BOSTON -- For the third straight year and the fourth time in six years, the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels will hook up in the first round of the American League playoffs.
History, however, has not been kind to the Angels in this rivalry. The Red Sox have won each time these two clubs have met, and just for good measure, the one time they met predating the wild-card era -- in the 1986 AL Championship Series -- the Red Sox overcame a 3-1 series deficit to shock the Angels by winning the last three games of the series. That was the famous Dave Henderson home run series.
The Angels and Red Sox have played 10 postseason games against each other since 2004, with Boston holding a 9-1 lead.
"I don't think we will come into this series thinking that because we beat them before we will automatically beat them again,'' designated hitter David Ortiz said. "The Angels are too good of a team for anyone to think that way against them. We definitely have our work cut out. But like the past years, it should be a great series.''
Here's a closer position-by-position look at this series and who has the edge in each category:
First base: Kendry Morales (Angels) vs. Kevin Youkilis (Red Sox)
Morales is starting for the first time in a full major league season. Even so, the Cuban defector has put up solid numbers (.306, 34 HR, 108 RBIs) for never having started a full big league season. Youkilis remains the most disciplined hitter in Boston's potent lineup and is considered among the most clutch hitters in the game. It's the biggest reason he bats in the cleanup spot. Morales must prove that he's capable of shining under the bright lights of October. Youkilis has already done so.
Second base: Howie Kendrick (Angels) vs. Dustin Pedroia (Red Sox)
Kendrick is one of the game's best hustling players, as is Pedroia. Kendrick missed one-third of the season because of injury but seems back to form. Pedroia has had a significant drop-off from his MVP numbers from a year ago, but as Orioles manager Dave Trembley recently said, "To me, he's the guy that makes Boston's offense go. There's nothing he can't do." Pedroia hasn't done much against the Angels (.100 batting average in 30 at-bats) in the past two Division Series. Still, he was MVP of the league one year ago.
Third base: Chone Figgins (Angels) vs. Mike Lowell (Red Sox)
Figgins has made the most of his time at third base. But he's simply not the prototypical run-producer at a corner position like third base, though he possesses more speed (42 stolen bases) than most at the same position. Lowell has been fighting off nagging injuries during the past month and is recovering from a torn labrum in his right hip. He's still managed to drive in 75 runs in 119 games.
Shortstop: Erick Aybar (Angels) vs. Alex Gonzalez (Red Sox)
Gonzalez didn't arrive in Boston until mid-August. But he has solidified a position, especially defensively, that had been troublesome for the Red Sox for most of the season. Since arriving from Cincinnati, Gonzalez is batting nearly 40 points higher than his career average of .285. The Sox aren't sure if that bubble will ever burst, but they love having him as a dangerous No. 9 hitter. The Sox will gladly ride him as long as they can. Aybar has had an exceptional season, hitting over .312 with 58 RBIs. He is as solid defensively as they come in the AL.
Right field: Bobby Abreu (Angels) vs. J.D. Drew (Red Sox)
Abreu couldn't find a club to sign him over the winter. He finally settled on a $5 million deal from the Angels and has been one of the biggest bargains on the free agent market. He's been durable (more than 150 games) and consistent (more than 100 RBIs) and remains a patient hitter (almost 100 walks) with speed (30 stolen bases). Drew had a sore left shoulder that required a cortisone injection during the final week of the season, but in true Drew form, he returned for the final game and displayed that sweet stroke of his, hitting a pair of solo home runs.
Center field: Torii Hunter (Angels) vs. Jacoby Ellsbury (Red Sox)
Hunter remains the best defensive center fielder in the game, though many experts believe Ellsbury will take the torch from Hunter in the coming years. Hunter's arrival with the Angels gave them what some believe was a missing ingredient, someone whose passion burns deep. Hunter called out his teammates a few weeks ago after they dropped a disappointing game at Fenway Park in the bottom of the ninth, saying the Angels needed to gain heart. Ellsbury is a prototypical leadoff hitter in the Kenny Lofton mold. His 70 stolen bases were the most in the majors this season and he can roam the outfield as well as any other center fielder, maybe with the exception of Hunter.
Left field: Juan Rivera (Angels) vs. Jason Bay (Red Sox)
Bay enjoyed his finest season at the plate, establishing career highs in home runs (36) and RBIs (119). Several Sox say Bay has been more than welcome since he replaced the moody and often unpredictable Manny Ramirez in last year's blockbuster trade. Rivera has returned from injury-depleted seasons the past two years and put up a solid season (25 HR, 88 RBIs). He's not the most fleet of foot in the field, but his defensive deficiencies haven't hurt the Angels much this season, mostly because Hunter can pick up the slack in left-center field.
Catcher: Mike Napoli (Angels) vs. Victor Martinez (Red Sox)
In what is arguably the best trade deadline deal of the summer, the Red Sox's acquisition of Victor Martinez from Cleveland has been the boost this club needed. The switch-hitting Martinez batted .336 since the trade and has belted eight home runs and has 41 RBIs in 56 games for Boston. Napoli and Jeff Mathis nearly split time behind the plate, with Napoli getting a few dozen more starts, mostly because he is a more productive hitter. One area to watch is baserunning, especially for the Angels. Red Sox catchers have thrown out less than 10 percent of base-stealers.
Designated hitter: Vladimir Guerrero (Angels) vs. David Ortiz (Red Sox)
Two aging players whose careers are on the back side. But both can still turn on fastballs and make an opposing pitcher pay. Ortiz became the all-time leader for home runs by a DH three weeks ago and has overcome steroid allegations to put up another productive season, though he failed to reach 100 RBIs (99) for the second straight season. Ortiz's 27 home runs since June 6 lead the AL. Guerrero has come back from injury and posted a solid second half -- he has hit 11 of his 15 home runs since the All-Star break -- though he no longer drives the ball with the same vengeance he once did.
Starting pitching: Jon Lester will oppose John Lackey in Game 1. They will be followed by Josh Beckett against Jered Weaver in Game 2 and Clay Buchholz facing Scott Kazmir in Game 3. Lester is somewhat of a surprise choice to start Game 1, especially considering Beckett's postseason résumé includes a 7-2 record with a 2.90 ERA. But part of the Red Sox thinking is that Beckett could pitch Game 2 and come back to start a possible Game 5 on his regular rest. Buchholz will be making his first postseason appearance next Sunday. Lackey has been the Angels' ace since he helped lead them to the 2002 World Series title. Lackey has started nine postseason games for the Angels but hasn't won one since beating San Francisco in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series. Weaver and Saunders have each won at least 15 games this season, but neither has had much success in the postseason. The pair combined to start two playoff games with no wins.
Edge: Red Sox.
Relief pitching: While Mariano Rivera's postseason statistics have a right to be mentioned at the top of the class, Jonathan Papelbon has appeared in 25 postseason innings and has never -- yes, never -- allowed a run. He recently became the Red Sox all-time saves leader and his intensity is rarely matched. Righties Daniel Bard and Ramon Ramirez and lefties Hideki Okajima and Billy Wagner give the Sox one of the most dependable and versatile back ends of a bullpen around. Brian Fuentes has enjoyed a tremendous season for the Angels, saving a career-high 48 games, but it comes with an eye-raising 3.93 ERA. Veteran Darren Oliver has enjoyed a remarkable comeback the last two season, pitching an Angels bullpen-high 73 innings in 2009. Kevin Jepsen, Jason Bulger and Matt Palmer round out the set-up pitchers, though Ervin Santana will move from the rotation into the bullpen and could be something of a wild card for the Angels.
Edge: Red Sox.
Bench: This is the one spot where most every club reduces its finances and even though both the Angels and Boston boast top-heavy payrolls, they are no different when it comes to saving money on their benches. Gary Matthews Jr. does pull down a $10 million salary, but he's only batting .250 with four home runs and doesn't figure to start any of the playoff games. Jason Varitek is the big-name player on Boston's bench, but he's there mostly because he lost his starting job to Martinez. The Angels also have Robb Quinlan, Maicer Izturis and Reggie Willits on their bench. Boston's bench has been hurt by the loss of Nick Green (back) and now possibly Rocco Baldelli (hip).
Manager: Mike Scioscia (Angels) vs. Terry Francona (Red Sox)
Each has guided his club to a World Series title. Scioscia is generally considered one of the game's great tacticians, while Francona is viewed more as a great motivator. But Francona isn't just the manager who ended 86 years of drought -- he managed to bring New England a second championship in 2007 and must now be considered one of the game's best. This is one area where there seems to be an even playing field.
Intangibles: The elephant in the room is in the Angels' clubhouse. Not the other way around. It's like it was for the Red Sox for all those decades. Even though Red Sox players had absolutely nothing to do with what had happened in earlier years, they were constantly reminded of how long it had been since a Boston club won a World Series. It came to the point that almost every baseball fan knew what "1918" meant. The Angels face similar circumstance with their inability to beat the Red Sox.
Edge: Red Sox.
Prediction: The Angels seem to be built to win the AL West only. It's a weaker division where a slightly heavier payroll is usually enough to separate a team from the rest of the division, and the Angels have managed to do well in that regard over the past decade. But Los Angeles is missing a big bopper in the middle of its lineup, that truly intimidating hitter. Guerrero is no longer the menacing force he was in Montreal, or even a few years ago with the Angels. Maybe with the exception of the Yankees, Boston's lineup is as solid a one-through-nine group as there is in the game. It's been a problem for the Angels the past three times these two clubs have met and the belief is that until the Angels show they can beat Boston in the postseason, they are at a distinct disadvantage. Boston's depth will once again prove to be too much for the Angels to overcome.
Pick: Red Sox in four.