With the opening pitch set for 9:37 pm, Eastern Standard Time, the Sox and Angels get ready to kick off their leg of the American League playoffs. The short-series ALDS puts tremendous emphasis on the opening game, as a 1-0 lead in a Best of 5 is better than gold. With Beckett going up against Jered Weaver in Game Two, an opening win for Boston would put quite the damper on Anaheim’s plans.
The first game features a battle of staff leaders. Sox ace Jon Lester goes up against Angels’ number one starter John Lackey. Lester and the Sox have the definite edge in this one, as Lester has turned himself into an early Cy Young candidate for 2010, while Lackey has seen a slight downturn his skills in 2009.
The consummate field general, Angels Manager Mike Scioscia was likely up late last night game planning for the opener as his lineup is a very interesting match for Lester.
With the option to bat as many as eight players right-handed (Anaheim has four switch hitters: Maicer Izturis, Kendry Morales, Erick Aybar, and Chone Figgins), Lester’s prominent reverse-platoon splits may give Scioscia pause when instructing his batters to hit right-handed. Lester’s pronounced splits have actually given the edge to left-handers this season, as they hit a combined .257/.305/.411 against the ace, while righties compiled a .237/.299/.350 clip.
Still, Scioscia would be wise to heed the Laws of Voros McCracken, as Lester’s splits are largely the result of an unsustainably high batting average on balls in play (BABIP). While the league average BABIP centers at approximately .300, with little variance among pitchers, Lester and the Sox’ poor defense have managed to allow lefties to post a .346 BABIP, while righties served up just a .308 line. Therefore, despite the intriguing stat line, Scioscia should keep his batters hitting from the right side.
However, the unrelenting parade of righties may cause some problems for Lester over the course of the game. Though he has been practically unhittable by every metric imaginable, if he has one weakness it is that he has been reluctant to trust his change-up at times this season, throwing it just 6.6 percent of the time, or about 7 tosses per game.
With the plethora of righties at the plate, he may have to find command of this pitch sooner rather than later. If the Anaheim batters can catch on to his curve early, Lester will have to go to his change to avoid the Angels’ hitters sitting on his high speed offerings, namely his four-seamer and cutter. However, it should be noted that he has had good success with the change when he has gone to it – much like every other offering in his repertoire.
In the end, these points may prove trivial as Jon Lester is one of the best pitchers in the game for good reason. Though this Angels team can hit well, Lester can pitch better. Expect him to bring his usual dominant stuff, inducing poor swings and lots of Ks.
Lester cruises through six innings before getting lifted in the seventh.
Final Line: 6 IP, 2 ER, 7 K, 2 BB
John Lackey has experienced a bit of a down year in 2009. As written earlier in the Angels pitcher breakdown, Lackey is a quality pitcher, though he has seen “better days”.
Through 176.1 innings this season, Lackey has struck out 139 batters, with 47 walks; good for a 3.83 ERA and 3.73 FIP. He uses a good combination of a fastball, slider, and curve, while occasionally mixing in a change-up. He has had success with each of his pitches this season except his change, though he throws it so rarely (3.3 %) that it may not factor much into this decision.
An efficient pitcher who works deep into ballgames, Lackey averaged around 6 ½ innings per start this season, on the shoulders of a low walk rate (2.4 BB/9), smart use of his pitches (3.68 P/Plate Appearance), and quick innings (15.6 P/IP).
Lackey will have a tough time getting through the Boston lineup, however, as his shrewdness at the mound is matched by Boston’s patience at the plate. With a tendency to wear down hitters, Boston was second in the AL in pitches per plate appearance in 2009, at 3.94 P/PA.
Still, Lackey will fight his way through the tough Boston gauntlet and will arrive (relatively) safely on the other side. He’ll perform well, but don’t expect magic.
Final Line: 6.1 IP, 3 ER, 5 K, 2 BB
Keys to the Game
Anaheim versus Lester’s Curveball
With Lester likely to face a high number of opposite-handed batters, it will be very important for him to get the curveball working in his favor early. Unfortunately for him, the Anaheim lineup, as a whole, has fared very well against the bender this season – Kendry Morales and Erick Aybar have crushed them, while Juan Rivera and Howie Kendrick have also been very good.
In the event of the curveball failing against righties, Lester may have to go to the change, which he often goes long stretches without using. While Lester’s fastball and cutter are great pitches, he needs something with which to switch speeds on the Anaheim hitters.
It will be interesting to see how this one plays out, though Lester should be OK in the end.
Lackey Needs to Miss Bats
With the abilities of this Boston team to work the count and hit for power, John Lackey will be playing with fire if he intends to rely too heavily on his defense to convert balls in play into outs. Anaheim’s defense is not particularly strong, ranking 18th in the league in defensive efficiency, which will help Boston when it starts putting together rallies. If too many balls are put in play, the hits will start falling – and Lackey will be in trouble.
Lester v. Kendry Morales
This matchup could have been one of the best of the playoffs… if Morales were a better hitter from the right side.
Still, the two players possess opposing skill sets, as Lester’s combination of fastball-cutter-curveball poses an interesting challenge given Morales’ success against curveballs and cutters this year, while being merely average against the fastball.
Luckily for Lester, Morales doesn’t have a whole lot of power from the right side (4 HR in 135 ABs) and possesses a poor approach at the plate (5 BB : 21 K). Therefore, Lester should be able to throw the fastball early in the count, while finishing Morales off with the curve in the dirt. Advantage Lester.
Lackey v. David Ortiz
Another interesting matchup, the pair also has opposing skill sets. Ortiz has struggled with sliders this season, though many of those have been from lefties. Sliders have a notoriously large platoon split, meaning that Papi’s struggles against them will be neutralized by Lackey’s right-handed delivery.
Lackey’s curve should also be handled well by Ortiz, who has hit them well this year.
On the other hand, Papi’s relative struggles with fastballs in 2009 should give Lackey a nice insurance blanket when he gets in trouble. Even so, with the curve in danger, Papi has an oh-so-slight upper hand in this matchup.
In the end, the Sox should take this game comfortably. Lester is just too good to lose, unless the Boston bats have a severe power outage, which is not particularly likely. With the way Lackey has pitched this year: good, not great, it won’t be easy, but it won’t be enough resistance, either.
Final Score (For Entertainment Purposes Only): Red Sox 4.53 Angels: 3.56