Power Play for Indians, Red Sox

C.C. Sabathia and Josh Beckett
Nowhere will the difference-making influence of power be felt more than in Friday's Game 1, when Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia, left, and Boston's Josh Beckett square off. (AP)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 12, 2007

BOSTON, Oct. 11 -- One is nearly 300 pounds, left-handed, African American, Bay Area cool, with his cap cocked at an angle, the kind of guy who holds his 27th birthday party the night before the all-star game and gets Playboy to co-host it. The other is quiet, lean, a throwback, a Texas cowboy from the Nolan Ryan-Roger Clemens line of hard-throwing, ornery right-handers. But other than those slight differences, C.C. Sabathia and Josh Beckett are barely distinguishable from each other.

The American League Championship Series, which opens Friday night at Boston's Fenway Park between the Red Sox and Cleveland Indians, is a showcase of power pitching, that precious baseball commodity that, come this time of year, tends to reward those who own the most of it.

Over the course of this best-of-seven series, you will see that power everywhere, from a Game 2 matchup between Cleveland's 23-year-old Fausto Carmona, with his sinker from the depths of Hades, and Boston's 40-year-old Curt Schilling, who has had to learn to get by with less of it this season. The respective bullpens are equally loaded with power, highlighted by Indians lefty setup man Rafael Perez and Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, two of the more unhittable relievers in the league this season.

For that matter, the power in this series is not limited to pitching, as Boston's Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, both finally healthy, are reviving memories of the 2004 World Series championship team with their offensive fireworks, while Cleveland's offense, built around sluggers Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez, hit .315 and slugged .524 in beating the New York Yankees in the Division Series.

"They've got great pitching, and we do, too," Sabathia said. "They've got huge bats, and we do, too. Look at the numbers, look at the pitching, look at the offenses -- I think we're dead even. It's just going to [be determined by] who wants it more."

Still, nowhere will the difference-making influence of power be felt more than in Friday night's Game 1, when Sabathia and Beckett -- who pound the strike zone in the mid-90s, occasionally dialing up a 97- or 98-mph thunderbolt -- square off in a matchup of the presumptive 1-2 finishers in the AL's Cy Young Award voting (though not necessarily in that order).

"Their guy is one of the best in the game, [and] we feel like our guy is one of the best in the game," Red Sox Manager Terry Francona said. "It's pretty awesome. . . . Anything less would be a little disappointing."

And if the series goes the distance, Friday night's opener could be merely the first entry in a potential Sabathia/Beckett trilogy -- a throwback to an era when postseason aces were expected to start three times in a seven-game series. Because of an extra day off built into this year's LCS schedule, Beckett and Sabathia could start on three days' rest in Game 4, then pitch on full rest in Game 7. Neither manager, however, has committed to such a plan.

"If we get to a situation in the series where someone is saying . . . 'You'd better pitch somebody on three days' rest,' " Francona said, "we haven't played very well to that point."

Beckett and Sabathia, both 27 years old, could very well be this generation's righty-lefty version of Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax, or Clemens and Randy Johnson. Among pitchers 27 or younger, Sabathia has the most career wins, with 100, while Beckett ranks fourth, with 77.

But Beckett, the most valuable player of the 2003 World Series as a member of the Florida Marlins, has amassed one of the best postseason r¿sum¿s of anyone his age in history. Only Christy Mathewson has matched Beckett's feat of three postseason shutouts before turning 28. And in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Los Angeles Angels, Beckett became only the ninth pitcher in the last half-century to pitch a complete-game shutout without issuing a walk.

"He doesn't fear that situation," said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, also a teammate of Beckett's with the 2003 Marlins. "You want that in your ace."

While Beckett was scripting his latest postseason masterpiece against the Angels, Sabathia was laboring through his own postseason opener, a five-inning effort in Game 1 against the New York Yankees in which he allowed six walks and four hits and was lucky to escape with a win -- a classic case of October jitters.

"It was the first game against the Yankees, first game of the playoffs, [the Indians'] first playoff game in six years," Sabathia said. "So I was excited. . . . I need to control myself and control my emotions and be under control."

If anything, Cleveland's Game 2 starter -- the sinkerball specialist Carmona -- epitomizes the power-pitching ethos even more so than Sabathia. In his only start in the Division Series, Carmona became the first pitcher all season to complete nine innings against the Yankees' destructive, league-best offense, limiting them to three hits in a no-decision.

"It was very impressive," said Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, who groomed Carmona and many of the Indians' other young players as their director of player development before taking his current job this season. "I don't know that there's been many starts this season where he didn't have that kind of stuff."

There will be no break, in other words, for the Red Sox' hitters after surviving Sabathia in Game 1. The same goes for the Indians, who get Schilling, 9-2 with a 1.93 ERA lifetime in October, in Game 2. Nor will getting the starting pitcher out of the game provide any relief, as both teams will run in one power arm after another from the bullpen. In this series, there is nowhere to hide from the power.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company