Sunday, October 14, 2007


They did what they needed to do, though the path was more than a little rocky. The Indians are coming home for Game 3 of the ALCS with the series tied 1-1.

1. Games 1 and 2 underscored just how difficult it is for a visiting team to win playoff games at Fenway Park. At the moment, it might even trump Yankee Stadium for intimidation factor.

Fenway is one of the smallest ballparks in the Majors, but Boston fans are notoriously loud and crass, and they're practically right on top of you. The opposing right fielder takes his life in his hands when he ventures close to Pesky's Pole to try and yank a fly ball away from the stands. The wall is barely four feet high.

That might have been a factor in why Franklin Gutierrez pulled up instead of diving after a ball in Game 1.

Combine the loud crowd with quirky outfield dimensions, the Green Monster, torrid clutch hitters like David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Mike Lowell, and it's easy to see why the Red Sox have arguably the best homefield advantage in baseball.

2. C.C. Sabathia is probably going to win the AL Cy Young Award if you believe with the pundits on ESPN have to say, but Josh Beckett is the best pitcher in the playoffs right now. He didn't even have his top-notch stuff working in Friday's Game 1, but it was still more than enough to make C.C. melt under pressure.

3. If no one else will say it, then I will: C.C. was pitching scared on Friday. A 6'-7" lefty with a 95-mph fastball and nasty slider shouldn't need to nibble at the corners, but that's exactly what C.C. did, or tried to do. Many of the people who watched the game seemed to think C.C. just didn't have his good command. I saw a pitcher who seldom went inside after hitting Ortiz, apparently terrified of making the mistake that would open the floodgates.

Of course, if you pitch like that, the floodgates will invariably open. That's why C.C. was dispatched after 80 pitches and less than five innings. He was credited with eight runs in Boston's 10-3 shellacking of the Tribe.

4. The Tribe's ALCS pitching MVP so far will surprise you -- nay, utterly shock you. It's Tom Mastny.

After two innings of one-hit relief on Friday, Mastny pitched not-so-arguably the most pivotal inning of relief work in the Tribe's season thus far on Saturday, retiring Ortiz, Ramirez and Lowell in succession to set up the Indians' seven-run outburst in the top of the 11th. This from a guy who surrendered 63 hits and 30 earned runs in 57 2/3 innings of work this year.

After becoming a forgotten man down the stretch, it appears Mastny has rediscovered the formula for bullpen pitching success: throw strikes down in the zone. It's something the rest of the Indians' pitchers should remember.

5. Eric Wedge is sailing through uncharted waters right now. He's never managed in the postseason, so he's going with the formula that got his team here. In other words: Don't expect a lot of adjustments from Wedge, win or lose.

It's an honorable strategy, one that places full faith in the abilities of his players. But Wedge might want to file a little tidbit away for future use: If you have a chance to start your 23-year-old ace at home in Game 3, you take that chance. Sometimes, matching the other team ace-to-ace isn't the best strategy, especially when you're asking your two aces to dive headfirst into their first ALCS at Fenway Park against Beckett and Curt Schilling, two of the best postseason pitchers around.

Sabathia and Fausto Carmona looked overwhelmed and overmatched in the first two games. C.C., a seven-year veteran, has less of an excuse. Carmona, who is for all intents and purposes a rookie, could have been saved for a Game 3 start at Jacobs Field where he probably stood a better chance of staying in control of the situation -- not to mention that fact that he would square off against Daisuke Matsuzaka, also a first-year starter in the Majors.

Carmona can't be protected forever, and sooner or later, he'd need to prove his mettle in a place like Fenway. But when you have the luxury of two aces, I'm in favor of staggering them against the other team's rotation as opposed to a head-on collision in the other team's park.

Of course, I should be the first to admit that I'm second-guessing a manager who has his team in the ALCS, and actually won the game in which Carmona pitched. So maybe I should put a sock in it. But it's something to think about.

6. Trot Nixon is making Mark Shapiro look like a genius at the moment. Last winter, Shapiro signed Nixon weeks after inking David Dellucci to a three-year deal. The Nixon signing didn't make a lot of sense then, and watching him struggle through a .251/3 HR/31 RBI season that featured a terrible .336 slugging percentage did little to shed light on what, exactly, Shapiro saw in him.

On top of that, years of injuries appeared to take their toll on the former stellar defensive right fielder, reducing him to a limping tortoise who was eventually benched in favor of Gutierrez.

But ever since the postseason began, Nixon has been placed back in his comfort zone, right in the middle of the New York-Boston crucible. Sure, there was that embarrassing fielding miscue in Game 3 against the Yankees, but at the plate, Nixon has looked (gasp!) competent again.

The appetizer was the homer and double off Roger Clemens last weekend. Saturday against the Red Sox, he looked like the ultimate fight-fire-with-fire weapon, burning his longtime former team with a gargantuan RBI single to score Grady Sizemore in the 11th, igniting a seven-run rally and propelling the Indians to the win in Boston they so desperately needed.

7. This has been the story of the Indians' lives this season. Teammates picking each other up, sometimes under the least likely of circumstances.

Sabathia and Carmona falter, the bats Travis Hafner and Kenny Lofton go quiet, all hope seems lost. Then the Indians get a boost from Tom Mastny and Trot Nixon in extra innings, in the most inhospitable postseason environment an opposing team can endure -- possibly outside of Yankee Stadium, which Paul Byrd already conquered.

Even when they get blown out in Game 1 and fall behind 6-5 in Game 2, even when their fans want to switch off the TV and not endure another possible dream-shattering Cleveland collapse, this Indians team never stops picking each other up. I don't know how or when this postseason ride is going to end, but from a purely objective standpoint, this has to be one of the toughest, most resilient $60-odd million payroll teams I've seen in a long time.

No comments: