Rockies, Red Sox ready to tangle
Francis goes for Colorado; Beckett on hill for Boston
BOSTON -- Left standing as we reach Major League Baseball's summit are Colorado's irresistible force, the Rockies, and Boston's immovable object, the Red Sox.In the immortal words of Jack Nicholson -- or was it Diane Keaton? -- something's gotta give. Game 1 of a fascinating 2007 World Series, matching Boston's Josh Beckett against Colorado's Jeff Francis, unfolds on Wednesday night at Fenway Park. Rarely have two combatants been so primed for prime time. Fight fans have a context: Ali-Frazier. Think of Beckett as Frazier, bombing away, while Francis floats and stings, Ali-esque. The Rockies arrive on a historic run, having taken 21 of their past 22 games, including seven straight in a dazzling postseason. The Red Sox, the Majors' best team through summer into fall, carry momentum in the afterglow of three consecutive win-or-go-home decisions at Cleveland's expense in the American League Championship Series. History, tradition and home-field advantage favor the AL champs, looking to win it all for the second time in four years. The Rockies don't care, and why would they? They've defied all odds and overcome everything put in front of them since Sept. 16. Manager Clint Hurdle's voice reflected that distinct Colorado edge in addressing the issue of the eight-day layoff since the Rockies finished their NLCS sweep of Arizona. Can intrasquad games create an adequate competitive edge? "The more emphasis you put on something, the more power you give it," Hurdle said. "We haven't given the layoff a lot of power, a lot of emphasis. We will not apologize for winning quickly. "I don't think I've ever been as proud of a group of men as I am the men that we brought into this World Series, that entire clubhouse. That being said, we have work to do. We didn't get here to get close ... to finish second. "We believe in who we are and what we are." Hurdle broke some news during his Tuesday press conference at Fenway: Aaron Cook, the veteran right-hander sidelined on Aug. 10 with a strained oblique, would return to the rotation to pitch Game 4 in Denver on Sunday night. Rookie southpaw Franklin Morales goes to the bullpen, with Ubaldo Jimenez and Josh Fogg following Francis in Games 2 and 3. Removed from the 25-man roster was right-hander Taylor Buchholz. Boston manager Terry Francona also delivered some news at his press conference: Tim Wakefield's shoulder inflammation would take him out of the Series, and Jacoby Ellsbury, not Coco Crisp, would be in center field in Game 1. Crisp banged his left knee against the wall catching the final out of Game 7 of the ALCS against Cleveland. His diminished condition simplified Francona's most difficult lineup decision -- before the scene shifts to Denver and the DH disappears, creating the possibility of torrid Kevin Youkilis taking a seat in favor of David Ortiz at first base.
"He's not just here to be on the ride," Francona said of Ellsbury, who made his presence felt late in the season with his speed and talent and again in the final two ALCS games against the Indians. "He's here to win. For a young player, that's kind of rare."For us to put him in Game 6 after not playing [earlier in the series], I think that shows the amount of confidence we do have in his ability to compete." With Wakefield out of the rotation mix, Curt Schilling is set for Game 2. Daisuke Matsuzaka will face Fogg in Game 3 on Saturday night in Denver. Francona was not ready to discuss Game 4 plans. Southpaw Jon Lester is an option, and Beckett is not foreign to the concept of working on three days' rest. He did it in shutting out the Yankees, 2-0, to win Game 6 and the 2003 World Series for Florida at Yankee Stadium. That was the start of a legend that continues to grow. In nine career postseason outings, eight as a starter, Beckett is 5-2 with a 1.78 ERA and three complete games. He has cranked it up to an astonishingly high level this fall with a 3-0 record and 1.17 ERA in 23 innings. In those three outings, one against the Angels and two against the Indians, Beckett's interior numbers are stunning: one walk, one hit batsman, 26 strikeouts, 13 hits yielded and a .160 opponents' batting average. This is the stuff of legend, lifting the man from Texas into the historic October realm of Christy Mathewson and Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. Air doesn't get any rarer than that. Beckett was the 2003 World Series MVP and just captured the '07 ALCS MVP award. Among pitchers who have thrown 26 or more postseason innings, Beckett is the hardest guy to hit in history -- 4.66 hits per nine innings. His WHIP (walks and hits per nine innings) of 7.16 is also the best in history among those with 26 or more innings. In a word, Beckett is nails. The Rockies counter with a lineup full of hammers. Few clubs in the Majors can pound like Colorado, with Matt Holliday, Todd Helton, Garrett Atkins, Troy Tulowitzki and Brad Hawpe combining for 131 home runs and 554 RBIs. Holliday and Atkins each homered and doubled on June 14, when the Rockies handed Beckett his most severe beating of the season, 7-1, at Fenway. Beckett yielded 10 hits and six runs, all earned, striking out only one hitter. Francis worked five scoreless innings for the win. "They've always had a good lineup," said Beckett, familiar with the Rockies from his NL days. "Now they've got some pitchers that know how to pitch. They were always just kind of mixing and matching when I was in the National League." If it's possible to get comfortable against someone as dominant as Beckett, a steady diet of power pitchers in the NL West -- Jake Peavy and Chris Young, Brad Penny and Matt Cain -- has prepared the Rockies. "I think it helps," Hurdle said. "There's a lot of good pitching in our division. We have to face a lot of number ones and number twos, a lot of high-velocity guys, sliders, curveballs, power curveballs, changeups, splits. We've seen pitching. "Beckett's a very, very good pitcher. He's on top of his game right now. Last time we came in here, he was undefeated (9-0). That's going to be a challenge. We're looking forward to it." In their one-game playoff with the Padres for the NL Wild Card, the Rockies had to go through Peavy, whose stuff was overpowering enough to claim the league's pitching triple crown: wins, strikeouts and ERA. "It's tough to compare [Beckett's] stuff to Peavy, a guy I've faced a lot of times," Tulowitzki said. "I don't think I've faced Beckett enough to get a feel for his stuff. "Obviously, they're both great pitchers. Beckett seems to be a big-game pitcher; he comes up with big pitches when he needs them." Carrying the banner for the NL champs -- and for his native Canada -- is a cool southpaw from Vancouver, Francis having established himself as an ace in his fourth Major League season. Working his third consecutive road postseason opener, Francis would like to maintain a trend. He outdueled Cole Hamels in beating the Phillies in Game 1 of the NLDS and followed that with a conquest of Arizona ace Brandon Webb in the NLCS opener. "The thing that really impressed me about Jeff, watching him in October, was that he never changes moods," Beckett said. "They always stay the same. It was really impressive to watch him pitch in both of those playoff games and be the No. 1 guy in both series." History suggests Game 1 is certainly important, if not critical. The winner of the Series opener has gone on to celebrate a championship 60.8 percent of the time. The rampaging Rockies and resilient Red Sox are intent on making their own brand of history, starting Wednesday night.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.