Red Sox refuse to rest on past success
Against Los Angeles, Boston plays best when it matters most
BOSTON -- Here they are again, getting ready to tackle what has become their time of year. Of the eight teams in the 2009 postseason, perhaps none has a better understanding of exactly what happens once those lights go on than Boston.
The Red Sox will kick off their latest postseason run against a familiar opponent -- the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim -- on Wednesday or Thursday on TBS. This is the third year in a row, and fourth time in the past six, that these cross-coast rivals have squared off in the American League Division Series.
This run of success, by far the best the Red Sox have had since early in the 20th century, has all come since 2003, the same season Theo Epstein took over as general manager. But Epstein knows that past success doesn't guarantee a single victory against the Angels in the ALDS, or anyone else if his team is fortunate enough to move to the next round.
"How we're going to play in October, nobody can answer that," Epstein said. "The track record of a lot of these players is that they answer the bell when it matters most. We'll see if they do or if they don't. I hope we do, but that's not based on a feeling any one person has at the end of the year. It's based on how good we are and whether we play well when it matters most."
Against the Angels, at least, the Red Sox have always played their best when it matters most. En route to their World Series runs in 2004 and 2007, Boston swept Los Angeles in the ALDS. Even the injury-riddled Red Sox team of a year ago took out Los Angeles in four games.
"I think the postseason is its own season," said third baseman Mike Lowell. "You can just kind of throw anything out that happened during the season or in years past. I don't think we can hang our hats [on the fact] that we've played against them well in previous postseasons and [think] that's going to help us carry through. We still have to execute."
One thing the Red Sox clearly has is a plethora of players who have thrived in the postseason, from David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia to Lowell and Jason Bay, from Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon to Kevin Youkilis and J.D. Drew.
And they have a new face, one who has been belting the baseball since his arrival two months ago -- catcher Victor Martinez. There is also the new, old face, shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who came over on Aug. 14 in a trade from the Reds, kicking off his second stint with Boston.
"They've definitely added a lot to our lineup and added to our defense," said first baseman Youkilis. "Alex is one of the best shortstops playing the game. He's very undervalued at his position defensively. There's many times he should have won a Gold Glove, being one of the best shortstops to play in this game. He's added that bonus, and offensively he's done a great job, too."
Then there is Billy Wagner, the flame-throwing lefty acquired from the Mets on Aug. 25, who has a deep thirst to win his first World Series ring at the age of 38.
This is the sixth postseason team for Wagner but the first since 2006. What is the key to succeeding this time of year?
"You just can't overthink the situation," Wagner said. "And you can't try to do more than what you've been doing. Stay with your game plan of making pitches. And for hitters, the same thing, not try to do too much. Just play good baseball."
The Red Sox played great baseball from Aug. 10 to Sept. 24, compiling a 29-13 record, the best in the game over that span. But once they had the AL Wild Card spot well in hand, Francona started resting his troops and getting his house in order for the most crucial time of year.
With plenty of anecdotal research to prove their point, the Red Sox don't think there is a correlation between how a team plays the final 10 games of the regular season and how it performs in October.
"I try not to have too many gut feelings about the roster, because then if you rely solely on your gut, your gut changes," said Epstein. "If you followed the public perception of this team, even over the past six weeks, it was, 'We can't score runs for six games, we're dead in the water.'
"That creeps into everyone's analysis, but that's more how you feel in your gut. Then all of a sudden, we're world beaters and everyone's pick to win the World Series, and now I feel like the last week or 10 days, 'Oh no, they're limping in, they're backing in again.' All that doesn't really mean anything. All that matter is: How good are we, and how are we going to play in October?"
That question will be answered soon enough. The one thing the Red Sox know for sure is that they're in a healthier state than they were last year at this time. Beckett was limited throughout the 2008 postseason with a strained oblique. Lowell could barely run, and he had to shut it down before the ALDS had even ended. Ortiz was playing but feeling the effects of a left wrist injury that had knocked him out of the lineup for nearly two months.
Aside from the venerable knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who might not pitch in the postseason because of his balky back, which needs surgery, the Red Sox don't seem to have any significant injuries to speak of entering this postseason.
Now it will all come down to how well they play.
"We've got a lot of good players, obviously," said Pedroia. "Our pitching staff the last few weeks has been great, and if we pitch good and play good defense and find a way to score some runs, we're going to be a really good team."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.