10/08/07 11:41 PM ET
ALCS foes defined by pitching
While Red Sox, Tribe can hit, both here due to superior hurlers
By record, in fact, the Boston Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians are the two best teams in baseball. When they get together in the AL Championship Series, beginning on Friday at Fenway Park, many people will say that they are in effect playing for the World Series championship, because there are no National League teams good enough to defeat either club. But remembering the example of the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, let us not get ahead of ourselves.
It is enough that these two clubs have demonstrated over the six-month marathon season and then in the pressurized atmosphere of October baseball, that they have reached this lofty level on merit.
The Yankees aren't here? Well, that's because each of these teams bested them at one time or another. The Red Sox built an immense early division lead and then held off a late charge to capture the AL East title. The Indians then defeated the Yankees soundly, winning three of four in a Division Series.
Why are these teams the best, and the best-suited to compete at this level? They have what it takes to win in October -- pitching.
The Red Sox finished with the AL's best team ERA and the second-best team ERA in the Majors. And many reasonable people would argue that Boston's 3.87 was more impressive than San Diego's 3.70, precisely because it was achieved in the more difficult circumstance of facing American League hitters.
The Indians were not far behind, finishing third in the AL in team ERA and fifth overall at 4.07. Plus, the Indians put together their best baseball at precisely the right time. Beginning in mid-August, they went on a 25-8 tear, and when it appeared that the defending AL champion Detroit Tigers were making a move, they took three straight from the Tigers to make the AL Central title their own.
This is not a typical Boston team, because its greatest strength is pitching. But that just makes its chances better at this time of year. Look at the rotation: Josh Beckett was the Majors' only 20-game winner this season. Daisuke Matsuzaka was not an instant legend in making the transition to North American baseball, but he was a 15-game winner, and the potential of his stuff was clear to one and all. Curt Schilling is one of the most successful postseason pitchers of this generation.
In the bullpen, lefty Hideki Okajima, after a lights-out first half and a few bumps in the road, recovered his best form in time for the postseason push. Closer Jonathan Papelbon is simply one of the best in the game.
The Indians have not one, but two genuine AL Cy Young Award candidates, the one you could have expected, C.C. Sabathia, and the one you would not have expected, Fausto Carmona. Carmona's emergence may have been the single biggest factor in the Indians' success this season. He led the AL in ERA, a pure and sure measure of his worth.
The Indians have two of the best setup men in the business this season -- Rafael Betancourt and lefty Rafael Perez. These two have made late-inning rallies by the opposition somewhere between highly improbable and non-existent. Joe Borowski does not have the numbers of some other closers, except for the bottom-line saves number -- 45, leading the American League.
None of that diminishes in any way the work of the offense of either club. Both lineups are notable for not only power but distribution. The usual Boston run-production tandem of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez has been supplemented in a large way by the contributions of Mike Lowell, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, and the late-season brilliance of rookie Jacoby Ellsbury.
For the Indians, Travis Hafner had what for him was a modest season, meaning that he had "only" 100 RBIs. But Victor Martinez had a truly superior season, and Grady Sizemore is one of the finest young players in the game. Asdrubal Cabrera's emergence at second base, and hitting second in the order, has been a key factor for the Indians. There has been plenty of clutch help coming from whichever Cleveland player needed to supply it.
These clubs are capable of bashing the ball, or finding smaller ways to score. And both are sure-handed in the field. But in October baseball, it is the pitching that either sends you happily along your way, or sends you home.
That is the main reason that these two clubs have come this far and have legitimate hopes of going much further. They have the kind of pitching that can shut down even the best of lineups. In general, this makes them among the game's elite. In specific, it puts them in the ALCS, while the Yankees are out.
The Red Sox and the Indians are here because, basically, they're supposed to be here. What happens next ought to be very, very good.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.