RED SOX MASHERS MAKE THE DIFFERENCE IN THIS MATCHUPBy Gordon Edes
If all it took was great pitching to win in October, the Atlanta Braves would have won five World Series instead of the one that Bobby Cox retired with last season. Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine are all going to the Hall of Fame, but their collective brilliance wasn't enough to turn Peachtree Street into a Southern-style Canyon of Heroes.
You don't win championships without pitching and defense -- take a bow, Sons of Bruce Bochy -- but the Boston Red Sox have already demonstrated twice this century that the capacity to bash your opponents into submission still has its place, which is why the Red Sox clearly have the upper hand in any potential autumn rendezvous with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Not even the most biased Boston partisan is going to argue that the Red Sox rotation can match up with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt (assuming Oswalt overcomes his back problems). But the Phillies' advantage, while clear, is not suffocatingly so. Few pitchers can match Josh Beckett's postseason pedigree of 2003 (with Florida) and 2007, and Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz give Terry Francona the capacity to lay three aces on the table.
The big difference between the Phillies and Red Sox can be simply grasped, however, by looking at what the Phillies lost last winter -- slugging outfielder Jayson Werth -- and what the Red Sox gained -- Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford.
While the Phillies have struggled to eke out runs on a nightly basis, even with the return of injured Chase Utley, the Red Sox have recovered from an inexplicable horrid start to score seemingly at will. Even allowing for their recent glitch against the Padres and Pirates, the Sox are averaging around 6½ runs per game in June and collectively batting better than .300.
Gonzalez has been the league's MVP in the season's first half and shows no signs of cooling off -- on the contrary, he's batting .443 this month -- and Crawford, who is on the disabled list with a strained hamstring and has only occasionally flashed the game-changing skill set the Sox had signed up for -- looks like he's finally beginning to feel at home on Yawkey Way.
Combine the new guys with a lineup that has a healthy Jacoby Ellsbury emerging as one of the game's premier leadoff men, a regenerated David Ortiz hitting like he did when Manny Ramirez was riding shotgun, and Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis grinding out great at-bats night after night, and the Sox have a lineup long and deep and destructive. Not perfect, to be sure. But one built to play -- and win -- in October.
ARGUMENT BEGINS AND ENDS WITH PHILLY'S BIG THREEBy Jerry Crasnick
It would be easy enough, in this quest to make a case for the Phillies as major league baseball's best team, to point to the franchise's run of first-place finishes since 2007. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins & Co. know they can rely on each other in big spots, and manager Charlie Manuel creates a comfort level in the clubhouse that everything will be just fine in the end.
But since we have only 400 words to argue the point, let's go straight to the six words that matter most:
Take a spin through the 30 MLB rosters, and you might come up with 15 legitimate, staff ace-caliber starters. Relax the standards a bit and maybe you'll get 20. No matter what the definition, three of them pitch for Philadelphia.
Continuity at the top of the rotation has been a godsend because of all the unforeseen setbacks at Citizens Bank Park this summer. Utley didn't make his 2011 debut until May 23. Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes have had to jump in and save an injury-riddled bullpen. Joe Blanton has made six starts, and now Roy Oswalt -- the fourth ace -- is out until August with back problems. The Phillies rank 20th in baseball with a .693 OPS and have fewer runs than the Mets, Royals and Indians. But they still have the best record in the game at 49-30 because of their transcendent starting pitching.
Halladay, Hamels and Lee rank among the top 10 in the National League in innings pitched, strikeouts, ERA, Wins Above Replacement, quality start percentage and strikeouts-to-walk ratio. As a group, they've combined for 345 strikeouts and 62 walks.
Halladay is going to the Hall of Fame one day. Anyone who thinks Hamels is a No. 2 or 3 starter simply isn't paying attention. And skeptics who rushed to the Internet to ask "What's wrong with Cliff Lee?'' have gotten their answer this month. He's 4-0 with a 0.27 ERA in 33 innings in June.
Sure, Boston's lineup is stacked, but recent history shows that the team with great pitching beats the club with good pitching and a powerhouse offense in October. Think Braves-Indians in 1995, or the Randy Johnson-Curt Schilling Diamondbacks versus the Yankees in 2001, or Giants-Rangers last season.
Sometimes the simplest answers come in the most obvious places. In Philadelphia, the answer is located on a hill, 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate.