The Red Sox look to continue their push for their second World Series appearance in four years, while extending the Indians’ title drought to 60 years, when the teams open the ALCS on Friday night at Fenway Park.
Now in the role of seasoned playoff veterans, having made it to the postseason four of the last five years, the Red Sox are looking to add another championship to go with their 2004 title that was their first since 1918. Behind an improved starting rotation and bullpen, along with a strong lineup led again by David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, Boston returned to the playoffs this year after missing out in an injury-plagued 2006.
The Red Sox can rely on experience going into the matchup with a young Indians club that is in the postseason for the first time since 2001. In 2004, though, Boston was an up-and-coming team that erased a 3-0 deficit against the New York Yankees in the ALCS and went on to end generations of frustration from its fans by sweeping St. Louis in the World Series.
The feeling of the accomplishment is still fresh for Cleveland outfielder Trot Nixon, the starting right fielder on the ’04 Red Sox.
“It’s kind of hard to really say what it feels like,” Nixon told the Indians’ official Web site. “I’m happy for those guys to be in this position, and I’m extremely happy for our guys to be in this position. But I want to win.”
Judging by how they have performed up to this point, Nixon’s teammates feel the same way. Resurgent Cleveland rolled to the AL Central championship with 96 wins and didn’t slow down in its ALDS matchup, using an overpowering pitching staff and determined lineup to knock off the Yankees in four games.
The most recent of the Indians’ two World Series titles came in 1948.
“This team hasn’t had a championship in Cleveland for a long time,” said veteran left fielder Kenny Lofton, who this season returned to the Indians and batted .375 in the division series. “This is just an unbelievable feeling to be able just to start this process again.”
Lofton was the starting center fielder for the Cleveland teams that made six playoff appearances from 1995-2001 but always fell short, losing in the World Series twice. Along with Nixon, the 40-year-old Lofton brings experience to a young club that again looks ready to compete for a title.
With a lineup led by dynamic center fielder Grady Sizemore and sluggers Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner, a dominant rotation topped by C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, and a deep and overpowering bullpen, Cleveland has few weaknesses.
For the Indians to take the next step, though, they’ll have to defeat a Red Sox club that knows what it takes to do just that - and one that looked just as hungry to win another title during the ALDS.
Boston made short work of Anaheim, completing a three-game sweep with a 9-1 victory Sunday. The Red Sox outscored the Angels 19-4 in the series.
“The guys are enjoying it,” veteran reliever Mike Timlin, a member of the ’04 championship team who has pitched in 20 LCS games, told the Red Sox’s Web site. “This is the time you work for all year long. Some of these guys have never done this. Fortunately for me, I’ve done this a few times, and it’s great. It never gets old doing this.”
Boston’s star-studded rotation was one of the cogs that lifted the Red Sox to their first AL East title since 1995 and into the ALCS, and it will help provide what should be several stirring pitching matchup in the series. Josh Beckett, a 20-game winner this season who shut out Anaheim in the ALDS opener, will take the ball Friday and be opposed by Sabathia, the Indians’ dominant left-hander.
Beckett set the tone for the Red Sox’s first-round sweep by pitching a four-hitter - allowing only singles - in a 4-0 victory Oct. 3 at Fenway. He struck out eight and walked none to improve his career postseason record to 3-2 with a 1.74 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 51 2-3 innings.
The right-hander was outstanding in two starts against the Indians this year, going 1-1 with a 1.80 ERA and lasting at least seven innings both times. He pitched a four-hitter July 25, but lost 1-0 to Carmona and the Indians - one day after Sabathia suffered a 1-0 defeat to Boston.
Sabathia, who won a career-high 19 games in 2007, will be looking for a longer outing Friday after lasting only five innings in a 12-3 win in Cleveland’s playoff opener Oct. 4. He limited New York to the three runs, but walked six and threw 114 pitches.
Sabathia, who made one postseason start in 2001 and beat Seattle in the division series, is 2-0 with a 4.09 ERA in the playoffs. In the July 24 start, his only one against the Red Sox this season, he gave up four hits and struck out seven in seven innings. He’s 2-4 with a 3.91 ERA in seven career starts versus Boston.
Left-handers batted just .203 against Sabathia this season, and Boston manager Terry Francona tweaked his lineup Thursday, announcing switch-hitter Bobby Kielty would start in right field in Game 1 in place of the left-handed hitting J.D. Drew. The veteran Kielty, recalled from the minors Aug. 18, is 9-for-29 (.310) with two homers and four strikeouts in his career against Sabathia.
“He was brought in here to give us some right-handed punch,” Francona said.
It remains to be seen whether Cleveland can carry over its amazing clutch hitting from the ALDS. The Indians went 11-for-30 (.367) with two outs and runners in scoring position against the Yankees.
Besides Nixon, the Red Sox and Indians have several other personnel connections, along with a recent history of playoff matchups. Ramirez rose to stardom while playing his first eight years with Cleveland, while teammate Coco Crisp also started his career there before coming to Boston in a trade before last season. Francona and Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell were teammates on the Indians in 1988 and went on to work in their front office.
Cleveland manager Eric Wedge was a Red Sox prospect who played 27 games for Boston in 1992 before he was left unprotected in the expansion draft and picked by Colorado.
The teams met three times in the postseason from 1995-99. The Indians swept the Red Sox in ’95 in the ALDS on the way to the World Series, then defeated them in four games in the ’98 division series. Boston got some revenge the next year, rallying from a 2-0 deficit in another ALDS matchup to beat Cleveland in a thrilling five-game set.
For the underdog Indians to come out on top this time, they’ll need to play with the same aggressiveness and focus that got them through the first round - attributes that seemed to still be on display in the Cleveland clubhouse this week.
“Who cares?’” first baseman Ryan Garko said of the Red Sox being favored. “Once the game starts, it doesn’t matter. We know Boston is a great team, but we hope beating the Yankees is just the beginning for us. We want to keep going.”
Game 2 will be Saturday night at Fenway.