SERIES: AL Division Series; Game 1.
The Boston Red Sox celebrated Sunday after finally clinching a playoff spot and a chance to repeat as World Series champions.
Needing the entire season to earn postseason berth, however, appears to have them at a disadvantage as they face the AL Central champion Chicago White Sox in the division series.
Boston led the AL East by 5 1/2 games on the morning of Aug. 11, but allowed the New York Yankees to come back and clinch the division title with an 8-4 win at Fenway Park on Saturday.
The Red Sox then went into Sunday needing a victory of their own or a Cleveland loss to clinch the wild card for the third straight season. They got both, as the Indians fell 3-1 to the White Sox and Boston beat New York 10-1 behind Curt Schilling.
That means Matt Clement will start Game 1 of this series, and could possibly be on the mound for a deciding fifth game Oct. 9.
Clement made the All-Star team, but struggled badly down the stretch for Boston. The right-hander, signed by the Red Sox to replace departed free agents Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, lost his last three decisions and went winless in his final five starts.
He went 1-3 with a 6.00 ERA in six September starts, and finished 3-4 with a 5.72 ERA in the second half after going 10-2 with a 3.85 ERA prior to the All-Star break. Clement has won only three times in his last 14 outings, although the Red Sox won nine of those games.
The Red Sox clinched the wild card early last season, allowing them to line up Schilling and Martinez to open the postseason. Manager Terry Francona, though, said that was a luxury and not a necessity.
“The guys are on their normal day,” Francona said. “To be very honest with you, lining them up, I’m not sure (that helps). We’re looking for big efforts from everybody. Wakefield has been tremendous. When Boomer is healthy, he’s very good. But keeping them in order, I think will make them better than maneuvering for a certain guy to pitch somewhere else or in a different place.”
Chicago also clinched late in the season, and it too is throwing its fourth starter Tuesday as Jose Contreras takes the mound. Had the White Sox had the chance to line up their rotation the way they wanted, however, Contreras still might have been their choice to start the opener.
Contreras clearly became Chicago’s ace in the second half, and will be looking for his ninth straight win. The right-hander hasn’t lost since Aug. 15 and is 11-2 with a 2.96 ERA in 15 starts since the All-Star break.
“I’m throwing the ball well, my defense is outstanding,” Contreras said through his interpreter, third-base coach Joey Cora. “I’m throwing the ball the way I want to.”
Contreras was considered Cuba’s best pitcher before coming to the United States in 2003. He had a hard time adjusting to his new surroundings, first in New York with the Yankees, and then in Chicago. But he seems to have found his comfort zone.
“We knew it was just a matter of time,” White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. “He had the arm. He just had to get the confidence.”
One of the teams Contreras lacked confidence against was Boston. He was 1-4 with a 13.50 ERA in six games against the Red Sox coming into this season, but did beat them 6-4 in Chicago on July 24.
Shortstop Edgar Renteria is the only Boston player in its projected lineup that has never faced Contreras. The other eight starters are a combined 27-for-82 (.329) with eight HRs and 23 RBIs against him.
“We are playing against the best. They are the champions and they know how to play in the playoffs,” Guillen said. “We didn’t face them during the season when we were pitching well. Now, we are. That’s a difference.”
Chicago tied Cleveland for the AL lead in ERA at 3.61, but Boston topped the majors in batting (.281), runs (910), doubles (339) and on-base percentage (.357) behind MVP candidates David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.
“Hopefully, we sneak up and bite them,” Guillen said. “But we haven’t done anything yet. We haven’t earned that spotlight like everybody else. … We are the Cinderella of the playoffs. It’s a great feeling when they don’t pick you and all of a sudden you make it.”
Wells (15-7) will face Mark Buehrle (16-8) in Game 2 on Wednesday, followed by Wakefield (16-12) against Freddy Garcia (14-8) in Boston on Friday. Schilling (8-8) will go against Jon Garland (18-10), if necessary, in Game 4 on Saturday.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Red Sox - Wild-card winner. White Sox - AL Central champions.
PROJECTED LINEUPS: Red Sox: CF Johnny Damon (.316, 10 HRs, 75 RBIs, 117 runs, 18 SBs), SS Renteria (.276, 8, 70, 100), DH Ortiz (.300, 47, 148, 119, 102 BBs), LF Ramirez (.292, 45, 144, 112), RF Trot Nixon (.275, 13, 67), C Jason Varitek (.281, 22, 70), 1B Kevin Millar (.272, 9, 50), 3B Bill Mueller (.295, 10, 62), 2B Tony Graffanino (.309, 7, 38). White Sox: LF Scott Podsednik (.290, 59 SBs), 2B Tadahito Iguchi (.278, 15 HRs, 71 RBIs, 15 SBs), RF Jermaine Dye (.274, 31, 86), 1B Paul Konerko (.283, 40, 100, 98 runs), DH Carl Everett (.251, 23, 87), CF Aaron Rowand (.270, 13, 69, 16 SBs), C A.J. Pierzynski (.257, 18, 56), 3B Joe Crede (.252, 22, 62), SS Juan Uribe (.252, 16, 71).
RED SOX PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Clement (13-6, 4.57 ERA). The right-hander, who played for the Chicago Cubs from 2002-04, is 2-1 with a 5.23 ERA in five starts against the White Sox.
WHITE SOX PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Contreras (15-7, 3.61 ERA). The right-hander went 7-5 with a 3.78 ERA in 18 home starts this season.
SEASON SERIES: Red Sox, 4-3.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Red Sox - Millar is 5-for-10 with two HRs and five RBIs against RHP Contreras. … Varitek hit .350 (7-for-20) with three HRs in five games against Chicago this season. … The Red Sox have not repeated as World Series champs since 1915-16. White Sox - Podsednik is 7-for-19 (.368) with one of his 22 career HRs off RHP Clement. … Chicago is trying to win its first postseason series since the 1917 World Series. … The White Sox had an AL-worst .257 batting average at home this season.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Red Sox - 41-40 on the road. White Sox - 47-34 at home.