The Red Sox enter this weekend's showdown with the Yankees in Boston trailing by one game in the American League East. Given the heated history of these two rivals, it's only fitting that the division title will be decided with a three-game finale of the regular-season and a possible one-game playoff.
Who knows what theatrics are going to play out at the Fens, but here's a prediction: The Red Sox won't make the playoffs, and if they somehow do, Boston will not repeat as world champions.
Now before Sox fans go jumping off the Tobin Bridge or try to flood my mailbox with angry emails, hear me out. And please don't accuse me of being a hater -- or worse, a Yankees fan -- because I grew up in Boston, have been a Sox fan all my life and my office is decorated with Red Sox paraphernalia.
But if you take off your rose-colored glasses for a second, you'll notice that this year's team isn't nearly as good as last's years edition that broke the curse and brought home Boston's first World Series title in 86 years. In fact, these Sox are seriously flawed.
Check out last year's rotation: a healthy Curt Schilling (21-6, 3.26 ERA), Pedro Martinez (16-9, 3.90), Derek Lowe (14-12, 5.42) who was pitching very well by the postseason, Tim Wakefield (12-10, 4.87) and Bronson Arroyo (10-9, 4.03).
Now this year's: Wakefield (16-11, 3.96), Matt Clement (13-6, 4.57), a hobbled Schilling (3-4, 7.02 as a starter), David Wells (14-7, 4.47) and Arroyo (14-10, 4.54).
OK, so who's your No. 1? Wakefield? Yes, he's pitched well against the Yankees but he's a home run waiting to happen and not the guy I'd want taking the mound with the season on the line. Wells? He's probably been Boston's most consistent starter, but he's 42, the Yankees know him well and I don't know that I'm comfortable with him either. Clement and Arroyo have been terrific at times, but they've also been maddingly inconsistent and lack postseason experience.
That leaves Schilling. Now, I appreciate what he did in the postseason last year as much as anyone. The guy is a warrior and has the heart of a champion, but he shouldn't be out there. He's pitching on one leg, his fastball is flat, his slider doesn't break and he can look good one inning and fall off a cliff the next. Not the guy you want on the mound on Sunday with everything on the line.
That brings us to the bullpen, an even bigger mess. This was a strength last year, primarily because closer Keith Folke was nearly automatic. He had 32 saves, a 2.17 ERA and opposing hitters were batting .206 against him. Now Folke is hurt and the Sox closer is ... Mike Timlin! I bet the Yankees are shaking in their cleats. The fact is Boston doesn't have a reliable arm in the pen, has the worst ERA (5.26) among relievers in the AL and has given up the second-most ninth-inning runs in baseball. Manager Terry Francona has tried to fill the gaps with a pair of rookies who have pitched admirably at times, and in a desperate move on Thursday the Red Sox traded for Mike Stanton. Now that ought to help.