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Spin Forward: Take and rake

Spin Forward: Take and rake

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BOSTON -- More than one hundred years of thought and discussion about hitting a baseball can ultimately be boiled down to three words: swing at strikes. Or, more colloquially, take and rake. However you phrase it, nobody in 2007 follows the commandment better than the Boston Red Sox.

The American League champions lay off pitches out of the zone, and punish offerings over the middle of the plate. They're willing to take a walk, but they don't go up looking for walks. Simply having good stuff is not enough to beat this team. You have to locate it, or you'll get hurt. They do not get themselves out.

Jeff Francis learned that lesson painfully on Wednesday night in Game 1 of the World Series. Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Fogg and Aaron Cook will have to heed it if they hope to avoid Francis' fate.

"This team goes up to bat and has a great approach," said first baseman Kevin Youkilis. "We're going to be aggressive, crossed with patient at the same time. We go up there and swing at the pitches that we can hit, and hit hard. We're just going to work the counts and try to get on base as much as possible."

It wasn't the walks that did Francis in; he issued only three, and two were intentional. But his pitch count mounted quickly, as he needed 103 pitches to get 12 outs. And he rarely got ahead, throwing first-pitch strikes to fewer than half the hitters he faced.

"[When] you try to change speeds with your fastball and you're not getting down in the zone like you want to, hitters take advantage of it when you leave it up in the zone," Francis said.

"The bottom line is we didn't execute at the right times."

The Rockies turn to Jimenez in Game 2 to try to slow the Boston freight train. The Red Sox have scored 43 runs in four games. Jimenez walked 37 batters in 82 innings this year. He'll have to do better than that on Thursday.

"He has to learn from the mistakes we made today," said pitching coach Bob Apodaca.

The fact is, you can hit your spots and you can have excellent stuff and the Red Sox can still hit you. They're that good. But the degree of difficulty goes up immensely for pitchers who don't locate. Even Josh Beckett, who already has a halo brighter than the CITGO sign in the eyes of many Red Sox fans, has no desire to face his teammates.

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"They really work pitchers," Beckett said. "When you have a team plan like we have, every night, it's kind of fun to watch. Because not a lot of teams do what we do and have that team approach. Every time they go up there, they're trying to see five or six pitches. They grind pitchers out. Not too many guys last."

It's worth noting that Francis usually has very good command and terrific stuff. And Wednesday, he wasn't off by much. He wasn't far out of the zone. He just wasn't getting ahead. And when he fell behind, he came over the plate and got smoked.

"Some of that is us not leaving the zone," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "If you get good pitches to hit, and don't swing at balls, against any pitcher it enhances your chances."

After Jimenez, the series switches to Coors Field and the look of the Rockies lineup changes. In Games 3 and 4, Colorado will go with two pitchers with more marginal stuff than Francis and Jimenez.

Josh Fogg starts Game 3, followed by sinkerballer Aaron Cook in Game 4. Cook in particular pounds the strike zone, but the question with him will be whether he has enough on his ball to get Boston hitters out.

If he doesn't do both -- get it in the zone, but out of the meat of the plate -- he'll join a long line of pitchers done in by the dangerous Red Sox lineup.

Take, and rake.

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

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