If we've learned anything about Octobers the last few years, it's that the month tests, stretches and hones every aspect of loyalty fandom.
Therefore, to adequately preview the madness that is the baseball playoffs, we've invited some of our favorite writers for each of the eight playoff teams to write about their teams. These will be running all day today and tomorrow, and we very much hope you enjoy them.
Up right now: The Boston Red Sox. Your writer is Eric Gillin.
Red Sox fans: Stock up on Pepto Bismol, because your small intestines are gonna feel like a balloon animal filled with refried beans by the end of October. That is, if the Red Sox even make it that far.
While this year's edition of the Red Sox racked up the best record in baseball, thanks to consistent starting pitching, rock-solid fielding, improved team speed, and overall bullpen depth — all crucial factors to playing winning baseball in October — they don't exactly feel dominant. My dad, the kind of emotionally abused, cynical die-hard who insists the Sox will be swept in the middle of Game One, hasn't been able to watch a game past the 6th inning, because he can't take the stress. Deadspin's art guru, Jim Cooke, happily fled the country for the last two weeks of the season because he "couldn't bear to watch them choke against the Yankees." Bulletin boards are bemoaning moves not made ("Paging Mr. Teixeira, Mr. Teixeira, you have a telephone call at the front desk...") and hating on the ones we did make (let's just say Eric Gagne isn't condo-shopping in South Boston right now). For a team with home-field advantage and its first division title in 12 years, its Nation seems oddly subdued.
Part of it is that the Yankees — and a number of other squads — have outplayed the Red Sox since the All-Star break, humbling those boneheads that thought the division title was wrapped up in May. Part of it is injuries, after two key players — Kevin Youkilis and Manny Ramirez — went down in the last month of the season. But a lot more has to do with how this team wins. They don't win the way the Sox used to win. They're the kind of team that needs four hits to score a run, never seems to finish opponents and loses the close ones. They play the absolute worst kind of baseball if you have a heart condition.
If they're going to win another World Series in 2007, it's not going to be pretty. Here's what you'll see from the Red Sox this October:
Four-Hour Games. The Sox have seen 25,357 pitches, second-most in the majors. On the plus side, this means they tend to wear down starters to get to the meaty center of a bad bullpen. But on the minus side, you're sweating through fifteen 3-2 foul balls to get there. After three weeks of this, you'll look like Burgess Meredith in Rocky III.
A Litany of Lefthanders. The Sox have a really obvious Achilles' heel that every manager will attempt to exploit: They're just 25-23 against southpaws this year vs. 71-43 for righties. (Let's just say no one's very excited about the possibility of facing C.C. Sabathia in the second round.)
Tough Losses in Close Games. Here's the real kick in the pants — the Red Sox are just 22-28 in one-run games. Here they are, with a record of 96-66, and they're under .500 in close games. Even worse, they're 2-5 in extra innings. This means that roughly one-third of Sox games were too close for comfort. Two horrible thoughts that plague Sox fans: How good would they be if they won more of those close ones? And what does it mean that they didn't?
Long Innings. The Red Sox have the second-best ERA in baseball, but if you want to truly understand why Sox fans are freaking out it's because they've only induced 145 double plays this year, the sixth-worst total in baseball. Part of this is because they let fewer people on base, but part of it is G-d hates Red Sox fans and created acid reflex disease specifically for them.
Blue Balls. The Sox have left more than ten men on base a whopping 51 times this year, way more than the Yankees (38), the Indians (32), and the Angels (29). Needless to say, the Sox have hit into 146 double plays this year, the fifth-most in all of baseball, which means that bases loaded, one-out explosion you were hoping would finally put away the other team? Don't hold your breath.
Okay. So it's not all bad. This is still a very good baseball team. They're just not exciting because a lot of those long, close games will be won because of things the Red Sox have historically been terrible at: namely, fielding, relief pitching, and running the bases. Add that to the nice mix of veterans who've been there before and explosive rookies who have carried the team over the last two months and you've got some serious potential to go deep into October.
But still. Those five nagging points above are keeping me up nights. Plus a litany of little, nagging issues — like whether J.D. Drew's recent surge is the ultimate cock-tease, or the fact Eric Gagne cannot seem to pitch a 1-2-3 inning, or how $102 million man Dice-K is 5-6 with an ERA of 5.19 since the All-Star Break — and you can see why Red Sox Nation is sweating like a child molester in gen pop.
Stock up on the pink stuff, Sox fans, it's gonna be a bumpy ride.