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Monday, September 30, 2013

Who needs the Yankees? Postseason could still bring high drama for Red Sox

Tito and Farrell could meet up again Friday.

Tito vs. Farrell. Drew vs. Iglesias. Big Papi against Crawford and A-Gon.

There may never be a playoff series at Fenway Park quite like the epic 2003 and '04 Red Sox-Yankees ALCS classics -- ending 86 years of misery against your arch-rivals is tough to top -- but this year's possible postseason opponents present plenty of intriguing scenarios for the Sox. 

As the Wild Card entries do battle over the next several days, we can have fun thinking about three great "what ifs" that could become reality:


Red Sox-Indians in the ALDS
Papi would be pumped to face the Indians.

Cleveland, which closed the regular season with 10 straight victories, will face the winner of Monday's Tampa Bay-Texas tiebreaker in the AL's one-game Wild Card "play-in" on Wednesday. Assuming he can prevail in the winner-take-all contest, Indians manager Terry Francona will return Friday night to Fenway Park -- his summer home for eight years and two World Series championships -- for the AL Division Series.

Francona got a loud and long ovation when the Indians came to Boston for four regular-season games in May, but now things really count. New Englanders are hungry for some playoff success in the Red Sox's first postseason berth since 2009, and current Boston manager John Farrell -- who served as Francona's pitching coach for five years with the Sox, including the '07 world championship squad -- will be attempting to beat his old boss and create some October glory of his own.

In addition to the Tito-Farrell storyline, a Red Sox-Indians series would match up the two most-improved teams in the American League; the Sox went from 69-93 to 97-65 this year, and the Indians from 68-94 to 92-70. In head-to-head play in 2013, Boston won six of seven from the club on which Farrell came to the majors and pitched for parts of five seasons.


Red Sox-Tigers in ALCS
In September, Iglesias was springy vs. the Sox.


Unlike Boston and Cleveland, Detroit surprised nobody with its strong showing in 2013. The Tigers, World Series runner-ups last fall, won their third straight AL Central title with a 93-69 record that was second only to Boston in the circuit. 

Detroit has one of baseball's best offenses, led by sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, but it is their rookie shortstop who may get the bulk of the attention at Fenway were these two teams to meet. Jose Iglesias, the favorite to win both the AL's Rookie of the Year Award and a Gold Glove, was developed in the Boston farm system and spent the first four months of his freshman season with the Red Sox before going to Detroit in a three-way trade on July 30 that brought White Sox pitcher Jake Peavy to Boston.

Iglesias' average, which had hovered around .325 or higher most of the summer, fell off badly in September as skeptics long predicted. His glove, however, remains second to none, and a few dazzling plays in the field may have Boston fans wishing he was still around (even with Stephen Drew and Xander Bogarts both performing well at short for the Sox). 

The Tigers were 4-3 against Boston this year, but the Sox did win two-of-three at Fenway in September -- including a 20-4 shellacking in which they hit eight home runs. 


Red Sox-Dodgers in the World Series
Crawford and Gonzalez have something to prove.

It has been just a little over a year since the Big Trade of 2012, when Boston sent overpaid, underachieving, unhappy stars Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers along with Nick Punto and $12 million on Aug. 25 for a quintet of prospects. Unlike many transactions, this was definitely a move that helped both teams. 

The trade, which will save the Red Sox approximately $275 million in salaries and luxury tax over the course of all the players' contracts, freed up money for Boston to rebuild in 2013 with lower-priced, hungrier character players like Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino. These additions (and subtractions) helped turn the clubhouse atmosphere at Fenway completely around, and the result was a worst-to-first finish in the AL East.

Initially snickered at by Boston fans when the deal went down, Dodgers management has no problem with how things have turned out. Although Beckett suffered a major injury in his pitching hand that all but wiped out his '13 season, Gonzalez and Crawford have both been major contributors for Los Angeles -- which claimed the NL West title and is considered a favorite to win the pennant as well.

Like Edgar Renteria a few years back, Gonzales and Crawford rebounded once they left the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Boston for laid-back LA. The Red Sox, however, would have home-field advantage for the World Series, meaning both players would have up to four games with the probing eyes of Fenway once more upon them.

Hang on, Red Sox fans, it could be a very fun ride.   

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