Five Cuts: Beasts of the AL East
1. Think there is something to be said for playing in the intensity and pressure of East Coast baseball in the AL East for six months? Of the 12 teams to play for the AL pennant in the past six years, seven have been from the AL East. And if you go back to 1996, more than half the teams to reach the ALCS have come from the East (14 of 26). That's not an East Coast bias; those are the facts. Here are the Division Series playoff records for each division since the expanded playoffs were first used in 1995:
AL East: 15-9 (.625)
The road to the World Series championship typically goes through Boston or New York. Over the previous 10 years every world champion except the 2006 Cardinals was either the Red Sox, the Yankees or a team that had to beat one of those two powerhouses along the way.
2. Here's why the Rays present a huge problem for the Red Sox: They are very comfortable playing close, low-scoring games and they have the home-field advantage. Since April 16 and including the postseason, the Rays are 32-4 at the Trop in games decided by one or two runs. They've lost only one close game at home since June 22.
3. Don't blame Angels manager Mike Scioscia for the failed squeeze-bunt attempt in the ninth inning of ALDS Game 4. It was the right call: a count where a strikeout pitcher needed to get a strike over the plate, with a very good baserunner at third. The blame falls squarely on Erik Aybar for an utter lack of execution. There is simply no excuse for failing to make any contact whatsoever on a fastball over the plate. Then again, the Angels middle infielders played skittishly throughout the series. Aybar's misplay of a grounder earlier in the game was an error in every universe but the parallel one of the official scorer. And young second baseman Howie Kendrick may be a fine player someday, but that day is not now. He looked overwhelmed in the playoff setting, particularly on defense, where his cement-shoed footwork was a giveaway of playing tight.
4. When I saw Jonathan Papelbon seated quietly on the bullpen bench in the middle and late innings, I knew the Red Sox would try to win Game 4 without him. No Papel-cizes were the tipoff. Papelbon always runs through a series of warmup exercises, which the bullpen denizens call Papel-cizes, to prepare his body for pitching late in the game. Manager Terry Francona may have said that his closer was available (why let the other team know he's not?), but after pitching two innings in Game 3, his third appearance in five days, Papelbon clearly needed the rest.
5. The Phillies like to play matchup with their deep bullpen late in games, but that hardly matters to Dodgers manager Joe Torre. Most managers prefer to split their left-handed hitters in the batting order to force other managers into more bullpen moves. But Torre, even knowing the Cubs had a couple of lefties in their bullpen, batted Andre Ethier and James Loney back-to-back in all three NLDS games, with righty Matt Kemp behind them, not between them. Why? Torre is that confident in both young, left-handed hitters, even against lefty pitching. He doesn't even think about pinch-hitting for either one. The only left-handed hitter that Torre would hit for is second baseman Blake DeWitt, who gets replaced anyway when the Dodgers have a lead by defensive specialist Angel Berroa. And don't expect Torre to drop Ethier and Loney in the order when the Phillies ace left-hander, Cole Hamels, starts. Lefties hit Hamels much better than do righties, mostly because Hamels' killer changeup is most effective against right-handers.