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It's picks time for ALCS and NLCS

I wont gloat much over my division series picks (OK, just a little. I was 3 for 4, missing only the Red Sox over the Angels. Those of you who criticized the Dodgers over the Cubs were thinking too much with the pixie dust that's all over Chicago too often).

Now it's time to move on to the ALCS and NLCS. Sully has his say in Thursday's paper and he seems to be leaning to a Manny Ramirez reunion at Fenway with the Dodgers meeting the Red Sox.

Am I really going to agree with Sully on this one? Absolutely. While I love the Rays and really think they can beat the Sox -- and it could easily be a seven-game series with the home team winning every game -- I think Boston's experience proves to be the difference. As for the NLCS, I just think the Dodgers are the hot team with the better pitching, better manager and the more versatile lineup. The Phillies are a little too much of home run-or-bust for my taste this time of year.

I've got the Red Sox in six and the Dodgers in five. Make your picks and leave your thoughts in the comments section.

---Mike Harrington

Cubs, Angels come up small

The Cubs couldn't do anything right in their series. The Angels somehow survived Game Three but blew a ninth-inning suicide squeeze and got sent home for the winter by the Red Sox in the ninth inning of Game Four Monday night.

So there we have it. Baseball's two best regular-season teams get richly-deserved exits in the division series. We're left with Dodgers and Phillies in the NLCS and a bitter grudge match between the Red Sox and Rays in the ALCS.

Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez could be on a collision course with his former teammates for a World Series at Fenway. Wouldn't that make for a wild story? Ramirez says he's rooting for his former teammates and here's one more piece of delicious irony: The Red Sox are still paying his salary!

The NLCS starts Thursday, the ALCS on Friday so we've still got time to ponder my picks. So looking back at the division series, are you more surprised by the fall of the Cubs or the Angels?

---Mike Harrington

The last word from Fenway

SoxBOSTON -- If you think you've rarely seen a series with so many swings of momentum, you're right. This was only the third time in history BOTH teams had a three-game winning streak in a seven-game series.

The Cubs and Marlins both did that in the 2003 NLCS and the Red Sox and Yankees did it in the 2004 ALCS. Everything seemed to be going the Indians' way with a 3-1 lead but they never got momentum again after the odd off day before Game Five. The Red Sox responded by outscoring the Tribe, 30-5, over the final three games.

It would have been nice if the Indians had gotten something from 100-RBI man Travis Hafner (4 for 27, 12 Ks) or leadoff man Grady Sizemore (6 for 27). And don't even get me started on the 0-3 work of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. But in the end, the Red Sox had Josh Beckett and the Tribe didn't. The Red Sox had Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis and the Tribe didn't. And the Tribe had Joel Skinner while the Sox didn't.

Poor Skins. The ex-Bisons manager entered Game Seven blooper films forever (think Grady Little and Lonnie Smith) when he held Kenny Lofton at third instead of letting him score the tying run. The Fenway crowd was incredibly nervous at that point. Sox history buffs will note they blew a 3-0 in Game Seven of the '75 and '86 World Series and a 4-0 edge in Game Seven of the '03 ALCS.

If this one slips away and the Indians tie it, who knows what happens? Instead, Casey Blake bounces into a double play and the Sox explode for eight runs to bounce the Tribe home.

Have your say here. Did the Sox take this series by the throat and grab it away? Or does C-Town stand for choke?

See you back here Wednesday night.

---Mike Harrington

(Photo: Associated Press)

Live from Fenway: Game Seven

BOSTON -- This is the place for updates to see if the Indians can find their equilibrium and somehow stop the Boston momentum in Game Seven of the ALCS. Or if the Tribe will simply become the next version of the '96 Cardinals. That St. Louis team had a 3-1 lead in the NLCS -- but the Braves outscored them, 32-1, in the final three games. Boston has a 19-3 bulge over the Tribe in Games Five and Six.

It's over: Sox win, 11-2. A long, cold winter for the Tribe after blowing the final three games. Sox-Rockies starts here Wednesday night.

DustinEnd-8th: So close. Jonathan Papelbon inherited a first-and-second, no-out jam and got out of the inning unscathed -- but not before Ryan Garko fell about five feet shy of a game-tying three-run homer. The ball died in Jacoby Ellsbury's glove in deep right-center just in front of the bullpen. The Sox blow it open with a six-run eighth to make it 11-2. A three-run double by Dustin Pedroia (right) and Kevin Youkilis' two-run homer are the big blows.

End-7th: Josh Beckett has sat back down, with Hideki Okajima pitching his second inning. Closer Jonathan Papelbon is up and I'm betting the Sox may use him for two innings. Meanwhile, Jake Westbrook has done a terrific job for Cleveland, retiring the last seven hitters. The Tribe just blew a golden opportunity to tie the game as Kenny Lofton got to second when Julio Lugo dropped his popup in short left field and went to third on Franklin Gutierrez's single down the line. But why didn't he score? The ball caromed into short left field and third-base coach Joel Skinner first waved Lofton home, then held him up. On the next pitch, Casey Blake banged into an around-the-horn double play to end the inning. Wow.

Blake must have still been thinking about his DP ball because he butchered Jacoby Ellsbury's leadoff chopper. One out later, Rafael Betancourt gave up Pedroia's two-run homer over the Monster. It's 5-2 Boston after it probably should have been 3-3 in the top of this inning. Poor Skinner. Think he just hurt his chances of managing the Pirates next season? Yikes.

Top-6th: Daisuke Matsuzaka is gone, replaced by Hideki Okajima. But the big news is this -- Josh Beckett is warming in the Boston bullpen. Dice-K's line: 5 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 3 Ks.

Lofton_out_2Mid-5th: We're at the halfway mark and the Indians have crept within 3-2 on Ryan Garko's RBI double in the fourth and Grady Sizemore's sacrifice fly in the fifth. The Tribe fifth could have been bigger but Kenny Lofton was gunned out (right) by Manny Ramirez trying to stretch a leadoff single to a double. A 50-50 call that went Boston's way and probably cost the Indians a run as Franklin Gutierrez followed with a single up the middle. Jake Westbrook has induced three double plays in four innings, giving Boston an LCS-record 14 in the series.

End-3rd: The Red Sox have a leadoff hit in each inning and that runner has scored to produce a 3-0 lead. Kevin Youkilis has two hits, including a double in the third that became run No. 3 on Mike Lowell's sacrifice fly. Daisuke Matsuzaka retired the first eight Indians before Casey Blake's two-out single was the Tribe's first hit. He he went to second on a wild pitch but Grady Sizemore fanned for the third out. Boston's run in the second scored on Julio Lugo's double-play ball after Jason Varitek led off with a double and Jacoby Ellsbury singled him to third.

End-1st: The Red Sox lead, 1-0, on Manny Ramirez's RBI single that should have been an inning-ending double play. Just like last night, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis led off with singles. David Ortiz struck out and Manny-being-Manny ripped a wicked one-hopper off the lip of the grass. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta was down (?) and the ball kangarooed over his head off his glove into left-center. In this situation, that play has got to be made to get Westbrook off the field. Things could have been much, much worse as J.D. Drew came up with the bases loaded but there was no grand slam tonight. Instead, it was a DP -- with second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera making a terrific barehand catch and relay to first.

Byrd_2Pregame: The Paul Byrd-Mark Shapiro press conference was pretty chaotic, with nearly 100 reporters jammed in a hallway near the Indians' clubhouse. Byrd was pressed up against a brick wall for his chat (left), during which he explained his shipments of HGH were prescribed by doctors for medical reasons. Why not do this in the official interview room? The word is that MLB didn't want the room used with its official backdrop so the Indians were on their own. There is no basement here and the clubhouse is right in the concourse. Cordoned off by a fence from fans, you could still hear all their chatter and smell the Italian sausage and onions. Pretty bizarre setting for a serious talk.

Anyway, the Dropkick Murphys (see the Game Six blog) got the crowd in a good mood by performing the national anthem and their signature tune, Tessie, from a stage in front of the center-field wall. Ex-Sox utility man Kevin Millar got a rousing ovation when he tossed the first pitch. Meanwhile, the Boston police tell us they are planning for a celebration as they just handed out a press release saying the Fenway neighborhood will be locked down from the seventh inning on (e.g. no one gets in who isn't already in). Hope they work on the public drunkenness.

I left the park at 2 a.m. last night and college kids were stumbling all over the place. Cabs simply refused to pick anybody up (isn't one point of a cab to help stem DWI?). Took me a mile walk away from the park -- at 2 a.m. remember -- to get one to stop. Brutal cab town and the subway shuts down at 12:45 a.m. Wonderful.

---Mike Harrington

(Photos: Associated Press)

Game Seven pregame

BOSTON -- It's quiet for now here at sunny Fenway Park four hours before Game Seven of the ALCS between the Red Sox and Indians. MLB officials have just announced the Indians pitcher Paul Byrd and GM Mark Shapiro will speak the media regarding this morning's HGH bombshell sometime in the 6 p.m. hour.

Sox manager Terry Francona said Tim Wakefield won't pitch in relief tonight because it's become too difficult for the 41-year-old knuckleballer to warm up quickly in light of his recent back troubles. So that means Jon Lester will be the long man out of the pen if Daisuke Matsuzaka has early trouble.

"Dice-K is taking this kind of personally," Francona said. "I think he wants to go out and do something to help the cause."

The only change in either team's lineup is that the Indians have reinserted Franklin Gutierrez in right field over Trot Nixon. The Sox are keeping Jacoby Ellsbury in center for Coco Crisp

Here are tonight's starting lineups:

Cleveland                                       Boston

Grady Sizemore, cf                      Dustin Pedroia, 2b

Asdrubal Cabrera, 2b                 Kevin Youkilis, 1b

Travis Hafner, dh                        David Ortiz, dh

Victor Martinez, c                         Manny Ramirez, lf

Ryan Garko, 1b                           Mike Lowell, 3b

Jhonny Peralta, ss                     J.D. Drew, rf

Kenny Lofton, lf                          Jason Varitek, c

Franklin Gutierrez, rf                  Jacoby Ellsbury, cf

Casey Blake, 3b                          Julio Lugo, ss

-----------------------------------------------------------

Jake Westbrook, p                     Daisuke Matsuzaka, p

Byrd in center of HGH report

BOSTON -- Talk about bad timing for the Indians. On the morning of Game Seven of the ALCS, the San Francisco Chronicle writers who have been following the Barry Bonds steroid case dropped this bombshell in today's editions: Indians pitcher Paul Byrd bought nearly $25,000 worth of human growth hormone and syringes from the Florida anti-aging clinic that has been the focus for illegally distributing performance-enhancing drugs.

Indians GM Mark Shapiro has issued the following statement: "We aware of the story regarding Paul. I have spoken with Paul about the situation, however, at this time I don't feel I have enough information to make any further comments on the matter. He has been an important member of this organization - on and off the field – over the last two years and we support him in this process.”

FOXsports.com has just released a story that Byrd acknowledges the Chronicle report but said he used HGH prescribed under a doctor's care in part because he has a tumor on his pituitary gland at the base of his brain.

Byrd is not starting tonight (Jake Westbrook is) and that's a good thing. Imagine if Byrd was the starter. But if the Tribe wins, this will undoubtedly be a major distraction during the World Series for the veteran who has been Cleveland's most reliable starter in the postseason.

---Mike Harrington

It's slipping away from Tribe

BOSTON -- Where did the Indians' momentum go?

Scoreboard_2 When we woke up Thursday morning, we were preparing for one of Cleveland's biggest parties ever. Now we might be getting ready for Cavs' season. Everything goes through starting pitcher and it's going to be a long, cold winter for C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona if the Indians don't survive this series. And Travis Hafner has been so invisible he's not worthy of a nickname. Pronk has been a big zero the last four games, as in 0 for 15. The Red Sox have outscored the Tribe, 19-3, in the last two games.

Asdrubal The Red Sox are riding their pitching (Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling) and I also found some motivation on the back of their clubhouse door after Game Six. On the door is a blown-up copy of a column in the Elyria (Ohio) Chronicle-Telegram. It says in part: "This Indians team is better than the Red Sox and will prove it once and for all in cramped Fenway Park. Sure a home-field celebration would've been nice but silencing Red Sox Nation in its house will be just as sweet."

The column also quotes Ryan Garko saying, "The champagne tastes just as good on the road as it does at home."

The way this looks, the only champagne Garko and the Tribe will be tasting soon will be if they're going to some offseason wedding.

---Mike Harrington

(Photos: Kenny Lofton, top, and Asdrubal Cabrera/Associated Press)

Live from Fenway: Game Six

BOSTON -- It's a Red Sox rout but keep it here to follow along on the road to Game Seven of the ALCS between the Sox and Cleveland Indians:

The bottom line: Sox win, 12-2, and it's Dice-K vs. Jake Westbrook Sunday night at 8:23 for the right to meet the Rockies.

Top-6th: Still 10-1 and it's one big party here. The Dropkick Murphys' version of "Tessie," which blew up here during the 2004 championship season, just brought down the house when it showed up on the video board. If you're a Red Sox fan, I guess you'll want to rock along. If you're a fan of the Indians you won't be able to stomach it. (Post-midnight update: The Red Sox just announced the Murphys are singing the national anthem prior to Game Seven)

End-4th: Grady Sizemore just got a standing ovation from Red Sox fans behind the Indians dugout for his spectacular diving catch in deep right-center off Jacoby Ellsbury that ended the Boston fourth. Pretty amazing fans in this place.

Fausto Top-4th: Let's recap the Tribe's alleged aces in this series:

---The line tonight for Fausto Carmona (left): 2+ IP, 6 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 4 BB, 2 K.

---For the series, Carmona's numbers are 6 IP, 10 H, 11 ER, 9 BB, 7 K, 16.50 ERA.

---C.C. Sabathia in two starts: 10 1/3 IP, 17 H, 12 R, 12 ER, 7 BB, 9 K, 10.45 ERA.

---The ugly totals: 16 1/3 IP, 27 H, 23 ER, 16 BB, 16 K, 12.67 ERA. And a record about to be 0-3. Incredible.

Bot-3rd: J.D. Drew strikes again with an RBI single to make it 5-1 and Carmona is gone after two-plus innings. The crowd is going wild as Kenny Rogers is crooning "The Gambler" over the PA ("know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run"). As the fans were celebrating the run, we were hearing "Brass Bonanza." Remember that one? It was that horrendous music they played every time the Hartford Whalers took the ice. Betcha never thought I could mention them in a baseball blog! Hey, I've got to go to some "B" material here to keep you interested with the way this game is going.

It's 10-1 and TV sets across America are probably clicking off. Rafael Perez continued his implosion in this series, allowing both of his inherited runners to score and then giving up Julio Lugo's RBI double that made it 8-1. Things really fell apart on Kevin Youkilis' RBI single off the Green Monster. He was hung up between first and second but Asdrubal Cabrera's throw back to first hit Youkilis in the helmet and rolled away, allowing Dustin Pedroia to scoot home and put the Sox in double figures. Youk kind of stuck his head out, a la Reggie Jackson's hip in 1978, but there was no claim of interference. Maybe there should have been. But would it really matter?

End-2nd: The Tribe inched closer as Victor Martinez sent a take-that to the men in blue with a solo homer to right to make it 4-1. Carmona got out of a first-and-third jam in the bottom of the inning when David Ortiz bounced into a double play -- right into the shift as shortstop Jhonny Peralta made the play on the first-base side of second.

Jddrew Bot-1st: Disaster for the Tribe as the Red Sox lead, 4-0. Carmona gave up two infield singles and a walk to Ortiz and the bases were quickly loaded. Manny Ramirez struck out and Mike Lowell's first-pitch fly to right was too shallow to score a run. An out away from escaping the jam, Carmona fell behind Drew, 3 and 1. Then the most unpopular free agent in Boston became Fenway's hero with a grand slam (right), a liner that barely cleared the wall in center. It took Carmona 36 pitches to get out of the inning and when it was over, Martinez had to be restrained from going after plate umpire Dana DeMuth. Manager Eric Wedge then got his money's worth. There were some close pitches, especially a 2-1 offering to Drew that was called low. A 3-1 count or a 2-2 count is a huge difference.

Top-1st: The Tribe came oh-so-close to taking a quick lead as Grady Sizemore launched a high drive by the Pesky Pole in right. Maybe it was too high. The ball looked fair but it went over the pole and it was tough to judge. Umpires ruled it foul. Hmmm. Schilling responded to get the Tribe 1-2-3, striking out Travis Kafner to end the inning (yes, I see the spelling there). The Tribe's PronK -- emphasis on the K -- is 0 for his last 13 with eight strikeouts.

---Mike Harrington

(Photos: Associated Press)

Game Six pregame

BOSTON -- Greetings from sunny and warm Fenway Park, where it's 70 degrees and the streets are hopping with activity in anticipation of Game Six of the ALCS, aka Red Sox Comeback II. There is no way -- no way -- these are October conditions and I've got the feeling we're all going to pay the weather piper when we hit Denver next weekend.

Anyway, Curt Schilling is taking the mound tonight just as he did in the Bloody Sock Game in the 2004 ALCS in New York. Same situation. Sox down, 3-2, needing a win to stay alive. We'll see if he's better than he was against the Indians in Game Two of this series. Same for his mound opponent, Cleveland right-hander Fausto Carmona. Neither made it out of the fifth last Saturday, the 13-6, 11-inning win for the Tribe that stretched to 1:37 a.m.

The big pregame news is that Boston manager Terry Francona has given in to public opinion, and made the right call with his own eyes as well, in replacing Coco Crisp in center field with rookie Jacoby Ellsbury. Crisp is just 5 for 31 in the postseason and 3 for 21 in the series. He was 0 for 5 and failed to sacrifice twice in Game Five. Ellsbury hit .353 in 33 games late in the regular season but has had only one postseason at-bat.  The Indians have put veteran lefty Trot Nixon in right field against Schilling over Franklin Gutierrez.

Here are tonight's starting lineups:

Cleveland                                    Boston

Grady Sizemore, cf                      Dustin Pedroia, 2b

Asdrubal Cabrera, 2b                 Kevin Youkilis, 1b

Travis Hafner, dh                        David Ortiz, dh

Victor Martinez, c                         Manny Ramirez, lf

Ryan Garko, 1b                           Mike Lowell, 3b

Jhonny Peralta, ss                     J.D. Drew, rf

Kenny Lofton, lf                          Jason Varitek, c

Trot Nixon, rf                                Jacoby Ellsbury, cf

Casey Blake, 3b                          Julio Lugo, ss

-----------------------------------------------------------

Fausto Carmona, p                     Curt Schilling, p

Beckett from the pen?

BeckettCLEVELAND -- It will be interesting to see how Red Sox manager Terry Francona handles his pitching staff for the rest of the ALCS. We know Curt Schilling will start Game Six and the Sox will have their entire bullpen ready at their disposal.

But what about if we go to Game Seven? You've got to believe Daisuke Matsuzaka will get the start if for no other reason than the Sox have to justify that $103 million contract. On the basis of who's pitching the best, I'd go with Jon Lester. Tim Wakefield should be available in relief and Josh Beckett (right) indicated after his brilliant Game Five performance that he might be able to pull a Randy Johnson and throw and inning or two of Game Seven relief.

"We'll delve into that later," the always foul-mooded Beckett scowled after Game Five. "Obviously I'm preparing myself for them to ask me that, and as of right now, yeah, I think that would be something I could do."

---Mike Harrington

(Photo: Associated Press)

Game Five Live

CLEVELAND -- Joe Torre's gone and everybody should get over it for a few hours. I'm with Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who said he's got more important things to worry about tonight. Namely, a stay-alive Game Five of the ALCS against the Cleveland Indians. Keep it here for some live updates:

The bottom line: A 7-1 Red Sox victory and Game Six is Saturday night at 8:23 at Fenway. What a performance by Josh Beckett and what a colossal disappointment for the Indians and their fans.

End-7th: The Indians are in big trouble as the Red Sox are in command, 4-1. Boston knocked out C.C. Sabathia with two runs in the seventh on Kevin Youkils' RBI triple off the glove of Grady Sizemore in center and David Ortiz's sacrifice fly. The latest ugly Sabathia pitching line: 6+ IP, 10 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 6 K , 112 pitches, 70 strikes. Beckett, meanwhile, is spinning a five-hitter with 10 strikeouts and has thrown 96 pitches. Talk about clutch.

Lofton Bot-5th: Beckett is definitely pitching with an edge in this one. The benches just cleared and Kenny Lofton had to be restrained (left) from going after Beckett following his fly ball to left. Lofton dropped his bat after taking a 3-0 pitch for a strike and Beckett didn't like that. He barked at Lofton following the fly ball and Lofton yelled back rounding first on his way to the dugout to start the teams' mutual carping session. The Sox still lead, 2-1, as Beckett allowed two straight hits but struck out Asdrubal Cabrera to leave runners at the corners. He's struck out seven and had retired nine straight until Casey Blake's two-out single.

Mid-5th: Sabathia is walking a dangerous tightrope in this one. He's thrown 93 pitches through five innings, allowed eight hits and two walks -- and still trails by only 2-1. The Sox left the bases loaded as Bobby Kielty flied to right on a full-count pitch. After two out, Ortiz singled, Manny Ramirez walked on a 3-2 offering and Mike Lowell was hit by a pitch -- one delivery after he missed a two-run double by a couple of inches when his scalding liner down the left-field line landed just foul. The Tribe could easily be down by three or four runs. It's a good thing they're not because Josh Beckett has retired 10 of the last 11 and hasn't given up a hit since the first.

Mid-4th: The bottom of the order is just killing the Red Sox. Sabathia has already given up seven hits but it's still just 2-1. Boston had two on and no out but No. 8 hitter Coco Crisp failed to sacrifice twice, then struck out to cap a brutal at-bat. Julio Lugo followed with an easy double-play grounder -- Boston's 10th of the series! The Nos. 8-9 slots in the Boston order are just 6 for 33 in the series.

Mid-3rd:  Looks like we're going to have a Manny-being-Manny night. Ramirez just drove a pitch deep to right-center for a two-run homer -- or did he? The ball hit the yellow line atop the wall and bounced back in as Ortiz scored from first to put Boston up, 2-1. But Manny stayed at first and the umpires ruled the ball wasn't out. Close call but why wasn't Ramirez at second? Run Manny, run!

End-2nd: I'd say Beckett just threw a purpose pitch to Franklin Gutierrez, a 96-mph fastball over the right fielder's head. Beckett has no walks in the postseason. Hmmm. Hey Josh, it's not Franklin's fault Manny didn't run! Still 1-1 after two.

Manny_plate_2 End-1st: Sabathia and Beckett each gave up three hits in a first inning that ended with the score tied at 1-1. Manny being Manny has to get old if you're a Red Sox fan. A great start for the Sox thanks to a solo home run to left by Kevin Youkilis was shortcircuited when Ramirez was gunned down at the plate for the final out (right) on Mike Lowell's single to right. Franklin Gutierrez threw high to the plate but a leaping grab by Victor Martinez brought the ball down and Manny (perhaps not wanting to ruffle his braids?) didn't slide and didn't collide with Martinez. In fact, TV replays showed him smiling and laughing as he pulled up. I doubt anyone in New England thought this was too funny.

Cleveland tied it when Grady Sizemore led off with a bloop double that landed in no-man's land by the left-field line, went to third on Asdrubal Cabrera's single and scored on Travis Hafner's double-play ball.

---Mike Harrington

(Photos: Associated Press)

Pregame from the Jake

CLEVELAND -- Terry Francona didn't listen to me, not that I expected him to. Lineups have been posted for Game Five of the ALCS and it's same old-same old for the Red Sox, unless you call putting Bobby Kielty in right field for J.D. Drew an earth-shaking move.

Here's tonight's lineups:

Boston                                       Cleveland

Dustin Pedroia, 2b                  Grady Sizemore, cf

Kevin Youkilis, 1b                   Asdrubal Cabrera, 2b

David Ortiz, dh                        Travis Hafner, dh

Manny Ramirez, lf                   Victor Martinez, c

Mike Lowell, 3b                        Ryan Garko, 1b

Bobby Kielty, rf                         Jhonny Peralta, ss                   

Jason Varitek, c                        Kenny Lofton, lf                

Coco Crisp, cf                         Franklin Gutierrez, rf

Julio Lugo, ss                          Casey Blake, 3b

-------------------------------------------------

Josh Beckett, p                   C.C. Sabathia, p

---Mike Harrington

Some advice to Tito

Tito CLEVELAND -- I'm not advocating Red Sox manager Terry Francona go into panic mode as we count down to Game Five of the ALCS. But if he wants this series to go back to Fenway, I think he better do something other than just expect Josh Beckett to be lights-out. Some quick thoughts:

1). Coco Crisp is batting .192 in the playoffs and is just 3 for 16 in this series. How about telling him to grab some bench in favor of Jacoby Ellsbury, who wowed the Fenway fans in September?

2). How about Kevin Youkilis (6 for 15, three walks in the series) leading off instead of struggling Dustin Pedroia (3 for 16)?

3). With Crisp, Pedroia and Julio Lugo (2 for 14), mostly silent, it's been tough to do much on the bases. If they start getting on, however, some steals and hit and runs should be in order. The Sox have manufactured virtually nothing the last three games. In fact, they have eight runs in the last 26 innings -- and all of them have scored via the longball. That won't cut it in October.

4). Assuming Beckett's back is OK, Francona should ride his ace as long as possible. Face it, Beckett isn't going to pitch again in this series. If he's healthy, wouldn't 120 pitches from Beckett be better than anything we'll see from the Sox middle relief?

5). Forget about bringing Eric Gagne out of the bullpen. Don't even let him put on a uniform.

---Mike Harrington

(Photo: Francona at Wednesday's workout/Associated Press)

Knight talks baseball

KnightCLEVELAND -- Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight is a longtime friend of Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. In the last four years, Indians manager Eric Wedge has forged a friendship with Knight and college basketball's winningest coach sent Wedge a telegram Monday to congratulate him on winning AL Manager of the Year as voted by the Sporting News.

Knight is a huge baseball fan and at Wednesday's Big 12 preseason media day, he answered exactly one question about his basketball team -- and spent the rest of his news conference talking about baseball.

Some of Knight's thoughts:

----"Well, the Cardinals are out of it. We've got to root for the Indians. Eric Wedge is my next best friend."

---On Wedge's managing of the bullpen in Game Four: "Whatever the sport is, you get stuck with some things that are, for lack of a better word, traditional or expected. So at the end of the 8th inning, I was with two guys watching it and I said I wonder if [Rafael] Betancourt will pitch the 9th inning, which he did. Which to me was a great decision because he had just gone through three guys like a hot knife through butter. And when he pitched the 9th inning, I thought maybe they'd bring [Joe] Borowski in, because that's the thing to do. It was good. So I like that part of it."

---On the Cardinals' removal of GM Walt Jocketty: "I have never seen two guys better than Jocketty and La Russa were. They're the best I've ever seen, not just in baseball, but the best administrator and the best coach or manager that I've ever seen. I think what they did over 12 years in St. Louis was remarkable. And to split that up it was kind of interesting."

---On whether the Indians could beat the Rockies in a potential World Series: "If I knew whether the Indians could beat the Rockies or not George Bush would be asking me how the hell do you get out of Iraq right now."

You can read the transcript of Knight's session, minus laugh tracks, by clicking here.

---Mike Harrington

(Photo: Knight holds court Wednesday/Associated Press)

Three down, one to go

Victor CLEVELAND -- All the momentum is on the Indians' side. And that's why maybe the worst thing they could have right now is a day off thanks to baseball's quirky schedule newly arranged for the '07 postseason. Wednesday's surprise day of rest might cool off the Tribe and might allow the Red Sox to clear their heads and stop the ringing from the Jacobs Field crowd.

Josh Beckett badly outpitched C.C. Sabathia in Game One but the Indians have the edge in every category since as they've taken a 3-1 lead in the ALCS and are one win away from the World Series. Whether it's offense, defense, starting pitching or bullpen, this series has been a stunning mismatch so far. The Red Sox seem oddly timid, as if they were playing the '03 Yankees or something. Their three straight home runs in the sixth inning Tuesday weren't a momentum killer for the Tribe. It looks like they were just an aberration.

Once the teams go to the bullpens, Jensen Lewis, Rafael Betancourt and Joe Borowski have been lights out for Cleveland. Will Red Sox manager Terry Francona ever get over using Eric Gagne in the 11th inning of Game Two? Just like his players, Francona is experiencing a beatdown of his own as Tribe skipper Eric Wedge has been outmaneuvering him at every turn.

So is this one over? Is Beckett going to be enough to get the Sox back to Fenway?

---Mike Harrington

(Photo: Victor Martinez celebrates Jhonny Peralta's home run in Game Four/Associated Press)

Live from the Jake: Game Four

CLEVELAND -- The rain is gone and not expected to be a problem the rest of the night so keep it here for updates and assorted snippets from Game Four of the ALCS.

It's over: Three down and one to go for the Indians after a 7-3 win. After an off day Wednesday, the Tribe goes for the kill here Thursday night. The Rockies await.

Manny_2 Top-6th: Paul Byrd sat around for 35 minutes after the big Cleveland fifth and it clearly hurt him. Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz greeted Byrd with back-to-back solo homers to knock him from the game and Manny Ramirez followed with a titantic, 451-foot shot to center field. It's the first time in LCS history a team has gone back-to-back-to-back. Manny, by the way, was totally Manny as he hot-dogged it around the bases after thrusting his arms at the plate (left). Scoreboard, dude. In the regular season, he might be due for one in the ear. So it's 7-3, Tribe.

End-5th: Suddenly, without warning, the Indians have turned a scoreless game into a blowout. Cleveland exploded for seven runs in a 35-minute bottom of the fifth to take a 7-0 lead and knock Tim Wakefield from the game after he had allowed just one hit in the first four innings.

The Indians got their first hit off Wakefield on Jhonny Peralta's two-out double in the fourth and then went wild in the fifth as 12 batters came to the plate. Casey Blake led off by waiting, waiting, waiting before crushing a Wakefield knuckleball over the wall in left for a solo home run.

Jhonny Asdrubal Cabrera drove in the second run with a line-drive infield single off Wakefield's glove. Cabrera got a second chance when Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia collided in foul territory in short right field and Youkilis juggled Cabrera's foul popup before it fell to the ground. After Travis Hafner struck out for the third time, Victor Martinez KO'd Wakefield with a line single to left. But the Tribe was far from done. Peralta greeted Manny Delcarmen with a three-run homer the opposite way to right (right) to score Martinez and Cabrera to make it 6-0. Kenny Lofton singled, stole second and scored on a Blake single for the seventh run. By the way, the Lofton steal was the 34th of his postseason career, snapping a tie with Rickey Henderson for the alltime record.

Knuckler End-3rd: Starters Paul Byrd and Tim Wakefield have been machines thus far as we're locked in a scoreless tie. Wakefield (left) has yet to allow a hit, as his fluttering knuckleball is responsible for five strikeouts and two walks. He's thrown 42 pitches, 28 strikes.

Boston has three hits off Byrd and managed a threat in the top of the third when Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis collected back-to-back singles with two out. That brought up David Ortiz, who grounded into a fielder's choice at second as shortstop Jhonny Peralta made the play while shifted on the first-base side of the bag. Byrd has thrown 44 pitches, 35 strikes.

End-1st: No score after one. Great diving play by Casey Blake on Pedroia's first-pitch grounder down the third-base line. Great stretch by stand-in first baseman Victor Martinez. Byrd throws a 1-2-3 inning, ending it with a strikeout of Ortiz. Wakefield gave up a leadoff walk to Grady Sizemore but set down the next three men, two on strikes. Switch-hitters Asdrubal Cabrera and Victor Martinez tried to combat the Wakefield knuckler by batting right-handed but it made no difference. Cabrera struck out and Martinez lined to right.

---Mike Harrington

(Photos: Associated Press)

ALCS pregame

CLEVELAND -- It's a warm, wet night in Jacobs Field but it looks like we'll start on time at 8:20 for Game Four of the ALCS. It rained hard this afternoon and neither team took batting practice on the field but the tarp is off and the forecast is only for spotty showers the rest of the night.

(Oops: We just had a downpour at 7:35 but it only lasted a couple minutes. The tarp went on the field and came off just as fast as it went on).

Both teams have gone to their advertised plans of starting personal catchers for starting pitchers Paul Byrd and Tim Wakefield. That means the Indians have Kelly Shoppach behind the plate, Victor Martinez at first and Ryan Garko sitting out while the Red Sox have simply inserted Doug Mirabelli for Jason Varitek. Cleveland has also returned Franklin Gutierrez to right field in place of Trot Nixon.

Sox manager Terry Francona again insisted he gave no thought to bringing back ace Josh Beckett on three days rest with Boston trailing, two games to one, even though Beckett could be on regular rest for a potential Game Seven on Sunday night in Fenway Park. Now that task would fall upon Daisuke Matsuzaka, not a promising thought for Sox fans given his two postseason starts.

Here's tonight's lineups:

Boston                                       Cleveland

Dustin Pedroia, 2b                  Grady Sizemore, cf

Kevin Youkilis, 1b                   Asdrubal Cabrera, 2b

David Ortiz, dh                        Travis Hafner, dh

Manny Ramirez, lf                   Victor Martinez, 1b

Mike Lowell, 3b                      Jhonny Peralta, ss

J.D. Drew, rf                            Kenny Lofton, lf                   

Coco Crisp, cf                        Casey Blake, 3b                

Doug Mirabelli, c                    Franklin Gutierrez, rf

Julio Lugo, ss                        Kelly Shoppach, c

-------------------------------------------------

Tim Wakefield, p                   Paul Byrd, p

---Mike Harrington

Sox heading for crisis mode

Dicek_4 CLEVELAND -- Things looked fine for the Boston Red Sox when Josh Beckett blew the Cleveland Indians away in Game One. But the Tribe has won two straight now and the Sox are throwing Tim Wakefield in Game Four -- even though he hasn't pitched since Sept. 29 and Beckett, who threw only 80 pitches, could come back on three days rest.

Big_papi_2 And that's just part of Boston's problem. Daisuke Matsuzaka (left) again proved that his $103 million wasn't much of an investment by failing to get out of the fifth for the second straight time this month. The offense has suddenly cooled, scoring just two runs in the last 15 innings. David Ortiz's knee is clearly hurting him and it seems that only Ortiz (right), Manny Ramirez and Mike Lowell are capable of driving in many runs.

"We got to play, man," was the way Ortiz put it when asked about Boston's 2-1 deficit. "We just gotta play."

The way the Cleveland bullpen is pitching, that's easier said than done. The Red Sox went basically wire-to-wire in the AL East this season and destroyed the Angels in the division series. Now their hopes in the ALCS might rest with a 41-year-old knuckleballer. They haven't dealt with a crisis this deep all season. It will be interesting to see how they react Tuesday night.

Sox fans, I know you're out there squirming over this one. Is your confidence shaken? Do you believe in Wakefield or should Beckett be on the mound tonight?

---Mike Harrington

(Photos: Associated Press)

Live from the Jake: Game Three

CLEVELAND -- Keep it here for updates from Game Three of the American League Championship Series. It's a beautiful 69-degree night in Jacobs Field, much warmer than it was in Boston and certainly better weather than the Rockies and Diamondbacks endured Sunday night in 40-degree Denver. Looks like we're all going to get a taste of that Rocky Mountain weather soon enough.

Top-9th: Tribe fans are nervous. Closer Joe Borowski, who has the shakiest 45 saves in history, is on to protect a 4-2 lead. But there was no reason to worry. Three outs later and the Indians lead the series, 2-1.

Jake 7th-inning stretch: A great effort by Jake Westbrook (left), who was pulled after 6 2/3 innings with the Tribe up, 4-2. He gave up Jason Varitek's two-run homer in the top of this inning and was relieved by Jensen Lewis. The blast to deep right-center ended the Tribe's run of 12 unanswered runs in a 12-inning stretch dating to Game Two. Westbrook allowed two runs on seven hits and got 15 groundball outs.

End-5th: The Tribe is in complete control and Daisuke Matsuzaka is gone. So much for that $103 million investment! Cleveland just added two runs in the fifth on Asdrubal Cabera's RBI single and Travis Hafner's fielder's choice grounder to make it 4-0. Victor Martinez singled and Mike Timlin came on for Dice-K, who gave up six hits in 4 2/3 innings, walked two and struck out six. Dice-K threw 101 pitches, just 59 strikes. Westbrook, meanwhile, is tossing a three-hit shutout and has thrown only 63 pitches in recording 12 groundball outs.

Top-4th: A fan here got huge cheers when he appeared on the jumbotron with a sign that read, "LeBron: Yanks lose. Wear a Sox hat please." If I have to explain, get out from under the rock that kept you away from the division series.

Lofton_2 End-2nd: What a switch in momentum -- Boston loaded the bases with no outs but didn't score and the Indians promptly took a 2-0 lead on Kenny Lofton's two-run homer to deep right-center (right). With the crowd chanting, "Ken-ny, Ken-ny", Lofton drove Daisuke Matsuzaka's first pitch just over the wall in deep right-center and the fans went wild, demanding a curtain call. Strangely enough, Lofton had no homers for the Tribe in 173 at-bats after rejoining the club at the trade deadline.

Garko In the top of the inning, Westbrook got his team off the field and into the dugout after a walk, a single and an error charged to first baseman Ryan Garko -- who flopped over on his back (left) and secured his place on most blooper films for about the next three decades. Jason Varitek flied to left, too shallow to score a run, and Coco Crisp grounded into a double play, with shortstop Jhonny Peralta taking a nice hop right by the back and easily going to Garko at first.

Top-1st: We just saw the defensive play of the series as David Ortiz bounced into a sensational and rarely scored 4-5-3 double play to end Boston's first at-bat off Westbrook. With the Tribe defense in its pronounced shift, Big Papi scorched a one-hopper that Asdrubal Cabera corraled in short right field. He turned and made the long throw to second -- which was being covered by third baseman Casey Blake. The relay to first by Blake was in the dirt but Garko made a diving stretch to his right and grabbed the throw for the out to really get the white towels waving early in the roaring crowd. Huge play to start.

---Mike Harrington

Jhonny being good for Tribe

JhonnyCLEVELAND -- Lost in the chaotic finish of Saturday night's 11-inning miniseries in Boston was another strong performance by Indians shortstop Jhonny Peralta. His three-hit, four-RBI night included a booming three-run homer (left) to dead center off Curt Schilling that wiped out a 3-1 deficit. That got the Tribe back in the game when it seemed like Boston was on the road for a 2-0 lead in the series.

Peralta, the former International League MVP with the 2004 Bisons, is tied with Arizona's Stephen Drew for the postseason lead in hits (11), is second to David Ortiz in batting average (11 for 24, .458) and leads the Indians in RBIs (6).

"He's had a heck of a postseason, with a lot of big hits for us," manager Eric Wedge said today before Game Three in Jacobs Field. "He's very strong. And his personality gives him an edge because he has a sense of calm about him. When everybody else is a little amped up, that [calm] helps him."

Peralta is hitting in his customary No. 6 slot in the lineup tonight. The only change is the Indians are starting Game Two hero Trot Nixon in right field over Franklin Gutierrez. The Red Sox have made no changes.

Here are tonight's lineups:

Boston                                    Cleveland

Dustin Pedroia, 2b                  Grady Sizemore, cf

Kevin Youkilis, 1b                   Asdrubal Cabrera, 2b

David Ortiz, dh                        Travis Hafner, dh

Manny Ramirez, lf                   Victor Martinez, c

Mike Lowell, 3b                      Ryan Garko, 1b

J.D. Drew, rf                          Jhonny Peralta, ss

Jason Varitek, c                       Kenny Lofton, lf

Coco Crisp, cf                        Trot Nixon, rf

Julio Lugo, ss                         Casey Blake, 3b

-------------------------------------------------

Daisuke Matsuzaka, p             Jake Westbrook, p

---Mike Harrington

(Photo: Associated Press)

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About Inside Pitch

Mike Harrington

Mike Harrington

Mike Harrington, a Canisius College graduate who began his career as a News reporter in 1987, has covered the Buffalo Bisons since 1992 and Major League Baseball since 1995. A member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, Harrington has reported on more than 30 MLB postseason series — including every game of the World Series in this century — and all three of the Bisons' championship runs in their modern era. He is a connoisseur of the famous Stadium Mustard at Cleveland's Progressive Field.

@BNHarrington | mharrington@buffnews.com


Amy Moritz

Amy Moritz

Amy Moritz, a native of Lockport, has covered the Bisons for The Buffalo News since 2002. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism/mass communication from St. Bonaventure University and a master’s degree in humanities from the University at Buffalo. An endurance athlete, she has completed several triathlons, half marathons and marathons.

@amymoritz | amoritz@buffnews.com

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