Five Cuts: Rays have gone from near-lock in ALCS to a coin flip
The Red Sox once again showed championship character in Game 6
Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon survived without their best stuff
Playing at home favors the Rays in Game 7, but the Red Sox have momentum
1. The Red Sox showed championship character in Game 6 (Recap | Box Score), just as they did in Game 5, only with more subtlety this time than staging the greatest elimination game comeback of all time. Game 6 featured tremendous efforts by pitchers Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon to find a way to get people out with nothing close to their best stuff.
Beckett clearly is not at full strength. In a typical game Beckett will throw his fastball 94 mph and use it 67 percent of the time. In Game 6 he threw his fastball 91 mph and he used it only 46 percent of the time (36 fastballs among his 78 pitches). Manager Terry Francona had his bullpen going as early as the fourth inning and yanked Beckett quickly, signs that Beckett had diminished stuff. But Beckett fought through and left after five innings with a 4-2 lead, and survived because he found a way to get by with mostly curveballs and cutters.
"The more he got in trouble," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "the softer he got [with his pitches]. Lots of off-speed stuff. He pitched a smart game."
2. Papelbon, too, pitched intelligently without his best weapons. The closer was still weary after throwing 38 pitches in Game 5. He was throwing only 92 mph in the ninth inning -- with Manny Delcarmen throwing in the bullpen as an insurance policy, a sight not seen before when Papelbon starts the ninth. But Papelbon pitched a clean inning, extending his career postseason scoreless innings streak to 25.
"If I don't have my A-plus fastball, I have to use my A-plus mental approach," Papelbon said. "Obviously, I'm pretty beat up, just like everybody else in this clubhouse. But we find a way to will ourselves through innings and will ourselves through at-bats."
Character? It has become the hallmark of the Boston franchise. Since 1999, the Red Sox are 21-4 in postseason games that are potential clinchers for either team, including 16-3 when facing their own elimination. Remarkable.
3. The Red Sox bullpen has thrown eight consecutive scoreless innings, even after having to bear a heavy workload in this series. Boston starting pitchers have thrown only 21 2/3 innings over the past five games while getting only two outs beyond the fifth inning. Boston's relievers have thrown more innings (24 2/3) than its starters in those past five games. Having three days off and three days on in the middle of the series certainly helps. It's amazing to think the Red Sox could be one win away from the World Series in an ALCS in which their starting pitchers have a 7.54 ERA.
4. The Rays played a fairly clean, solid baseball game in ALCS Game 6, except for two fatal mistakes in a span of three batters in the sixth inning:
With the game tied at 2, two outs and nobody on base, Rays pitcher James Shields fell behind 2-and-0 to Jason Varitek, a guy who was 0-for-15 and had not hit a home run batting lefthanded since August 18. Not a good idea to fall behind such a hitter, but Shields compounded his mistake by throwing an 88-mph cutter on the inside half of the plate. It was just about the only pitch Varitek could turn on; the Rays generally had handled him with hard stuff the whole series. The pitch sped up Varitek's bat, and he whacked it into the rightfield seats.
Two batters later, shortstop Jason Bartlett threw away what should have been the third out by sailing a throw wide of first base. David Ortiz made him pay for the mistake by following with an RBI singe.
By the way, Varitek and Bartlett each homered out of the ninth spot in their respective orders, marking only the second time in postseason history two guys batting last went deep. The other occasion was 1995 ALDS Game 1, when Tony Pena went yard for Cleveland and Luis Alicea for Boston.
5. So here we are: the greatest day in sports. We have a Game 7 in baseball. Cherish it, folks. Since 1985, when the LCS joined the World Series with the best-of-seven format, this is the 21st Game 7 in 24 years and 68 series. Who has the edge? Recent history tells us the home team has a huge advantage. Since 1985, home teams are 15-5 in Game 7s, though visiting teams have won three of the past six Game 7s (2006 Cardinals, 2004 Red Sox and 2003 Marlins, all in LCS play).
But let's look at this Game 7 from a momentum point of view. The Rays' chances of going to the World Series have gone from a near lock to a coin flip since the seventh inning of Game 5. Here's one way to chart their sinking win probability: