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Notes: Damon excelling quietly
10/04/2004 11:13 PM ET
ANAHEIM -- Maybe it's all hidden underneath the thick beard or overshadowed by the long hair that has taken only the most modest of trims over the last several months. There has to be some reason why the prolific season being put forth by Red Sox leadoff man Johnny Damon has been such a well-kept secret.

In fact, Red Sox manager Terry Francona thinks so highly of what his center fielder has done that he brought it up, unsolicited, at Monday's press conference on the eve of Game 1 of the Division Series against the Angels.

Francona was in the middle of answering a question about star slugger Manny Ramirez when he shifted gears.

"You know, the surprising thing to me this year is all this talk about good players and impact seasons. I haven't heard people mention Johnny Damon's name as much as I think is deserved," said Francona. "He ended up with 94 RBIs from the leadoff spot. I mean, he has had an incredible year. I am a little surprised people haven't talked about him more because his impact on our ballclub has been unbelievable."

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Aside from those 94 RBIs, Damon also produced a career high of 20 homers, hit .304, stole 19 bases and had an on-base percentage of .380.

The last time Damon had a season quite this good was 2000, his final year in Kansas City.

Last year, while the Red Sox were putting up record-setting numbers at the plate, Damon had a modest year, hitting .273 with 12 homers and 67 RBIs. What has been the key for him this year?

"I think I got my balance back at the plate," Damon said. "The 90-mph fastballs don't look like 95 anymore. I'm not going out to get the ball. I'm kind of staying back and letting the ball get to me, and actually kind of slowing down everything. I've been a little more aggressive at the plate, and therefore I've been able to strike the ball a little bit better."

He is the catalyst of the offense, getting the engine revved up for the lethal bats of Ramirez and David Ortiz.

"He's been one of the most valuable players in all of baseball," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "He's kind of done it all and he gives us a little bit of an added dimension that we don't get from other parts of our lineup. He's had a fantastic year."

Containing Vladdie: Game 1 starter Curt Schilling and the rest of the Red Sox pitchers will be searching for ways to hold down Vladimir Guerrero, who fueled Anaheim's run to the American League West title with a torrid finish.

"Well, he is Barry Bonds with less patience," said Schilling. "He is just one of those guys where it's black and white. You have to go and make great pitches to get him out and you have to do that in different locations and different spots with different velocities on a consistent basis, and keep the barrel and bat away from the baseball."

Francona is plenty familiar with Guerrero from his days managing the Phillies.

"There is not a pitch you throw that he doesn't think he can hit," said Francona. "You make great pitches down that are almost bouncing, and he hits it off the wall."

Kapler to start in right: With left-hander Jarrod Washburn starting Game 1 for the Angels, Red Sox right fielder Trot Nixon will open the postseason on the bench. Nixon seldom starts against left-handers. Instead, Gabe Kapler will be the right fielder. Nixon is 0-for-9 lifetime against Washburn. In fact, Nixon had just 15 at-bats against lefties all season, getting two hits.

Playing ahead: Against the nasty Angels' bullpen, which features the overpowering Francisco Rodriguez and veteran closer Troy Percival, the Sox know that coming from behind isn't likely to be a recipe for success in this series.

"That's been our success toward the end of the season. We score early and keep on scoring," said Damon.

Roster will be set on Tuesday: The Sox had no announcements regarding their Division Series roster. Instead, they will wait until the deadline Tuesday morning to set the 25-man squad. The biggest question mark is whether right-handed setup man Scott Williamson will be part of the mix. The reliever has battled elbow problems all year, and it isn't clear if he's regained enough arm strength to be part of the roster. Other players on the bubble are pitchers Curtis Leskanic, Terry Adams and Ramiro Mendoza, and position players Kevin Youkilis, David McCarty and Rickey Gutierrez.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.