The Angels and the Red Sox have been frequent American League Division Series opponents -- the past two Octobers, and three times in the past five years. The common denominator in these meeting has been a one-sided Boston victory. What might be different this time when the ALDS starts on Wednesday or Thursday on TBS?
The Angels present a markedly different look for this October. This Angels team, based on regular-season production, will have a much better offense than any of its predecessors.
The last two postseason meetings between these teams were decided in the most fundamental way -- the Red Sox pitching stopped the Angels' offense. Can the Red Sox staff accomplish this feat again?
On paper, the 2009 Boston pitching staff is not as good as the club's previous two. But the potential remains for the Red Sox to be anywhere from very good to excellent in this area. Jon Lester has emerged as a top-shelf lefty, and Josh Beckett has been dominant in the postseason before -- in 2003 for the Marlins and even more so in 2007 for the Red Sox. And the Boston bullpen is both extremely talented and exceptionally deep.
The Red Sox were third in the AL in runs scored this season. They have power -- five players with 22 or more home runs -- they have extreme speed with center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and they have DH David Ortiz staging a second-half resurrection. Plus, their patience at the plate, individually and collectively, wears down the opposition's pitching on a regular basis.
But the Angels were second in the AL in runs. This may be the deepest, most diverse offense this team has produced. It has base stealers -- primarily the versatile Chone Figgins, but also Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter. Kendry Morales has been a run-producing revelation replacing Mark Teixeira at first. And the Angels, typically a free-swinging group in the past, have added patience at the plate to their game, making them a much more difficult lineup, giving them a much better shot in a postseason series. This set should be more closely contested than any of the previous three.
Angels: Bobby Abreu's influence seems to have not only changed this offense, but absolutely transformed it. Abreu is one of the most patient, selective hitters in the game, and this season the rest of the Angels have made him a role model and made themselves a team with one of the best on-base percentages in the game. The rest of their game is still intact. They are not just speedy on the base paths. They are intelligent and aggressive. Top to bottom, there are no gaps, no weak points in this lineup. When they are on their game, they are one of baseball's most enjoyable teams to watch, even for non-Angels fans.
Red Sox: Victor Martinez was a huge addition: one more impact hitter in the middle of the order. Big seasons from Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis are becoming a matter of routine. Mike Lowell remains a reliable presence in the lineup and a positive influence overall. J.D. Drew is not having one of his best seasons, but he can still be a difference-maker. Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia are ideal table-setters at the top of the lineup. Ortiz has returned to form after struggling mightily early in the season. This is not the most powerful lineup in the game, but it is still one of the best.
Angels closer Brian Fuentes vs. Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz. A game, and even this Division Series, could turn on this lefty-on-lefty matchup. Fuentes has an impressive save total, but he has been far from untouchable. How much is left in the tank for Big Papi? Can his second-half resurgence carry over into October? The Angels need Fuentes to be much more than adequate, and the Red Sox need Ortiz to once again be a force in clutch situations.
Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon vs. Angels first baseman Kendry Morales. Papelbon remains one of the game's best. Despite earlier concerns about a decline in his secondary numbers, the quality of his work has not notably diminished. What a classic matchup with this power-pitching right-hander against Morales, a switch-hitter, who carries one of the best slugging percentages in baseball. The Angels, far from suffering with the loss of Teixeira, have thrived, and one of the main reasons for that is Morales' run production.
Angels: The back end of the bullpen has not been a sure thing. The Angels typically play a lot of close games, which was part of the reason Francisco Rodriguez could set a single-season saves record last year. Incumbent closer Fuentes has also piled up a lot of saves, but he has not been as consistent as the Angels would have liked. They need him to be at the top of his form here, and they could also use some outstanding work from Kevin Jepsen, 25, in a setup role. Jepsen has excellent stuff and performed very well in the second half, but lacks experience in this setting.
Red Sox: Given good health, the Red Sox should be all set in the first two postseason rotation spots. Beckett has been a dominant pitcher in two postseasons on two World Series winners. Lester has emerged as a starter of consistent quality. But Clay Buchholz has never pitched in October. And Daisuke Matsuzaka, while he has obviously demonstrated dramatic improvement since returning from a long stint on the DL, has had only four starts since that return. Postseason series have been won by teams with two outstanding starters, and not much more in the rotation, but the Red Sox would like a larger margin for error from their rotation.
The Angels will win if ... they can consistently score runs. Their rotation has rounded into form. Their fifth division title in six years speaks to their overall quality and commitment. But they have been shut down offensively in the past two meetings with Boston and have a 1-9 record against the Red Sox in their last three postseason meetings. But this is the best offense they have brought to the postseason in recent years, and if it can perform at its regular-season level, the Angels will advance.
The Red Sox will win if ... their starters can give them good, solid, commendable starts. These performances don't have to be great starts, although those would always be welcome. The rest of the Red Sox game is good enough to win. The offense has power, and speed at the top of the order, and depth in proven run producers. The bullpen should be outstanding. The talent in the rotation is obvious, and with performances from the starters ranging from steady to outstanding, the Red Sox could win this Series and more.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.