On March 12th of this year, I wrote in my weekly column ‘ A World Series played in Fenway Park and Wrigley Field could be the classic series of all time and these two franchises, both of whom went without for so long, seem poised to give it to us this year. ‘
On Wednesday of this past week, the Red Sox were three games ahead of the second place Yankees in the Eastern Division of the American League with just 11 games left to play and the Cubs were 3½ games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers in the Central Division of the National League with just 12 games to play. Almost anything can happen in those last few games but both teams seem to be a lock for the post season.
My prediction that the Red Sox will go all the way to the World Series has drawn me a great deal of flack, particularly with my friends at Dutch Elm Golf, where I seem to spend a large proportion of my days this time of the year. They haven’t been as vocal since the Sox moved into first place to stay on August 1st but even the most avid Sox fans still have doubts and still take me to task when they lose.
At this point, it seems that the Sox will play Houston or Cleveland, in the American League Division Series and, assuming they get by whoever they play, will play either the other or a Wild Card team in the American League Championship Series. Those of you that are offensive minded will point out that the Astros, on Wednesday, had the highest batting average, .282, in all of baseball, that Cleveland had the second highest, .263, in the American League and that Boston’s .259 was the fifth best in the league. In addition, the Astros led all of baseball with 818 runs scored, Cleveland was fourth in the league with 763 and the Sox were sixth at 729.
To make it worse, Houston had the highest slugging percentage in baseball at .479, Cleveland was second in the league at .450 and the Sox were next to last in the league at .407. Of course, the Astros had the third most home runs, 222, in all of baseball while Cleveland was 15th with 197 and Boston was 27th in baseball and last in the American League with 156.
With all this evidence against them, how can anybody, even I, continue to predict that the Sox will join the Cubs in the Fall Classic? The answer is very simple, one word, pitching.
Earl Weaver, the great Orioles’ Manager once said ‘ The only thing that matters is what happens on that little hump out in the middle of the field.’ Pitching is always rated between 75 and 90 percent of baseball and that is even more true in the short five and seven game series that make up the Playoffs and World Series.
The Sox have two of the top starters in the league in Chris Sale and Drew Pomeranz. Eduardo Rodriguez had given them two quality starts out of three in September and Rick Porcello had shown signs of regaining last season’s form with a fine performance on September 17th. Despite his poor results in his last two outings, Doug Fister had put together four consecutive impressive performances before that. In their first 16 games in September, the starters produced quality starts in eight of their ten wins and, in the six that they lost, the offense produced just 15 runs, an average of 2½ runs per loss.
They also have perhaps the best closer in baseball in Craig Kimbrel. They have, by far, the deepest bull pen in baseball. Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree, Joe Kelly, Addison Reed, Robbie Scott, Carson Smith, Brandon Workman and Austin Maddox and company have compiled the second best relief ERA in either league.
With Sale, Pomeranz and Rodriguez and that extremely deep bullpen, Red Sox pitching could carry the them deep into the Playoffs. The key is management of that abundance of pitching. Sale has, as in other years, weakened as the season went on, never winning more games than he loses in September. Pomeranz has been brilliant but has not gone deep into the late innings often. Rodriguez has had injury problems and has not gone deep into games either.
The Red Sox roster for the Playoffs has obviously not been put together yet but I have to assume that the eight relievers that I mentioned above will be on that roster. If so and if John Farrell can overcome his reluctance to warm up relievers and take out starters before the game is lost, this team is the ideal team to implement a strategy Kevin Cash has adopted in Tampa Bay.
With a much weaker pitching staff, Cash has basically limited his starters to five innings and let the bull pen do their job the rest of the way. This strategy leaves room for that day when a starter is obviously cruising after five and should be left in. It also limits the chance that a tired starter will give up a big hit or inning before some help can be summoned, which has been one of Farrell’s weaknesses all season.
David Price, the much maligned, former Cy Young winner, who, despite a 17-9 record last year and a league leading 230 innings pitched, and who has been written off by most Red Sox fans, mainly because of his $31.million per year salary and his elbow problems this season, may hold the key to the team’s post season. If he continues to look as good in two or three three inning stints of relief as he did last Sunday and Friday he might fill the fourth starter’s slot in this scenario or provide additional long relief out of the bullpen.
Forget his previous poor performance in post season. David Price is a highly motivated professional with something to prove to Red Sox Nation. Like it or not, he may hold the key to the Red Sox 2017 World Series hopes.
Despite the fact that the Sox and Cubs are the only Division Leaders that have not clinched their divisions as yet, I still expect that, when the World Series starts on Tuesday October 24th, they will be the participants. If you are planning on being there, wear warm clothing as it will be a cold World Series.