Chess Match: Sox's early knockout

Chess Match: Sox's early knockout

BOSTON -- When Josh Beckett is on his game, there really isn't a whole lot of strategy for opponents to try that could help make a difference. With the way he has pitched in the postseason, Indians hitters might as well have adopted the strategy of former Tigers first baseman Norm Cash, who once stepped to the plate in the ninth inning of a Nolan Ryan no-hitter carrying a table leg from the clubhouse instead of a bat. The umpire made Cash grab a real bat, and he struck out on three pitches to end it, proving his point.

In games like Friday's American League Championship Series opener, runs should be at a premium. In that respect, the Indians had to do whatever they could in the other half of the game to try to curtail the Red Sox's offense. Try as they might, there wasn't much that worked, and Boston basically put this one away early.

What are you talking about, Willis?
The situation:
One out, bottom of the first inning, runners on first and second and a 2-0 count on Mike Lowell.


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The decision: Indians pitching coach Carl Willis visits the mound in the middle of the at-bat to try to calm down Sabathia, who has just given up three straight singles to bring in a run. He has to throw a strike, but also try to avoid a big hit that puts Boston ahead.

The outcome: Sabathia stops trying to get the Red Sox to chase his breaking stuff and regroups with a 96-mph fastball on the outside corner for strike one. Another fastball, this one further outside, induces Lowell to swing and yields a double-play grounder to second base. Inning over.

The analysis: Even the AL Cy Young Award candidate Sabathia can't be blamed for early nerves in a situation like this. Some pitching coaches will visit the mound in the middle of a count, and some won't. By doing so here, Willis arguably prevented a breakout inning, albeit temporarily. Interestingly, Willis did not visit the mound in the decisive third inning until another run was in and the bases were loaded for Lowell, who hit a two-run double.

"In the first inning, I just said, 'Listen, we've got to be aggressive. We've got to start getting back to challenging these guys a little bit,' because we were falling behind. At the time, it was actually a 2-0 count, and I just wanted to see him go after him. 'Hey, if he's going to get you, make him put the ball in play.' He executed a couple pitches and got the ground-ball double play." -- Willis on his visit

Bobby Sox
The situation:
Red Sox manager Terry Francona has to pick out a lineup to trot out against Sabathia. Other than Manny Ramirez, 12-for-21 lifetime with three doubles and four home runs off Sabathia entering Friday, nobody has hit him particularly well over extensive at-bats except for reserve outfielder Bobby Kielty, 9-for-29 with four doubles and two homers against the large lefty.


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The decision: Not only does Francona elect to start Kielty in right field over J.D. Drew, 0-for-3 with three strikeouts against Sabathia for his career, he bats Kielty sixth.

The outcome: Kielty strikes out on three pitches leading off the second inning, but Sabathia intentionally walks him with first base open in the third. Next time up, Kielty ends Sabathia's outing in the fifth with a two-run single, making it a 7-1 game.

The analysis: Sometimes numbers are tricky to prioritize, especially over a limited number of at-bats, but Kielty's success was too much to ignore. Moreover, with the way Sabathia pitched him in the fifth, the left-hander knew it, too.

"He was brought in here to give us some right-handed punch. He has the ability, especially on some better left-handed pitching, to give you a pretty professional at-bat with the chance that he'll run one out of the ballpark." -- Francona, explaining why Kielty was in his lineup on Thursday

Last chance
The situation:
Bottom of the fifth, bases loaded and nobody out for Kielty, coming up for the third time against Sabathia in a 5-1 game. Right-hander Jensen Lewis is warming up in the bullpen.


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The decision Despite Kielty's aforementioned success against Sabathia and his favorable numbers batting from the right side -- he's a .296 career hitter against lefties compared to .228 versus righties -- manager Eric Wedge keeps Sabathia in the game.

The outcome: Sabathia falls behind on Kielty with back-to-back fastballs off the outside corner before coming over the plate with another heater, which Kielty lines into right field for a two-run single. Wedge then replaces Sabathia with Lewis, who gives up an RBI double to Jason Varitek.

The analysis: With the way Beckett was pitching, holding the Red Sox there wasn't going to make a difference anyway. But those insurance runs made the rest of the game superfluous.

"We're in a playoff game. He's proven to me before, and he's proven to us before, that he can be a little bit off and find it, and that's what you're looking for. And sometimes for a pitcher to find it, it takes that situation to where you've got runners on and it's a big out, or you're trying to control damage and he gets it done there and he takes off. Unfortunately, it just didn't happen tonight." -- Wedge, on Sabathia

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.