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10/03/05 5:26 PM ET

Red Sox not resting on their laurels

Defending champions are powerful and vulnerable

CHICAGO -- Anyone expecting the Boston Red Sox to swagger into the 2005 postseason like conquerors of the known world is, of course, missing the point.

The Red Sox are the defending World Series champions, winners over the despised Yankees in a comeback for the ages, sweepers of the mighty Cardinals, creators of a new and immeasurably more enjoyable chapter in Boston baseball history.

But all of this didn't change the essential character of this group, which has nothing to do with swaggering self-importance and much to do with relishing the next game regardless of circumstances.

And the other thing is, this Boston team is both powerful and vulnerable.

The Red Sox are the favorites in the American League Division Series that opens Tuesday at U.S. Cellular Field. They are not impressed with this status.

"We're the Wild Card team, so I guess we're the team that snuck in," said Matt Clement, who will start the opener for the Red Sox.

"I have us even," manager Terry Francona said. "Zero-zero."

On Monday, when the managers met the media, there was a line of questioning that implied that the 2005 Red Sox were in an improved spot, largely because of what they had accomplished in 2004. Francona wasn't having much of that, either.

"Well, at this time last year, we hadn't won anything," the manager said. "We're basically in the same position we were in last year. I don't know if there's supposed to be a big difference. What happened last year was great, but it was so long ago.

"Guys get tired of me saying: 'Let's stay in the present,' things like that, but that's what we try to do. We try to stay in the present, learn from the past, try not to get too far ahead so you won't feel overwhelmed. And I think that's how you have success."

As much as the Red Sox accomplished last year, as much as their lineup now is truly imposing, it is difficult to enter a postseason with any sort of smugness, when it appears that the other guys have better pitching than you do. The White Sox, of course, do not have the postseason pedigree of the Red Sox. But by the 2005 numbers, the White Sox do have the superior pitching.

So when Francona was asked if this Series essentially came down to Boston's hitting strength versus Chicago's pitching strength, he quickly shifted the terms of the discussion.

"I hope it's pitching versus pitching," the manager said. "We really love our lineup. Over 162 games, our lineup has been pretty special. But to win the playoffs, we're going to need pitching.

"If you hear the White Sox talking about their pitching a week from now, I may not be sitting here smiling. Pitching is very important, especially when you get into a shorter series."

This series offers a variety of possibilities so wide that it almost seems too large for one first-round matchup. It could be a series dominated by the hitting of the Red Sox, or it could be a series dominated by the pitching of the White Sox. Or it could be one of those compelling events in which you get some of both sorts of domination and it takes all five games to figure out what happens next.

The big difference this year is that the Red Sox are favored in the postseason because they are the Red Sox. You didn't see much of that occurring over the previous 86 years. But now they have done it, they have won it, and the baseball world must see them with a new sort of vision.

Everything else being equal, the team with the statistically superior pitching, which is clearly the White Sox here, would be the favorite. Baseball tradition demands that approach. But then baseball tradition wasn't making any successful demands when the Red Sox were looking at the three-game deficit against the Yanks last October.

Whatever else happens here, you can count on the Red Sox inhabiting the moment, or "staying in the present," as the skipper says. It is difficult to become complacent when you had to reach the postseason on the last day of the regular season, as the Wild Card team. And resting on their past accomplishments, as glorious as those accomplishments were, is definitely not a trait of this Boston team.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.