Red Sox looking for some 2004 magic
Boston's '07 comeback bid to go through tougher pitching
CLEVELAND -- There was a lot of talk about 2004 around Jacobs Field on Wednesday. That was to be expected, given the epic work that the Boston Red Sox accomplished then.
But this is not 2004. You know how you'll be able to tell, apart from a simple glance at the calendar? If this American League Championship Series goes to a Game 7, the Red Sox aren't going to be facing Kevin Brown.
The harsh truth is that this October's opponent, the Cleveland Indians, have more pitching, in greater quality and quantity, than the Red Sox's 2004 ALCS opponent, the New York Yankees. The 2004 Red Sox staged baseball's only postseason comeback from a 3-0 deficit, against their historical nemeses, and their achievement will live as long as the national pastime is played.
But along the way, the Yankees basically ran out of pitching. Barring an epidemic of overnight injuries, that isn't going to happen to this Cleveland squad. The 3-1 deficit that the Red Sox face now is clearly one victory better than their 2004 situation. But their overall circumstances might be even less promising.
On Boston's side of the argument, there are still eight Red Sox players who went through the 2004 experience, so they know firsthand that nothing is impossible. That also means that there are 17 players who didn't go through the experience firsthand, but all they have to do is ask.
Manager Terry Francona did a masterful job of keeping the focus on the classic one-game-at-a-time approach in 2004. There is an excellent chance that he won't have forgotten how that goes.
And best of all, for the moment, the Red Sox have Josh Beckett starting Game 5 on Thursday night. Not only is Beckett the Majors' only 20-game winner this year, not only has he already had two dominant postseason starts this October, but he was in exactly this same situation in 2003. His Florida Marlins were down, 3-1, in the National League Championship Series to the Chicago Cubs. Beckett responded superbly, pitching a two-hit shutout. The Marlins, of course, went on to defeat the Cubs and eventually won the World Series, in which Beckett was named Most Valuable Player in the six-game victory over the Yankees.
So there are genuine positives to be found in the current plight. The Red Sox's coaching staff will attempt to maximize those, in order to create an all-things-are-possible atmosphere.
"I think it's our responsibility to try to make every positive factor in there be positive," Francona said Wednesday. "You know what, every year is different. Shoot, every inning in every game is different, but I think you certainly try to draw upon experiences, and again, draw positives wherever you can. That's our responsibility.
"You play games out and you end up kind of landing where you are, so it's our responsibility to go from there and make it good."
A determined, yet calm atmosphere would be preferable. All of the pertinent comments point in that direction. "It's going to be a tough task," said Boston hitting coach Dave Magadan. "But I'm sure with what's at stake for us, we'll rise to the occasion."
That's all on the plus side and it's not an inconsiderable amount. On the other side, in a very real way, these Indians are not as likely to go away as those Yankees were.
The performance of Brown, the Yankees' Game 7 starter in 2004, was an epically bad postseason piece of work. He was 39, he had a balky back and he had lasted only two innings in a dismal Game 3 start. But that performance was somewhat obscured by the fact that a flood of Yankees runs led to a 19-8 New York victory at Fenway Park to give them a seemingly commanding 3-0 lead.
After the Red Sox charged back to tie the 2004 ALCS, the Yankees didn't like their other options and sent Brown to the mound again. He gave up five earned runs in 1 1/3 innings. He was not the answer, unless the question was: How can the Red Sox score a bunch of runs and turn this history-making event into a laugher?
There won't be any Kevin Browns getting the ball for the Indians in the rest of this series. If the series went to Game 7, their likely starter would be Jake Westbrook, the winning pitcher in Game 3, a man who, when he is on, has one of the best sinkers in the game.
Long odds for Red Sox
But before that, the Indians will send out C.C. Sabathia in Game 5, Beckett's closest competitor in the AL Cy Young Award competition. Sabathia has potentially overpowering stuff, but he has had two substandard postseason starts, one in the opener of this series. Does this mean that Sabathia is just not an October pitcher? Or does it mean that he is overdue for a really superb start? No one will know for certain until Thursday night, but those who have seen Sabathia work over the course of this season would lean toward the second alternative.
And if the series goes to Game 6, Fausto Carmona would start for Cleveland. He had a splendid start against the Yankees in the ALDS and an inadequate performance against the Red Sox in Game 2 of the ALCS. He has perhaps the best power sinker in the game, he won 19 games in the regular season, and he shut out Boston for eight innings in a July start.
And all the while the attempted Boston comeback is occurring, the Cleveland bullpen will be ready to thwart this attempt. The turning point in this series came in Game 2, when the Indians' bullpen pitched six scoreless innings and the Red Sox's bullpen eventually imploded. Since the fifth inning of Game 2, the Red Sox have only scored five runs, in part because of fine starts by Westbrook and Paul Byrd, but also because of stalwart relief work.
And on the Boston side, questions have been raised about Beckett suffering from back stiffness after his Game 1 start. Francona's response to these questions were somewhat cryptic on Wednesday. Beckett will pitch Thursday night, but if he isn't completely right, the difficulty level goes from monumental to semi-impossible.
If the Red Sox persevere and get back to another Game 7, their starting pitcher would be Daisuke Matsuzaka. Once viewed as the savior from the Far East, he has been unable to get out of the fifth inning in both of his postseason starts.
All in all, what do we have here? This is a commendable Boston club: strong in pitching, the best 3-4 lineup combination in baseball, and it has done the seemingly impossible before. But in a way, it will be more difficult to come back from 3-1 down against the 2007 Cleveland Indians than it was to come back from a 3-0 hole against the 2004 New York Yankees.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.