Aces set to clash in Sox-Halos opener
Beckett, Lackey hope to set right tone for their respective clubs
BOSTON -- They've both been there at the finish, pitching and winning the ultimate game, while taking their teams to the last step toward a World Series championship.This time, the Angels' John Lackey and the Red Sox's Josh Beckett will be in charge of the first step of a potential return to the mountain top, in a Game 1 Texas shootout that may play a disproportionate role in determining the eventual survivor of the American League Division Series. Lackey, the rookie starter and winner of Game 7 against the Giants in 2002, and Beckett, who pitched a shutout for the Marlins at Yankee Stadium in the ensuing fall's conclusive Game 6, will face each other at Fenway Park on Wednesday in the 6:37 p.m. ET opener of the ALDS. At the end of season-long dominations that led to this, the Red Sox and Angels will open the playoffs in altered states. Managers Terry Francona of the Red Sox and Mike Scioscia of the Angels are filling out their rosters, mindful of the latitude to take advantage of new rules that allow teams to revise their casts between the Division and Championship Series. Tim Wakefield, the veteran knuckleballer likely to be rendered ineffective as a long reliever by a sore back, was left off Boston's roster. His place on the 10-man pitching staff went to lefty Jon Lester, while a third catcher (Kevin Cash) was added to the roster. "We didn't want to put Wake in a situation that wouldn't be fair to him or the team," said Francona, hopeful of being able to return the 17-game winner to his starting rotation before October runs its course. Scioscia decided to omit Gary Matthews, the sparkling center fielder who tweaked his left knee in the penultimate series of the season. The final decision was made based on Matthews' workout on Tuesday afternoon at Fenway Park, after which he still seemed unlikely to be able to play by Game 2 on Friday. Rookie Reggie Willits steps into Matthews' shoes for the ALDS. Right fielder Vladimir Guerrero (right triceps inflammation) still isn't ready to play defensively, but he can be utilized as a designated hitter. "He threw much better than at any time the last 10 days," Scioscia said at the outset of the Angels' workout. "So he can be an option [in right] later in the series." Few have thrown better all this season than Beckett, the Majors' only 20-game winner, and Lackey, who won 19 and became the Angels' first right-hander to lead the league in ERA (3.01) since Dean Chance in 1964. Abilene, Texas' Lackey and Spring, Texas' Beckett are both brash, confident, packing hard heat and competing with hard heads -- everything you would expect from the Lone Star State, and everything Los Angeles and Boston would want on the mound in the opener of the shortest series.
"[Lackey's] got an ability to channel his emotions and make pitches that matter," Scioscia said of his guy. "He's a confident competitor.""He's a young guy who has worked so hard and matured so much to become the pitcher we needed to have," Francona said of his own man. "That's why when a young pitcher joins us, we point to Beckett and say, 'Follow him.'" Now their entire teams have to follow them. Their hometowns are 300 miles apart, so they have no shared history. But now they have a shared mission. Once Wednesday night's opener is played out, the rest of the ALDS will have a plot to follow. In MLB's prior 80 five-game postseason series, the Game 1 winner has gone on to 32 three-game sweeps, calculating to 40 percent of the time. That's precisely the type of bean counting which Lackey and Beckett would scoff at. Asked what he can bring to this table from his '03 postseason success, Beckett thought long and hard and finally said, "Nothing. You just have to go out there and execute pitches." Both would be comfortable wearing 10-gallon hats and chaps, instead of caps and cleats, to the mound. Yet they can be thrown from the saddle. And, in fact, both have been -- in these circumstances. Lackey's breakthrough accomplishments have come despite the Red Sox. He lost both of his starts against Boston, with 20 hits allowed and an 8.38 ERA in 9 2/3 innings, dropping his career record against the Sox to 1-6. Lackey is 1-4 in Fenway Park, where he most recently had a Tom Glavine moment, allowing six runs in the first inning of an 8-4 loss on Aug. 17. More bean counting. "This time of the year doesn't matter where we're at," Lackey said. "I'll pitch anywhere this time of the year. I'll certainly show up for tomorrow night's game and give it a run. If I pitch up to my abilities, I like our chances." The opponent matches up better for Beckett, who has won both of his career decisions against the Angels, and this season restricted them to just two runs in 13 innings on the way to becoming the league's only 20-game winner. But not the location: His ERA (4.17) here was nearly double of that on the road, where he was 11-2. In their style, the Angels will try to drive Beckett to system overload by pressuring him on the bases. For that, of course, they will need baserunners. "What's going to be important is to be able to hold the runners," said disabled Boston reliever Brendan Donnelly (reconstructive right elbow surgery on July 31), who spent the previous five seasons in Scioscia's bullpen. "If we control the running game, they have to play American League baseball, which isn't their strength." The Angels' aggression will get a fight from the Red Sox, whose offense has become progressively more creative in four seasons under Francona's direction. Boston's home run totals, formerly its signature ploy, have diminished five straight seasons, from 238 in 2003 to 166 this season. Yet these Red Sox scored 47 more runs on 26 fewer long balls than they had last season. "We'll stay aggressive, do the things we've done all year," said Julio Lugo, the shortstop who is one of the Red Sox's most versatile offensive weapons. His 33 stolen bases led a team which totaled 96 steals -- Boston's most since '95, when it last captured the AL East. Coincidence? Maybe not. "Speed creates so many problems," Lugo said. "You hit the ball in the infield, I know it puts pressure on the infielders; they know they have to catch and throw the ball clean." If the Red Sox are conscious of leveling the track and thinking too much about doing their own running, they're welcome to it, Angels catcher Mike Napoli seemed to suggest. "That's how we play. That's our game," Napoli said. "Their game is pretty much smashing the ball all over the place. If they're gonna try running and stuff, maybe they'll get guys thrown out, then who knows what'll happen."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.