Spin Forward: Game 6 the pivotal one
History suggests second-to-last game key for tight series
BOSTON -- The last time the Red Sox and Indians were at Fenway Park, they were leaving town ready to fall asleep after more than five hours of baseball last Saturday night and well into Sunday morning. Nearly a week later, they returned to town with this series very much awakened, on both sides.
"When it comes to the postseason, you talk about even from yesterday's game to tomorrow's game, everything prior to today doesn't mean anything," Indians manager Eric Wedge said Friday. "There's only one thing that matters, and that's tomorrow night's game."
The Indians surge that marked Games 3 and 4 has now been tempered, and the hopes of a Red Sox comeback were fueled in Game 5. It fits in with the momentum swings that have characterized this series, and they've almost always revolved around pitching.
When the Red Sox seemed on the brink of winning the first two games here last weekend, they had done it by beating up on Indians front-line starters C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. It took a surprise performance from long reliever Tom Mastny and a struggling performance from Eric Gagne to swing the momentum in Game 2, but it took strong starts from Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd to put the Indians on the brink of the Fall Classic. The two wins the Red Sox have this series have come from their unquestioned ace and Cy Young Award candidate, Josh Beckett.
After all that, it's a 3-2 lead for the Indians, and even if momentum is stymied, history favors them anyway. But if Cleveland doesn't finish it off in Game 6, it's arguably Boston's series -- again.
The stats back it up, at least since the LCS expanded to best-of-seven in 1985. Of the 10 teams to go into Game 6 of the ALCS with the 3-2 series lead, seven have gone on to win the series. Interestingly enough, two of the three AL teams to win Games 6 and 7 and pull the upset did it on the road -- the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium in 2004 and the Royals at Toronto in 1985. Boston's comeback over the Angels in 1986 came with wins in Games 6 and 7 at Fenway Park.
Add in NLCS play and the ratio drops somewhat to 18 out of 26 teams total. Of the five Senior Circuit teams to pull the upset, three of them did it at home, most recently the 2004 Cardinals over the Astros.
As rare as it seems for teams trailing in the series to pull out Games 6 and 7, however, it's rarer still for a team to lose Game 6 and salvage the series in seven. Only four teams in LCS history have done it, half as many teams as have come back to win Games 6 and 7. Last year's Cardinals were the only team to lose Game 6 and win Game 7 on the road when they held off the Mets at Shea Stadium. The only American League team to pull the feat, home or away, was the 2003 Yankees over the Red Sox, and it took Aaron Boone's extra-inning home run to do it.
In other words, history suggests Game 6 is a decisive game, whether there's a Game 7 or not. The challenge for the team leading the series as it enters Game 6 is to not look at it that way, which is what the Indians face when they take the field.
"Every game for us, in a different way or in a different situation, is another first for us," Wedge said. "I think our guys have done a heck of a job handling all of that. And they have a sense of security with each other in regard to how they handle things. That's why I'm confident that they're going to come out tomorrow, and [Thursday's] game is going to be a long ways away from them."
History suggests Game 6 would seemingly be the more likely of the contests to be decided by a strong starting pitcher, which seems fitting with young sinkerballer Fausto Carmona and clutch veteran Curt Schilling opposing each other for a do-over of their Game 2 slugfest. With four-man rotations the norm for postseason teams now, Game 6 almost always features a team's No. 2 starter. And most teams that reach the postseason have at least two strong starters to begin with.
While teams are more likely to ride a hot starter into the late innings of a Game 6, a Game 7 often becomes a battle of staffs, with both teams throwing the best possible arms they can out on the mound to do whatever it takes to win.
Schilling's place on Red Sox postseason history was etched with a stellar performance in Game 6 of the '04 ALCS, for instance, but it was Derek Lowe, Pedro Martinez and Boston's bullpen which decided Game 7 over an aging Kevin Brown. Beckett's heroics for the 2003 Marlins are well known, but his Game 7 performance came as a reliever in place of Mark Redman.
For the Red Sox, of course, they can't think of Game 6 as anything different from Game 5. And Game 7 is nothing more than a possibility right now. That's why manager Terry Francona cut off a question about Game 7 three words into it.
"We need to win Game 6," Francona said, stating the obvious. "We really need to win Game 6. I haven't been accused by [the media] very often of being very, very intelligent, but I do know to get to Game 7, we need to win Game 6."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.