Playoff Pulse: Questions Linger for Red Sox

Playoff Pulse

With a rather sizable assist from Mike Scioscia's hubris-fueled devotion to smallball, the Red Sox are headed back to the ALCS for the fourth time in six years. If recent history tells us anything, Boston might fall behind early -- as they did against New York in 2004 (3-0) and Cleveland in 2007 (3-1) -- but it will find a way to win the series.

These are, after all, the Red Sox. They've been there before. They're Major League Baseball's model franchise. They have dominant starting pitching, a lights-out closer and a mix of experienced veterans and budding youngsters.

But while Boston basks in another winning playoff series, let's take a moment to consider how many problems it is facing as it tries to win another World Series and establish baseball's first dynasty since the Yankees of the late 1990s.

There is a veritable laundry list of concerns:

Start with Mike Lowell, last year's World Series MVP. Lowell hobbled through Game 1 and did the same in Game 3, but by the time Jon Lester threw the first pitch of Game 4, the third baseman was off the ALDS roster, a move that will keep him out of the ALCS as well. Frankly, even if Boston makes the World Series it would be very surprising if he played again this year.

The Red Sox will make do with Kevin Youkilis at third and a combination of Mark Kotsay, Sean Casey and likely Jeff Bailey at first base, but they're a weaker team on both sides of the ball without Lowell.

Add in J.D. Drew and his balky back. Sure, Drew had the dramatic, titanic blast in Game 2 off of record-setting closer Francisco Rodriguez, but he sat out the next game. With all of the fits and starts he's had trying to return to game action, it seems like his back could go at any point. At the very least, he probably won't be in the lineup for every game of the ALCS.

Also add a middle relief corps that, were it not for a Vladimir Guerrero's horrific baserunning blunder in Game 1 and Scioscia's appalling suicide squeeze in Game 4, may very well have blown the series for the Red Sox.

And finish with Josh Beckett, the erstwhile postseason ace, who struggled through five innings in Game 3 against the Angels. Beckett could be hurt. His ALDS start was pushed back because of a strained oblique, and given the problems he had with his command and control, that injury could have been affecting him. Beckett and the team both insist he is healthy.

He could also be rusty -- indeed that seems like the only other explanation considering the right-hander's past postseason exploits. Beckett was idle for a dozen days between his final regular season start and his turn in the ALDS. Either way, he's gone from money in the bank in October 2007 to an enigma in October 2008.

Hey, these are the charmed Red Sox of the new millenium. Maybe a three-headed Kotsay-Casey-Bailey monster will do the trick at first base. Maybe J.D. Drew's back will cooperate a few more weeks. Maybe all Josh Beckett needed was a tuneup in the division series to dominate for the rest of the month. But that's an awful lot of question marks for a team trying to win it all.

The Rays only had one question facing them: Would the bright lights of October be so blinding that they'd wilt on the big stage because of their inexperience? They answered that doubt pretty authoritatively in Chicago a few hours before Jed Lowrie sent the Red Sox into the ALCS.

Yesterday's Hero: B.J. Upton, who was on a power binge over the final two games against the White Sox. Honorable mention to Jon Lester, Jed Lowrie and Torii Hunter.

Yesterday's Goat: Mike Scioscia, Mike Scioscia, Mike Scioscia, a thousand times Mike Scioscia. Dishonorable mention to ... oh, forget it, everyone else pales in comparison.

Quick Hits: It would have been cool to see the Cubs in the NLCS, but, really, can you complain about these two matchups? ... The Dodgers and Phillies announced their Game 1 starters. No surprises here. Derek Lowe gets the ball for Los Angeles, while Cole Hamels will toe the rubber for Philadelphia. ... We have a good idea how the Rays will align their rotation: Shields-Kazmir-Garza-Sonnanstine. What about the Red Sox? Much of it hinges on Beckett. Jon Lester could start Game 2 on normal rest, but if Boston really believes Beckett is healthy, he could also. That would set up a Matsuzaka-Beckett-Lester-Wakefield foursome.

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