SERIES: American League Division Series, Game 1.
After the Red Sox clinched the American League wild card last week with a lopsided win over Baltimore, Damon, the team’s center fielder and catalyst at the top of the lineup, eased all the tensions that the championship-starved franchise and its loyal, albeit extremely disgruntled fan base, have felt.
Well, at least he tried.
“We’re definitely going to do it this year,” Damon said.
Damon and the Red Sox will look to take the first step toward their first World Series championship since 1918 when they open their AL division series against the Oakland Athletics.
The Red Sox, who last appeared in the playoffs in 1999, gave the New York Yankees all they could handle in the race for the AL East title, but ultimately finished six games back.
However, the Red Sox proved to be very difficult to stop, especially at the plate. Boston set a major league record with 647 extra-base hits, and also led the majors in runs, hits, total bases and doubles. The Red Sox became the first team in history with eight players to hit 30 or more doubles.
But the biggest thing the Red Sox have going in this series is ace right-hander Pedro Martinez pitching twice, if necessary.
A winner of three Cy Young awards, Martinez led the AL with a 2.22 ERA and is 2-0 in two career ALDS games, with 19 strikeouts in 17 innings. The Dominican right-hander refused to speak to reporters on Tuesday, keeping his focus squarely on the series, but his opponent on Wednesday, Oakland’s Tim Hudson, had nothing but praise for Martinez.
“He’s a stud. He’s been one of the best pitchers in the American League every year since I’ve been here,” Hudson said. “He has dominating stuff. He’s a guy I always looked up to coming up. He has his reputation for a reason. He’s going to be tough, but I like our chances anyway.”
Mueller hopes that having arguably the best pitcher in baseball and the league’s best offense will be enough to erase the Red Sox’s dismal postseason history.
“When you can put yourself and your team in this position, you’ve got to be pretty happy about that,” Mueller said. “We’ve got a great group of people. Everybody here had a great year. I’m happy we’re in this situation right now to go on.”
As desperate as the Red Sox are for some success in October, the Athletics are in dire need of a playoff series win. After getting knocked out in the ALDS in five games in each of the last three years—twice by the Yankees and last year by the Minnesota Twins—nothing short of at least a trip to the AL championship series is acceptable.
For that to happen, the A’s will have to figure out a way to generate some offense. The A’s production declined for the fourth straight year, finishing with just 768 runs and a .327 on-base percentage—10th in the league in general manager Billy Beane’s favorite statistical category.
But the A’s earned their fourth straight playoff berth with their usual recipe of impressive starting pitching and timely hitting. Oakland lost left-handed ace Mark Mulder to a broken leg in August, but Ted Lilly filled the spot in the A’s Big Three with an outstanding stretch run.
Hudson had a Cy Young-caliber season with 16 wins and was second to Martinez in ERA. He tossed a two-hit shutout at the Red Sox and Martinez on Aug. 11.
“Thank God he won’t do it every time, or he’d be 35-0,” Boston’s Kevin Millar said of Hudson. “That was our first and only time we’ve seen him this year, and hopefully we learned something from it. … We saw him at his best. The next few pitchers we saw were like a walk in the park.”
Athletics manager Ken Macha said his players cannot get caught up in worrying about being eliminated in the first round yet again.
“You think about history when you’re a baseball player sometimes, and there’s a little superstition involved, too,” said Macha, who managed in the Boston organization for four years and nearly took over the Red Sox two years ago. “But it’s not the main issue. We’re focused on winning the opening game, and so are they.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Red Sox - AL wild card. Athletics - AL West champions.
PROJECTED LINEUPS: Red Sox - CF Damon (.273, 12 HRs, 67 RBIs, 30 steals,) 2B Todd Walker (.283, 13, 85), SS Nomar Garciaparra (.301, 28, 105, 120 runs), LF Ramirez (.325, 37, 104), DH David Ortiz (.288, 31, 101), 1B Millar (.276, 25, 96), RF Trot Nixon (.306, 28, 87), 3B Mueller (AL-leading .326, 19, 85), C Jason Varitek (.273, 25, 85). Athletics - 2B Mark Ellis (.248, 9, 52), DH Erubiel Durazo (.259, 21, 77, 100 BBs), 3B Eric Chavez (.282, 29, 101), SS Miguel Tejada (.278, 27, 106), 1B Scott Hatteberg (.253, 12, 61), C Ramon Hernandez (.273, 21, 78), LF Jose Guillen (.311, 31, 86 for Cincinnati and Oakland), RF Jermaine Dye (.172, 4, 20 in 221 ABs), CF Eric Byrnes (.263, 12, 51).
RED SOX PROBABLE STARTER: Martinez (14-4, 2.22 ERA). The hard-throwing right-hander is 3-0 in his postseason career with a 1.13 ERA, spanning three appearances. He is 6-2 with a 2.16 ERA in nine career games and starts against Oakland, but was beaten at Oakland on Aug. 11, allowing two earned runs and five hits over five innings in a 4-0 loss. Martinez, who finished the season by winning his final four decisions, allowed the league to hit just .204 against him, while striking out 206 and walking 47.
ATHLETICS PROBABLE STARTER: Hudson (16-7, 2.70). Hudson is 1-2 with a 3.42 ERA in the ALDS, but has been exceptional in his career at Network Associates Coliseum, going 40-13 with a 3.01 ERA in 80 games, all starts. The league hit just .212 against Hudson over 240 innings. He is 3-3 with a 4.15 ERA in six career starts against Boston.
SEASON SERIES: Athletics, 4-3.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Red Sox - LF Ramirez was 10-for-27 with three home runs against Oakland this year. … Boston had a major-league best .360 on-base percentage. The Red Sox led the majors with a .289 batting average. … The Red Sox have lost six of their last seven playoff series, starting with the 1986 World Series loss to the New York Mets and ending with a five-game defeat to the Yankees in the 1999 ALCS. Athletics - LF Guillen is 7-for-22 with one homer lifetime vs. RHP Martinez. … The Athletics, who are using a three-man rotation in this series, led the AL with a 3.63. … Oakland GM Beane was offered the Red Sox job last winter. He accepted it and worked briefly with assistant GM Theo Epstein before changing his mind. Epstein took over as general manager.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Red Sox - 42-39 on the road. Athletics - 57-24 at home.