Ballpark Figures for the upcoming pair of semifinal series.

• Both AL East teams will be facing opponents with which they have extensive streaks going. For the Yankees in their best-of-five against the Twins, it is a favorable one: New York is 7-0 against Minnesota this season, and has beaten the Metrodomers 13 straight times overall. In the head-to-head series this season — which was already done by May Day — the Pinstripers outscored the Twins, 49-13. Boston has a dubious streak going against the AL West–winning A’s: the Red Sox have not beaten Oakland in a single playoff game since Boston swept the A’s in three straight back in 1975. Well, that long streak just means they haven’t played each other in the post-season in 28 years, right? Wrong, Sal Bando–breath. Perhaps Sox fans have erased from their memories the 1988 and 1990 ALCS, when the bashin’ A’s — with a roster known as much for its hitting (Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco) as it was for its pitching (Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley) — took 4-0 sweeps both years, stamping "return to sender" on two promising Red Sox squads. Those humiliating losses were the last playoff hurrahs in Boston uniforms for Sox icons such as Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Dwight Evans, Marty Barrett, Rich Gedman, Bruce Hurst, and Jim Rice — all remnants of the don’t-go-there 1986 near-miss AL pennant-winners.

• Which teams heading into the ALDS are more battle-tested? Well, none of them, really, although Minnesota has to be dubbed the hottest team right now after putting together a 19-6 record since September 2, thereby breaking the logjam and emerging atop the AL Central’s season-long mediocrity-fest. The Twins did reach 90 wins this year, in spite of the fact that they lost three of their last four at Detroit in the regular season’s final weekend (although that can probably be chalked up to a visiting team with nothing to play for and a home team desperate to avoid a MLB record for futility — which the Tigers did). Oakland’s September schedule included Baltimore, Tampa, Anaheim (twice), Texas (twice), and Seattle (twice), and it went 14-11. New York in September faced Toronto (twice), Boston, Detroit, Tampa (twice), Baltimore (twice), and Chicago and finished 18-9. Boston, with its ledger of Philadelphia, Chicago (twice), New York, Baltimore (twice), Tampa (twice), and Cleveland, finished September at 17-9. Finally, the Twins met Anaheim, Texas, Cleveland (twice), Chicago, and Detroit (twice), emerging 19-7, which included a sparkling 11-game win streak when the Twins needed it the most. Strength of schedule throughout the season definitely goes to the A’s, who had to deal with Seattle, Anaheim, and Texas 19 times each this season, while the Yanks and Sox got 19 each with 86-win Toronto along with Baltimore (71-91) and Tampa (63-99). Minnesota had the easiest log of them all, as it shared its division with the above-average White Sox, overachieving Royals, and bottom-feeders Cleveland (68-94) and Detroit (43-119), playing each of them 19 times.

• During my 19-year tenure in this town, I have never heard the Boston players, media, and fans so convinced this late in the year that the team was going to win it all. In the past, there was always some inherent doubt, voiced or not, about a potential opponent down the road. For the ’86 Sox, it was the specter of the Mets — a regular-season juggernaut who’d won 108 games and took the division by a farcical 21.5 games. In 1988 and 1990 it was the aforementioned A’s (although neither Oakland team won it all those seasons); in the strike-shortened 1995 campaign it was the eventual World Series combatants, Cleveland and Atlanta. Finally, in 1998, it was the possibility of facing the best Yankee team of the past 25 seasons: the 114-48 squad that vanquished all comers en route to its second title in three years. This season, it’s different; the AL landscape is wide-open, with any one of the four teams capable of representing the league in the Fall Classic. Most oddsmakers regard Minnesota as least likely to surface from the playoff scrum, but again, despite their schedule, the Twins were the hottest team in the league since the All-Star game, and established the second-best pitching mark (3.96) and third-best hitting stats (.280) since the break. Boston’s players talk with supreme confidence about their chances, and their pleas to the fans and media to "Cowboy Up" with them has instilled a similar reason to believe among the franchise’s long-suffering fandom. There is little talk of "chokes" or "past history" as the team heads to Oakland, although that could change at the first sign of a bullpen blow-up or an excruciating defeat.

• Those Boston fans mourning the lost chances earlier in the season that could have elevated the team to a division championship should not be so quick to lament their team’s wild-card fate. A month ago it seemed very appealing to win the East and face the AL Central winner; now, with the Twins having played so well and having put together a roster and pitching staff so markedly different from the one that lost seven straight to the Yanks, they could be the team that nobody wants to play. Haughty New York backers who are already looking past their match-up with Minnesota would do well to look back even to just a year ago, when the heavily favored Yanks were eliminated in four games to the wild-card-winning Angels. And for the Red Sox, drawing the A’s in the first round is not necessarily such a bad thing, either. The two teams are remarkably different in personality despite their similar records (Boston’s 95-67 versus Oakland’s 96-66). Should the Boston bats come alive against the vaunted A’s starters, the A’s would seem to have little offensive firepower to counter, and the series could be a quick one. On the other hand, if Boston cannot figure out number-one starter Tim Hudson on Wednesday and Barry Zito on Thursday, Oakland would no doubt have the upper hand — although the series could still conceivably go the distance, given the Sox’ season-long history at Fenway. All in all, while a Yankees-Red Sox ALCS would be much prayed for, it’s rare that these short best-of-fives come off as planned or predicted, so don’t be surprised to see an Oakland-Minnesota, New York–Oakland, or Boston-Minnesota battle for the pennant.

• In 1946, a hobbled Ted Williams (elbow) was unable to help the Sox in the Fall Classic; in 1967, the absence of Tony C (beanball in August) probably contributed to the Sox’ seven-game loss; in 1975, it was Jim Rice (broken hand suffered via a HBP in the season’s final week); in 1986, fourth starter Tom Seaver (ankle) wasn’t available. Could Trot Nixon’s pulled calf muscle be the key injury that will make or break this year’s post-season run?

• I like the idea of the Red Sox’ coaching staff deciding to let third starter Tim Wakefield (11-7, 4.09 ERA) start game two in Oakland instead of second starter Derek Lowe (17-7, 4.47). I am not the first to document this, but the spacious confines of Network Coliseum Field is made for pop-up/fly-ball pitcher such as Wakefield, while Lowe — whose home mark of 11-2, 3.21 ERA is among the best in the majors — is better suited to the Fenway turf because of his penchant for inducing ground-ball outs. I will not second-guess Grady and his staff for this decision after the fact, since it is sound, and also shows that the Red Sox brain trust did its homework. But Lowe might take it as a slap in the face, and the idea of flip-flopping starters at this late stage goes against the book.

• So much will ride on whether Hudson can shut down the Sox attack as he did back in August in a 2-0 home masterpiece. That two-hitter was the apex of Hudson’s season (and sparked wails of woe back East as the Sox kicked off that critical West Coast swing), and followed sparkling months of solid performances (ERAs through the summer: May, 2.74; June, 2.83; July, 1.35; August, 1.62). His September was fairly down to earth, though: a 2-3 record with a 4.85 ERA, including a September 3 outing when he was bombed for five earned runs on eight hits in just three innings of work at Baltimore. When he takes the hill on Wednesday night, he will not have pitched for a full week, and may be rusty. Meanwhile, his counterpart, Pedro Martinez, has gone 4-0 in September with an ungodly 0.82 ERA, and will most likely be voted the AL Pitcher of the Month. If Pedro wins game one and the Sox bats can get to Zito as Seattle did over this past weekend (four runs in five innings), then Boston has a real chance to steal ’em both in the Bay Area and come home needing to take just one more.

I have great respect for the Oakland pitching staff, but Boston’s emotion, offense, and starting pitching one-through-three — along with a limited bullpen consisting of Mike Timlin, Alan Embree, Scott Williamson, and (a big if) BK Kim — should give the Sox the upper hand in this short series, especially if Pedro pitches as he has done in the past seven outings and gets two starts in this series.

But I don’t think he’ll have to: Boston in three (maybe four). The other series: I think it’ll go the distance, surprisingly, and Mussina will be the hero or goat in game five in the Bronx.

It’s time to ride herd into the American League playoffs: giddyap!

"Sporting Eye" runs Mondays and Fridays at BostonPhoenix.com. Christopher Young can be reached at cyoung@phx.com

Issue Date: September 29, 2003
"Sporting Eye" archives: 2003 |2002
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