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2004 World Series Preview

Well, so far I’m six-for-six in calling these match-ups, but then you won’t see me jetting off to Vegas anytime soon to test my abilities in the World Series of Poker. Instead, I’ll concentrate on the original World Series of baseball where each team needed all seven games of their respective championship series to win the pennants of the American and National Leagues. Now before us, to the excitement of baseball buffs everywhere, are two teams who have met twice before in the battle for the title, once in 1946 and once in 1967. In both instances, St. Louis and Boston went to a deciding Game 7 and the Cardinals won over the Red Sox each time. While the days of Enos Slaughter, Ted Williams, Bob Gibson, and Carl Yastrzemski are long gone, there is no doubt that we have the makings of another Fall Classic.

St. Louis (105-61) vs Boston (98-64)
Season series: No games played

The Red Sox, facing the possibility of getting swept in the American League Championship Series by New York, were down to their last three outs when they rallied to tie the game. From there, they went on to win the final four games, including the last two in front of a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd, to clinch the AL pennant for the first time in 18 years. Meanwhile, the Cardinals returned from Houston down 3-2 in the National League Championship Series with the Astros and needed to win both games; they did just that, winning with a walk-off home run by Jim Edmonds in Game 6 and coming back late in Game 7 against Roger Clemens to clinch their first NL pennant in 17 years. On paper, these two teams look evenly matched, so who has the advantage over whom?

For Boston, they have a stronger starting rotation, even with Curt Schilling and his tender tendon that was held in place by two stitches so that he could pitch the Sox to victory in Game 6. The other pitcher of the moment for Boston is Derek Lowe, who pitched brilliantly in the deciding seventh game and, even with a seven-run cushion, allowed just one run on one hit in six innings of work. Of course, there is the arm of Pedro Martinez, who was strong in his two starts as well. Opposing them will be a strong rotation in itself, with Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, and Woody Williams looking to stifle the Sox. Suppan delivered a clutch performance in the deciding game of the NLCS, out-dueling Clemens and a hungry Astros lineup. Williams is expect to start the first game and has great command, having earned a win in his first start of that series and going seven innings in his second start, allowing just one hit and no runs. Marquis and Morris both won 15 games this season on a staff that, like Boston, had five pitchers win ten or more starts but have struggled slightly in the post-season.

The bullpen match-up is also interesting; Boston has Keith Foulke as its closer, who appeared five times in the ALCS and earned a save in Game 6. His best work came in Game 4 when, with just one out in the seventh and Boston down by a run, he was asked to try and keep New York off the board; he responded by walking just two batters while not allowing a single hit in 2-2/3 innings to set up the late-inning dramatics for the Red Sox. St. Louis counters with Jason Isringhausen, who led the NL in saves with 47; he pitched six times in the NLCS and earned three saves. While he did blow a save, it was when he was asked to get the final nine outs of the ball game but only managed to get the first eight. He also had one loss, but that was on the road in extra frames with the score knotted at zero. The rest of the bullpen is evenly matched and both were key in helping get to this point of the season.

On offense, the Red Sox boasts a strong infield that committed just one error in the ALCS. Bill Mueller gobbles up balls hit anywhere close to him at third base, as does former Gold Glove winner Orlando Cabrera at short. Late in the game, Boston brings Pokey Reese in at second and Doug Mientkiewicz in at first, giving them three Gold Glove winners in the infield to back up Foulke and the rest of the bullpen. In the outfield, Johnny Damon patrols center field and, while his arm is a little weak, he gets to the ball fast. For the Cardinals, the human highlight reel in center field, Edmonds, who has made enough impressive catches in his career that would make fishermen jealous, leads them on offense. They also have Edgar Renteria playing short and Scott Rolen at third; together, they allowed just 24 errors in the regular season, making it unlikely that a mistake will come from the left side of the infield.

The lineup on either side of the field boasts some heavy hitters. Boston has the dynamic duo of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Ramirez did not drive in a single run in the ALCS but scored three runs and batted .300; Ortiz, on the other hand, was the offense for Boston late in the series, batting .387 with 11 RBI and collecting game-winning hits in Games 4 and 5, good enough for series MVP honors. He also led off the deciding game with a two-run home run and Boston never trailed in that game. Jason Varitek was also money against the Yankees, collecting seven RBI while batting .321, and Damon awoke from his ALCS slumber in Game 7 to plate a record six runs. For St. Louis, they are led by Albert Pujols, the NLCS MVP, who stroked four home runs, drove in nine, and batted .500. They also have Edmonds, Rolen, and Larry Walker launching baseballs into the stratosphere; Edmonds stroked a walk-off home run in the 12th inning of Game 6 and Rolen stroked a long ball to finish a rally by the Cardinals late in Game 7.

If there is one X-factor to watch in this series, it will be what Boston will do with Ortiz, the everyday designated hitter, when they travel to St. Louis and must play by National League rules. Ortiz did start 31 games at first base this season, so it’s almost certain that he’ll be there for the middle three games at a minimum; his bat is so hot right now that to remove him might psychologically deflate the potent offense. That also means that Kevin Millar will likely sit on the bench and only appear late to pinch-hit for a pitcher, but Francona may give Trot Nixon a rest in one game and let the Millar adventure to right field. If Ortiz can shake the rust, then there shouldn’t be much of a letdown.

Again, this has all the makings of a classic; Boston fans feel strongly that their time has finally come after 86 years of failure. St. Louis fans, though not quite as rabid, are just as loyal and would love to see the Cardinals bring home a championship trophy for the first time in 22 years. It’s almost too close to call, but Boston gets the edge in my book for two reasons. At the moment, they have a stronger pitching staff that proved in the final four games of the ALCS that they are ready to do whatever is called upon them to accomplish; the Yankee lineup was no less strong than what the Cardinals will throw at them. Second, in contrast, Boston has the potential to light up any rotation and have shown the ability this post-season to rally late against an even stronger closer, Mariano Rivera, who blew two consecutive saves for the first time in his experienced post-season career. This series will more than likely go the full seven games but, in the end, New England fans will get a second chance this year to watch a championship parade wind through downtown Boston.

2004 Mid-Season Review

Well, you certainly cannot look back on the first half of the season and wonder if it would have been the Yankees that were seven games back at the break and thinking wild card had the Red Sox had the lineup that was drawn on paper by Theo Epstein during the off-season. However, even as it stands, Boston enjoyed what, for many teams, would have been a successful first half: ten games above .500 and poised to make a run at a playoff spot in October. There are 76 games left to play in the 2004 season; as we enjoy the All-Star break, we look back on the studs and duds of the first 86 games.

Team MVP: Manny Ramirez
First runner-up: Curt Schilling

Even though this is his fourth season in Boston, it almost seems like we are meeting Ramirez for the first time, and the faithful are enjoying his company. The suddenly easygoing left fielder is enjoying a banner year: his .344 batting average, 26 home runs, and 77 RBI are tops on his team and have him at or near the top of the American League leader board. Not only is he a legitimate AL MVP at this point, he has a chance to become the first batting Triple Crown winner in nearly forty years. It’s hard to imagine that he was nearly sent packing over the winter; never have the cheers been louder when he comes to the plate or he makes a sensational catch in left field.

Team Goat: Derek Lowe
First runner-up: Kevin Millar

Perhaps he feels that he is being picked on, but Lowe has certainly not carried himself well enough on the field to be worthy of a multiyear deal that his agent, Scott Boras, is looking to get him this off-season in the $11 million per year range. His ERA of 5.57 is one and a half runs per nine innings higher that Tim Wakefield‘s as a starter. His seven wins do not look good next to eight losses in seventeen starts. It’s true that his defense has not always been there to support him; the 21 unearned runs scored against him are the most on the team. Still, he should be doing better than this and he knows it; hopefully we will see him turn things around in the second half.

Biggest Surprise: Pokey Reese
First runner-up: Johnny Damon

When Boston signed this two-time Gold Glove winner, they knew that they should expect greatness in the field and he has not disappointed. If you went through a reel highlighting the ten best plays of the first half by the Red Sox defense, we’re certain that he would be in better than half of those. With a career .250 batting average, you would not expect him to contribute much at the plate, but he has driven in 26 and scored 50 runs. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that we will see him anywhere but in the number nine spot in the lineup and, with Nomar Garciaparra back from injury, his playing time will be limited, but everyone knows how valuable he’s been to this team; those cheers for him whenever he comes to bat are backed with respect for his efforts.

Biggest Disappointment: Cesar Crespo
First runner-up: Byung-Hyun Kim

He was given ample opportunity to prove his worth and, by his own admittance, he blew it. In 79 plate appearances, Crespo batted .165 while driving in just two runs, never walked, and struck out 20 times. Perhaps you can argue that, given his limited playing time, he never had a chance to find his groove. Explain then how Doug Mirabelli, with seven less plate appearances, hit .306 with seven home runs and plated 17 runners. Sorry, but when you wear a major league uniform, you have to player like you belong.

Second Half Outlook
Let the good times roll!

It’s well known by anyone who had followed Boston this season that, after a 15-6 start, the Red Sox barely maintained a .500 pace (33-32) while New York surged from 4-1/2 games back at one point to seven games ahead in first place. The second half is not going to be any easier as Boston will play 24 games in 25 days following the All-Star break. This includes a trip out west, then three games in two days at Fenway against that pesky Baltimore, followed by a weekend home series against the rival Yankees, then ended with two weeks on the road against Baltimore, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Detroit.

At the moment, they also stand one game ahead of Oakland in the wild card race. Knowing that, it doesn’t mean that Boston could not pile on the wins in the second half and surge past New York into first place in the AL East. However, the point is to make it to October and perhaps the collective energy of the Red Sox is better spent trying to stay ahead of the wild card rivals. They have enough strength in the starting lineup and depth in the bench that they should be able make a run for that elusive World Series title.

As a side note, don’t forget that this might be the last chance to see Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez, two recent Red Sox legends, playing in a Boston uniform. Without a doubt, one or both of these fine players will be gone at the end of the season. Say what you will about them, but they have enjoyed some sensational years here and are have contributed mightily to the recent success of the Red Sox. We don’t know yet just how much we will miss either of them.

2004 Season Preview

Now that another wild and crazy off-season is finally coming to an end, it’s time to dust off the binoculars and look over the field of players that will be putting on a uniform for the Boston nine this season. For you holdovers from last season, you won’t see many differences; the only significant loss being 2B Todd Walker, who left as a free agent and signed with the Chicago Cubs. Where the Sox have improved the most is with the pitching staff, having added starting pitcher Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke to give the Red Sox a solid staff on the mound. On paper, you have to like what you see, but this column would be relatively uninteresting if we didn’t take a closer look, let’s answer some self-imposed questions first.

1. Who will be the number one starter, Schilling or Pedro Martinez?

The truth is that there is no “number one” on this team, but Pedro will have the honor of opening the season against Baltimore on 04 April. While a definite rotation has not been set to my knowledge, there is a good chance that Schilling and Martinez will NOT pitch in back-to-back games this season. More likely, we will watch Tim Wakefield‘s knuckleball flutter between their starts. So does that make Schilling a number three starter? The good news for Red Sox nation is that Boston has one of its strongest rotations in years; when you toss in Derek Lowe, you have four proven starters that between them could easily collect 70 wins.

2. Will Bill Mueller have another career year?

It’s unlikely that Mueller and the rest of his team will repeat the offensive output that they had last season, when they out-slugged the 1927 New York Yankees and were first in runs scored in the majors. Still, it’s very likely that he can hit .300 again and continue to use the Wall to his advantage. He’s probably also good for another 10 to 15 home runs. Most importantly, he has proven himself at third base, one of the trickiest positions in baseball to play.

3. Is manager Terry Francona on the hot seat already?

Given the fact that there are several big contracts that expire at the end of this season, the pressure is on for the Red Sox to go all the way, if you ignore the fact that history and the other 29 teams are not on their side. Francona was not the first choice that the Red Sox had but, if consider that Grady Little, who had no major league coaching experience when he was named manager two years ago, won nearly 200 games in two years, you just need to have enough knowledge and personnel skills to repeat that success. As long as he is smart enough to pull a pitcher who is obviously fatigued late in a Game Seven, then he should do fine.

4. Who will see more time at first, David Ortiz or Kevin Millar?

Ortiz would like to spend more time covering the bag, but he will come second to Millar. However, when Ellis Burks is used as the DH, Ortiz will win over Millar on this battle. Ortiz just has better numbers at the plate and the Sox will not want to keep his bat out of the lineup too often.

5. What free-agent signing will have the highest impact?

Although Curt Schilling’s presence in the lineup will make the starting rotation an opponent’s nightmare, having Keith Foulke come in to shore up the closer role will mean the most to this club. Since Derek Lowe’s 2000 season in that role, the Sox have been very weak in this respect. Lowe faltered the following year, Ugueth Urbina was anything but solid in 2002, and the closer-by-committee experiment last season was, while a sound idea in theory, a complete failure in practice. Foulke collected 43 saves in his one year in Oakland and that means that the rest of the bullpen can be used better to set him up to close the door.

6. What bench player will have the highest impact?

My money is on Gabe Kapler, who enjoyed a solid spring and will actually start the season in right field as a replacement for the injured Trot Nixon. Once Nixon returns in May, Kapler will likely take a seat on the bench but will called out for service if Manny Ramirez is thrown into the DH role or is given a seat by Francona to rest for a day. He also makes a nice pinch hitter should the opponent throw out a left-handed reliever, having hit .326 last season against southpaws.

7. Will the Red Sox be able to hold off the Yankees and win the AL East?

As strong as the Red Sox have become with several key additions, you cannot ignore the Yankees, who have also made key additions for another chance at a World Series title. They certainly have a stronger lineup with the addition of Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. The only real question for the Yankees will be if Kevin Brown can have an injury-free season and if newcomer Javier Vazquez, recently of the Montreal Expos, will prove unflappable under the lights of Yankee fans and the front office. As Sox fans have seen for the last six years, you can never underestimate New York; every year, they remain tough. It helps when your owner is willing to shell out nearly $200 million to pay for the collective salary of this team.

8. Overall, is Boston good enough to… you know?

Anybody who has followed the Red Sox as long as I have knows enough NOT to start opening the champagne bottles prematurely. However, with all that happened during the off-season, good and bad, Boston has made significant strides to improve on a team that came very close to tasting a championship in 2003. It will be critical for Boston to play to this potential if they are to stay ahead of the Yankees. With the addition of Schilling, the starting rotation looks strong and, with the addition of Foulke, so does the bullpen. Although it will tough to match last season’s offensive output, there are plenty of bats available to score runs when needed and, defensively, the Red Sox are better than average at most positions and should keep the untimely errors to a minimum. In conclusion, the 2004 edition of the Boston nine is good enough, but let’s not say any more than that.

The Pedro Principle

Pedro Martinez
Pedro Martinez

(Note: This article was published by the author on another Red Sox web site prior to the establishment of this site.)

While most of Red Sox Nation spent December focused on the negotiations between Texas and Boston for a proposed trade of Alex Rodriguez for Manny Ramirez, respectively, a Red Sox veteran sat on the sidelines wondering what his future held. It seemed like only yesterday that his wish to finish his career as a Red Sox player was certain, but now that appears only to be a distant memory.

No, I’m not talking about Nomar Garciaparra, a central figure during these talks, who would have spent his recent honeymoon with Mia Hamm shopping for as new home on the Left Coast. Instead, I refer you to Exhibit B, one Pedro Jaime Martinez, age 32, with 12 years of big-league experience and winner of 101 games in six years with the Red Sox. Year number seven comes as a result of Boston picking up a team option on him last spring, a few days after the regular season began.

2004 may be the make-or-break year for the Red Sox. Several star Boston players are under contract through the end of this season and then they become free agents. These are names that have become synonymous with the winning ways of the Sox: Martinez, Garciaparra, Derek Lowe, and Jason Varitek, to name a few. One or more of these players will either have to accept the “hometown discount” to keep this core intact or, in a more likely scenario, find a new home in 2005.

It’s quite possible that, before the season begins, Garciaparra will be gone if trade talks between the Rangers and the Red Sox are resurrected and an agreement is reached; that would settle one issue. However, at what point will the Sox begin to address a contract extension with Pedro… or will his chapter in Red Sox history be completed? For all he’s done for this team, and even with the knowledge that he helps draw the crowds to Fenway Park, will the front office let him walk? Thanks for everything – good luck in the next life?

Yes, the question of his health remains the primary focus. Pedro spent most of the 2001 season nursing a sore right shoulder and has missed more than a few starts thanks to occasional discomfort or concern from the team doctor. What price tag do you put on a guy who, with all his success, may someday throw one pitch and that’s it?

However, in late November, we watched as the Sox brass did backflips to land 37-year-old former Red Sox prospect Curt Schilling here in Boston for the remainder of his career. You cannot ignore the fact that he spent part of 2003 on the disabled list. However, the Red Sox saw a chance to bring aboard another potential 20-game winner to work beside Martinez and Lowe. Schilling was also assured that the Sox will continue to field a championship-caliber team well after this season ends.

It would be hard to believe that Pedro did not watch the events of this trade and wonder if Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein would sit down across the dinner table from him and offer a similar package in the near future. For what he has meant for this organization, does he not deserve this?