Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (100-62) vs. Boston Red Sox (95-67)
This is the hardest matchup to predict out of all four Divisional round series. This is due to a few things, the first most obvious factor is that I am a Sox fan, born and raised directly south of Boston. However, I write this blog without trying to be a huge homer, so don't worry about that. The other main reason that this is the toughest matchup to pick is because these teams are the most evenly matched between all 8 playoff teams. Sure the Angels cruised through the regular season, but they also played in the AL West which is a pretty pathetic division in itself these days.
During the regular season, the Angels absolutely demolished the Red Sox, going 8-1 against them and outscoring them something like 64-33. You know what though? Throw that shit out the window, this is the playoffs, and I expect both teams to be their asses off.
Let's start with the Angels.
Man the difference a year can make. Last year against the Sox, the Angels offense was completely non existent. Vlad Guerrero looked lost at the plate, Garrett Anderson had pink eye and could hardly see the ball, Gary Matthews Jr was hurt, and the team as a whole was just atrocious, batting under .200 in their lose to the Red Sox. In the offseason the Angels signed Torii Hunter and traded for Mark Texieria in July to really give their offense a whole new look, and the protection Vlad Guerrero needed. Chone Figgins, while still a force on the basepaths, isn't really the same dynamic player he was a few years ago. That being said, he still steals bases and can be a pitchers nightmare. They rank in the middle of most offensive categories, but believe me when I say then can score runs now.
The Angels finally have a legitimate offense and it could be what carries them to victory against the Red Sox.
The Angels are often regarded as having the best pitching in the league, but I find this to be a huge exaggeration. John Lackey (12-5, 3.75 ERA) is a bonafide ace, and he has been for a few years. After him you have Ervin Santana (16-7, 3.49 ERA, 214 k's) Joe Saunders (17-7, 3.41 ERA), Jered Weaver and Jon Garland. Weaver and Garland have been awful since August, so the Angels rotation is Lackey-Santana-Saunders. Lackey scares me, but after him, not so much. Santana has the stuff to be great. When he was younger I always heard him compared to Pedro Martinez in his prime, but he's never really figured it out to that extent. Now that being said, Santana is a good pitcher but is wildly inconsistent with his command at times, and that gets him into trouble. Joe Saunders is exactly like Jamie Moyer as a junkballer, and we all know what I said about that.
Their bullpen is still good with Scot Shields and K-Rod and his major league record 62 saves (which isn't as impressive as it sounds). K-Rod is a good closer but he is hittable, and can get incredibly wild sometimes. Not to be homer here, but I'd rather have Papelbon than K-Rod closing games anyday of the week. One surprise in their bullpen this year has been the effectiveness of Darren Oliver (2.88 ERA, 12 Holds), and the emergence of rookie Jose Arredondo (1.62 ERA, 16 Hlds, 55 K's in 61 IP). The Angels bullpen, while it isn't what it used to be, is still strong.
The Sox rank in the top two of most offensive categories. Even without Manny Ramirez this team can still hit. Jason Bay has filled in admirably as his replacement (.293/9/37 as a Sox), and Dustin Pedroia (this year's AL MVP in my opinion) and Kevin Youkilis have been amazing. Jacoby Ellsbury has finally started to show why he was so highly regarded by hitting again, and even when he was toiling in the summer in his slump, he still managed to steal 50 bases this year. His platooning with Coco Crisp has actually worked out pretty well.
The biggest question marks on offense for the Red Sox this postseason is the health of JD Drew and Mike Lowell. Drew has been injured since mid August, and really it hasn't hurt the team all that much. However a healthy Drew in the lineup makes it a much more dynamic lineup. Mike Lowell is a different story however. Taking Lowell out of the lineup forces Red Sox Manager Terry Francona to shift Youkilis to 3rd base and slot either Mark Kotsay or Sean Casey at 1st base, or move Lowrie to 3rd and play Alex Cora at shortstop. No disrespect to Alex Cora, but I don't want him starting a game for the Red Sox in the regular season, let alone the postseason. On top of all that you lose Mike Lowell's bat and defense.
Expect the Sox to play some hit and run with Ellsbury and Pedroia to try and create offense. We all know Ortiz can hit bombs, and Youkilis fell one HR shy of 30 HR's this season. The bottom of the order isn't too bad either with Jason Varitek being the weak link in the batting order.
I don't think the Sox will have trouble scoring runs, just don't expect some of those crazy outbursts they are prone to every now and then.
The Red Sox pitching staff has been near the top of the league all season long. After the 2007 postseason when Josh Beckett was unhittable, we all came into 2008 believing he would do the same thing. However, that was not the case. Beckett has dealt with a few injuries this season and because of that, his numbers aren't around their usual norms. Beckett also strained his oblique just before the playoffs started and had to be pushed back for game 3 of the ALDS, which is a potentially huge development since he'd most likely only throw one game instead of two. Not to worry though as Jon Lester has really blossomed into his own this season, and really picked up the slack for Beckett's subpar season. Dice-K however has been a statistical anomaly this season. He is somehow 18-3, but walks entirely way too many people and thus did not pitch a lot of innings. Dice-K makes me nervous but he's shown time and time again that he is able to wiggle out of jams (he didn't give up a base hit all season with the basesloaded). On top of those three, the Red Sox have the ageless Tim Wakefield, and a revjuvinated Paul Byrd heading for their bullpen.
In July the Red Sox bullpen was a mess. Manny Delcarmen and Hideki Okajima were having miserable seasons and the only real solid player in there was Jonathan Papelbon. However, that all changed once Justin Masterson was moved from his starter role into the bullpen. Since that time, Delcarmen has been almost unhittable, and Okajima has started to resemble his form from last year, although he is still terrible with inherited runners. The biggest surprise of the year has been Javier Lopez. He has been very good in his loogey role, and Francona has started to lean on him a bit more.
Overall, this bullpen is starting to resemble to dominate, shut down pen the Sox had last year in the postseason, and we all know what good pitching does for a teams chances.
I'm going out on a limb here and saying Red Sox in 4. The Sox will win game 1 or 2 in Anaheim and bring the series back to Fenway, where they are always good, tied up. If the Angels can somehow manage to win a game at Fenway with a junk ball pitcher and John Lackey in game 4, who's career numbers at Fenways are just terrible, then I will be surprised. Regardless though I am just looking forward to some good ball between the two best clubs in the postseason right now.