10/06/09 12:00 AM EST
Red Sox counting on their power arms
Top of rotation, back of bullpen look to bring heat vs. Angels
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
It starts with the co-aces at the top of the rotation in Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, who both sit in the mid-90s with their heat and have secondary pitches that make the fastballs look faster. Clay Buchholz, the blossoming No. 3 starter, also relies on his heater, though he mixes in a plus curveball and changeup.
And when it comes time for manager Terry Francona to go to the bullpen, the Red Sox have a heat-heat-heat finish trio of Billy Wagner, Daniel Bard and, yes, closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has never allowed a run in 16 career postseason outings.
On those chilly October nights of recent years, high-octane gas has often led to championship glory. The Red Sox hope that will be the case for them, beginning with their best-of-five American League Division Series against the Angels.
"I think it's proven that [power arms] are a successful type of pitcher that has done well in the postseason," said Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell. "If you look back at recent teams that have won or gone deep in the postseason, there's been a reliance on power-type arms. That's not to say that you can't win with a mixture of styles.
"On the flip side of that, Hideki [Okajima] has been extremely successful and been outstanding in the two postseasons prior to this season. I think what it ultimately comes down to is you have to consistently get hitters out with stuff inside the strike zone."
But stuff inside the strike zone is more difficult to hit when it is traveling faster.
Veteran third baseman Mike Lowell has two World Series rings (2003 Marlins and '07 Red Sox) that were won largely on the strength of power pitching.
"Not to take anything away from those finesse pitchers, but if that day, you don't have your great stuff, your power arms seem to be able to get away with a little more," said Lowell. "No matter what, it's hard to hit 95 [mph] unless you're throwing it down the middle. But I think there's a little more leeway for a guy with a power arm to battle through a couple of innings where he doesn't have sharp stuff and make an adjustment, than a guy who doesn't have velocity, who might get touched up pretty early."
Boston's power-packed staff is especially vital against an Angels team that must be limited as much as possible, or else they will turn baseball games into track meets.
The Angels finished third in the AL with 148 stolen bases.
"If you don't let anyone on, you don't really have that issue," said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "I think if we pitch the ball well, we'll be OK. I think that that's the most important thing -- is that we throw the ball well. We've played them -- we understand that they take the extra base. We understand that they have guys who will put pressure on the outfielders and trying to take the extra bases and run. It's something that we should be prepared for."
The Angels have used the same running style in years past, only to be eliminated by the Red Sox in the 2004, '07 and '08 ALDS. The reason, in all three cases, is that the Red Sox's staff was dominant.
They have the horses to do so again. Lester, who didn't allow the Angels an earned run in two starts in last year's ALDS, takes the ball in Game 1. Beckett, with the exception of last year when he was hindered by an oblique injury, has dominated postseasons past. This is Buchholz's first crack at October, but he will try to calm his nerves with his electric stuff.
"What sets the tone is starting pitching, and we have a pretty good threesome we can throw out there," said Varitek. "We have two horses at the front. That bodes well."
But in the postseason, it always seems to come down just as much to bullpens, and the Red Sox have a good one. Papelbon has been an All-Star all four seasons he's been in the Majors and his fastball looks faster than the radar gun readings because of the explosion at the end. Bard throws 100 at times, and sits between 97 and 99. Wagner, even after Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, still hums it in there in the mid-90s.
Are a collection of power arms a big advantage in October?
"It only helps if you throw third strikes and get people out," Wagner said. "But we've got a lot of talent. It's a luxury to have."
Has Wagner ever been part of such a loaded staff?
"Not quite as deep as these guys. This is about as good as it gets, I believe," said the 38-year-old lefty.
With 1,230 strikeouts, the Red Sox finished second in the AL this season. Against the Angels, the ability to miss bats comes in handy for the simple fact that when they make contact, they immediately put pressure on the defense.
What can the Red Sox do when the Angels do reach base?
"From a pitcher's standpoint, we've got to learn to control that tempo and be unpredictable from an unloading or a holding of the ball standpoint, to not fall into any type of predictable patterns in terms of the time elapsed to the time a pitcher comes set to when he first makes his move to deliver the ball to home plate," Farrell said. "We're well aware of their style of play. I wouldn't solely put their style of play just on the running game. They're a much deeper, much more powerful lineup than maybe ones we've faced before. We have the utmost respect for their capabilities and we'll be prepared to deal with that."
Deal is exactly what Boston's pitchers plan on doing.
"We have some guys that can dial it up a little bit, and I think because of that, your margin for error is a little bit greater than the finesse guys," said Red Sox left fielder Jason Bay. "During the playoffs, your margin for error is less. You don't have that luxury of having that one bad start or two. Luckily for us, we have some good power guys."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.