The top five questions heading into the American League Championship Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox:
1. How good is Boston's 1-2 punch in the rotation?
Josh Beckett is a Cy Young candidate, the only 20-game winner in 2007. And he is becoming one of the best postseason pitchers in recent years. Beckett was dominant in his four-hit shutout of the Los Angeles Angels in Game 1 of the AL Division Series, giving him more postseason shutouts (three) than he has in the regular season (two). In his past five postseason starts, Beckett has a 0.70 ERA, a .118 batting average against, six walks and 41 strikeouts. In Game 2 of the ALCS, the Red Sox will start Curt Schilling, who is one of the best postseason pitchers of all time (9-2). His seven shutout innings in Game 3 of the ALDS were so impressive, a scout who saw the game said, "That's the best I've seen him throw in three years. His split is back."
2. How good is Cleveland's 1-2 punch in the rotation?
Just as good. C.C. Sabathia, who likely will win the AL Cy Young, showed how good a pitcher he is in Game 1 of the ALDS against the New York Yankees. He didn't have his command (six walks, 114 pitches in five innings), but he battled and kept his team in the game. Sabathia has faced the Red Sox one time in each of the past two years, allowing two earned runs in 15 innings. Cleveland's Game 2 starter, Fausto Carmona, was sensational in his start in the ALDS. His split is as good as it gets. In his one start against Boston this year, he threw eight shutout innings. What Carmona and Sabathia do so well is work the inside part of the plate; they make hitters (such as Alex Rodriguez) uncomfortable, and they are gifted enough to also work the other side of the plate.
3. How did the Indians get this far?
There are many reasons but few bigger than the emergence of key players around midseason. The Indians didn't do much at the trade deadline, other than acquiring outfielder Kenny Lofton, who has brought even more toughness to the team. And it was around that time that reliever Rafael Perez began establishing himself, Asdrubal Cabrera became the everyday second baseman and Franklin Gutierrez worked his way into the mix in the outfield. Cabrera is absolutely terrific making the double play, just another way the Indians have upgraded their defense. He is a natural shortstop playing second base. One scout said Cabrera reminded him of Detroit's Carlos Guillen "with more range. He's a very calm player."
4. What is the most underrated aspect of the Red Sox?
"Their defense," said one member of the Indians. "They catch the ball a lot better than people think. [Kevin] Youkilis is pretty good at first, the third baseman (Mike Lowell) and shortstop (Julio Lugo) are very good, and so is [Coco] Crisp in center." Still, the Red Sox are going to have to hit if they're going to beat the Indians. And, from all indications, they're starting to hit. Manny Ramirez, the key to the Boston lineup, went 3-for-8 with two home runs in the sweep of the Angels, and, according to one scout, "looked like the Manny of old. He and [David] Ortiz are swinging the bat better than they have all season."
5. What is the most underrated aspect of the Indians?
Their bullpen. Their bullpen ERA (3.75) was sixth-best in baseball this year, and that group threw even better in the ALDS: 13 innings, seven hits, two earned runs, four walks and 15 strikeouts. Perez has emerged as a star setup man, joining Rafael Betancourt, whose numbers this year are outrageous. Betancourt will throw 15 straight fastballs (some of them in on the hitter) at 92 mph and dare the hitter to hit one. If young Jensen Lewis doesn't wake up and see where he is, he'll be another very difficult guy to hit. Plus, with Perez, Aaron Fultz and Aaron Laffey, the Indians have three left-handers to deal with Ortiz and J.D. Drew. Laffey's motion gives him a great angle against left-handed hitters.
Prediction: Red Sox in seven.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "Is This a Great Game, Or What?", has been published by St. Martin's Press and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.