Boston's missing piece

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. – And then there is the team Manny left behind, sometimes identified as the team that left Manny behind.

Still winning, thus far undaunted, might we even speculate relieved, the Boston Red Sox arrived at Angel Stadium on a soft Tuesday afternoon and the entire roster immediately reported to the trainer's office.

Mike Lowell, J.D. Drew and Josh Beckett did, anyway, or a substantial portion of the last World Series champions. Whatever happens from here, this won't be the same ballclub that frolicked on a Denver infield at the end of last October.

For reasons of attrition, exasperation and various swelling, the Red Sox have two entirely different MVP candidates (Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis), a new left fielder (Jason Bay), a new cleanup hitter (Youkilis again) and, for the moment, a new ace (Jon Lester). They didn't win the AL East, but they did have the best record in the league – 34-19 – since Aug. 1, the day Manny Ramirez found fastballs and spiritual enlightenment in L.A.

"We are a different team," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said after eyeballing Lowell and Drew through parts of a workout.

Some would say they look less like the 2007 Red Sox than they do the 2007 Angels, who hobbled into the division series against the Red Sox and were done in three games. Francona and his bosses were to make roster decisions Tuesday night and lineup decisions Wednesday afternoon, though Francona saw enough early Tuesday afternoon to determine Drew (back) "looked real good," Lowell (hip) "looked really good" and Beckett (oblique), who's not scheduled to start until Sunday in Boston, "was very encouraging."

Angels manager Mike Scioscia was pretty much saying the same things about banged-up veterans Vladimir Guerrero, Garret Anderson, Gary Matthews Jr. and John Lackey last October, and then he watched his team get beat by a cumulative score of 19-4. These are the breaks, strains and rigors of the season, of course; only the Angels clinched weeks ago and therefore had the time to patch up Guerrero, Joe Saunders and their middle infielders, Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar.

"It's night and day on our side," Scioscia said. "I don't think there is any doubt that we're a deeper club right now, and I think we're doing a lot of things well and hopefully we're going to bring to the field the style of play that we have had all summer and haven't been able to see in our past couple of times in the playoffs. … Last year against Boston we were a skeleton club."

So, baseball karma spins and the Red Sox wind up infirm, opening the postseason on the road and spending the final hours of September praying body parts hold together for a few more weeks. On the bright side, none of these ailments are new, and the Red Sox won anyway. And when they look around the clubhouse and over the lineup, they no longer wonder where Manny is (assuming they ever did) but appreciate the work of Bay, who hasn't been Manny at the plate but was close enough, and Youkilis, who assumed the primary duties hitting behind David Ortiz.

That said, for the first time since the Red Sox started hammering the Angels in the playoffs this decade, the Angels have the better three-four-five hitters, particularly if Ortiz's wrist continues to bother him, and therefore the better offense. They outscored the Red Sox in the second half and beat the Red Sox eight times in nine games. Maybe that's not a Manny thing, but maybe it is. And all of the injuries would seem a little more inconsequential if a game and motivated Manny still were around.

"I'm pretty sure they're going to be careful with me this year, the fact he's not around," said Ortiz, who in the sweep of the Angels in the 2007 division series had five hits (two home runs) in seven at-bats and walked six times. Not surprisingly, Ramirez had as many RBIs (four) as the Angels had runs in the series.

"I'm sure it's going to be a little bit different," Ortiz said. "But, I gotta be sure I do what I do, swing at good pitches. … There's not a question having Manny behind you is going to make people – pitchers and managers – make the right decision. Thank God Youk is getting it done."

Youkilis is good. Ramirez is, well, different.

"I don't think you can compare when Manny's on deck versus any other guy," Lowell said. "Last year, I had a pretty good year. But in any RBI situation, you walk Manny to pitch to me. That doesn't mean we don't have guys in place of Manny. I think you can say Youk's been almost as effective as Manny would have been."

The critical word: "almost." As in, the Red Sox are "almost" healthy, and therefore "almost" as good as the Angels.

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