The two best teams in baseball face off in a semifinal round, which is sort of like having Phoenix play San Antonio in an early-round matchup in the NBA playoffs.
When Boston is up
• Pitch counts: Grab your favorite beverage and a sack lunch. Both teams take a ton of pitches, but the Red Sox do a better job of putting the ball in play and are better able to turn their lineup over.
• Watch for mistakes middle-in: David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez eat those pitches for lunch. When Ortiz and Ramirez are batting, you'll often see a catcher set up away. But if the pitcher misses his target (as Francisco Rodriguez did with Ramirez in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the ALDS), the mistake might end up on Lansdowne Street.
• More Raffy: We may see a lot more of Rafael Perez in this series; Boston has several left-handed hitters in its lineup, and Indians manager Eric Wedge doesn't seem to trust Aaron Fultz unless the game is already lost. Perez didn't respond well to heavy use in the Division Series (more on that in a moment) and frequent back-to-back usage of Perez in this series may cost the Tribe.
When Cleveland is up
• Here's the pitch: Grab another beverage and a snack. Cleveland ranked just behind Boston in pitches seen per plate appearance this year. Although Cleveland's lineup isn't quite as deep as Boston's, it can work an opposing pitcher with the best of them.
• Tough outs: You'll see some great battles in some of these at-bats because Cleveland has a number of hitters (Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez) who can hit all types of pitches while being selective at the plate.
• Lefty vs. lefty: Cleveland has at least three left-handed hitters in its lineup every night, and the Red Sox are carrying three lefties, but Hideki Okajima is largely confined to the eighth inning. That leaves side-armer Javier Lopez, who despite his low arm slot, isn't terribly effective against left-handers and Jon Lester, who made only 12 appearances (11 starts) during the regular season and none in the Division Series. When Red Sox manager Terry Francona uses Lopez, he either has to change his game plan or forfeit any lefty-lefty advantage.
Keys for the Red Sox
• Stay out of the double play: The Red Sox put a lot of men on base, don't strike out much, and by and large don't run well. Two of Cleveland's starters throw sinkers, and Fausto Carmona's is very tough to lay off because it's often a strike. Look for the Red Sox to send runners and to try to hit and run (especially if Coco Crisp or Julio Lugo are on first and Dustin Pedroia is batting) to avoid the double play.
• A well-rested 'pen: Although Boston's bullpen wasn't required to do much serious work in the Division Series, the Red Sox do have a few things to worry about. Okajima wore down in September, requiring some time off, and he wasn't sharp in Game 3 against the Angels while working on one day of rest. And apparently Eric Gagne is only allowed to pitch with a lead of nine runs or greater.
• Roll of the Dice: Get something more out of Daisuke Matsuzaka. He wasn't very effective against the Angels (he was the only Boston pitcher to surrender more than one run) and the culprit was a familiar one: He lost his command when he had a few guys on base. It wasn't a terrible outing, but it wasn't the dominant Matsuzaka we saw earlier in the season. He'll face a much better lineup in this series, potentially pitching twice if the series goes seven games.
Keys for Cleveland
• Win behind C.C. Sabathia and Carmona: Jake Westbrook was knocked around by the Yankees, and Paul Byrd nearly was too (allowing seven of the first 14 Yankees to reach base). The Red Sox's offense is almost as good as New York's, and Boston matches up well against Westbrook and Byrd. However, no lineup matches up well against Cleveland's front two; two wins in each of their two starts would make Westbrook and Byrd irrelevant.
• Convert double-play opportunities: Boston puts a lot of men on base, while Carmona and Westbrook both generate a lot of ground balls, a combination that often leads to a lot of double plays. Asdrubal Cabrera is plus at second base, but Jhonny Peralta is erratic at short. Look for Wedge to slide Cabrera to short late in games to shore up the middle-infield defense.
• Keep the Rafaels fresh: Wedge wasted Rafael Perez for two innings in Game 1 of the ALDS -- a blowout of the Yankees. When Perez pitched in Game 2, his velocity was down about 4 mph. There's no reason to risk injury or ineffectiveness like that when you're up six runs. Meanwhile, he used Rafael Betancourt while up nine runs in Game 1, even though Betancourt does not fare well when working with no rest. Keeping those two pitchers -- among the best relievers in baseball this year -- fresh and sharp so they can get critical outs in highly-leveraged situations will be extremely important.
I was tempted to go with Cleveland in 6 because the Indians could easily win twice behind C.C. and F.C., but the safe bet has Boston and Cleveland splitting Games 1 and 2. I also don't see Cleveland getting as lucky behind Byrd as it did in round one. The Red Sox have their own pitching concerns, but their offense and bullpen are both stronger than Cleveland's. I'll bet on one good outing from Matsuzaka and a hard-fought series all around.
Boston in 7.