- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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So where should the Boston Red Sox start their World Series parade? That's the question.
At Bill Buckner's house? How about from in front of Aaron Boone's plasma screen? Or maybe they can leave from the Yankee Stadium parking garage, then keep on parading till they get to home plate at Fenway?
This is a very important question in a very important October, because we want to be the first on our block to announce: The Red Sox are going to win the World Series.
That was our story back in March, and we're sticking to it. For all kinds of logical reasons:
BECAUSE THIS IS A BETTER TEAM THAN THE 2003 RED SOX, A BETTER TEAM THAN THE 1999 RED SOX, EVEN A BETTER TEAM THAN THE 1986 RED SOX
"If they don't win it this year, they'll never win it. Ever," said one AL scout. "This is the best position I've ever seen that club be in. They've shored up their defense. They've got those two horses (Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez) in front of their rotation. They've got exactly what you need to win this thing."
BECAUSE SCHILLING IS THE BEST BIG-GAME PITCHER IN BASEBALL
Schilling has made 11 postseason starts in his life. He has given up more than two earned runs in only one of them. He's 5-1, with a 1.66 ERA in those starts. He owns both an LCS and World Series MVP award. And this season, he was 12-0 against teams that finished with a winning record, 6-0 against playoff teams and 10-3 in starts following a Red Sox loss (7-0 after mid-June).
"The best reason to think they'll win," said one AL scout, "is six starts by Curt Schilling."
THEY HAVE THE BEST LINEUP
Nobody in baseball scored more runs than the Red Sox. They scored 52 more runs than a Yankees team that tied for the league lead in homers, 94 more than a Cardinals team that led the National League in runs, 113 more than an Angels team that led the American League in team batting average and 156 more than a Twins team everybody seems to fear.
The Sox also led the major leagues in on-base percentage and slugging. They tied the all-time record for most doubles in a season (373). And they got more extra-base hits (620) than any team in history except last year's Red Sox.
"They've got a great lineup of seasoned players," said one scout. "And if Johnny Damon (.306, 28 runs scored in his last 32 games) stays hot, they've got a good chance to beat anybody. There's a guy with a chance to be an MVP of one of these series."
BECAUSE PEDRO MARTINEZ DOESN'T REALLY THINK THE YANKEES ARE HIS DADDY
It may have been the Red Sox sound bite of the year. But whatever you think that "daddy" quote of Pedro's meant, and whatever you make of his 0-4, 7.71 finish in his final four starts, he's far from their biggest October worry.
He's 9-1, 2.12 lifetime against the Angels. He's 5-2, 2.46 against the Twins. And as ominous as the Red Sox's 17 losses in his last 23 starts against the Yankees may be, "he's still better than anybody else's No. 2 starter," said one scout, with slightly more perspective than you'll find in New England on this.
"I still think that 'they're-my-daddy' quote was a sandbagging," said the same scout. "He was just setting up a woe-is-me deal. ... One thing I know about him is, he responds to challenges. So he'll be OK. He won't be the Pedro of old, but he'll he be OK."
BECAUSE THEY CATCH THE BALL
A year ago this time, the Red Sox rumbled into Game 7 at Yankee Stadium with Kevin Millar at first, Todd Walker at second, Nomar Garciaparra at short and Bill Mueller at third. One year later, "they're better at three of those four positions, and the same guy (Mueller) is at third," said an AL scout.
Millar still starts at first most nights, "but now (because of Doug Mientkiewicz) they don't have to leave him out there for nine innings," the scout said. And as good as Walker was offensively last year, "he was playing very poorly defensively."
It's always hard to know how to evaluate defense. But the day they traded Garciaparra, the Red Sox were only 10 games over .500, and had allowed 74 unearned runs in four months. They're 42-18 since, and they allowed only 18 unearned runs over the final two months. That is not coincidence.
BECAUSE THEY HAVE A BONA FIDE CLOSER
It's hard to remember this now, but when last year's postseason began, the Red Sox were still trying to convince themselves Byung Hyun-Kim could be an acceptable October closer. Next thing they knew, they were essentially trying to sneak through an entire postseason with a make-it-up-as-they-went-along bullpen du jour arrangement. We all know how that worked out.
A year later, Keith Foulke is a far more reliable option, even if he did blow saves to the Orioles on back-to-back nights in September. But before that, he hadn't blown ANY saves since July 19. And he has actually held opposing hitters to a lower batting average (.206) and on-base percentage (.252) this year than Mariano Rivera (.225, .285). That's a true fact.
"He hasn't pitched as well since Labor Day," said one scout. "But he's still a quality closer. Hell, if Oakland still had him, they'd have won about 105 games."
BECAUSE THEIR CLUBHOUSE FEELS LIKE AN EPISODE OF MADTV
We're not used to Red Sox teams that look at life as one giant chucklefest. But these are not your grandfather's Red Sox.
Their hairstyles range from neo-Oscar Gamble to classic Mohawk to Johnny Damon's Charles Manson look. And their clubhouse is an asylum of animal calls, circus acts, hot-foot variations and other looniness John Belushi would have been proud of.
Maybe that wouldn't seem to have much to do with winning baseball games. But their Red Sox ancestors spent eight decades trying to beat the Yankees the other way, and that didn't work out too hot, either. So the GM, Theo Epstein, and the manager, Terry Francona, have made it a point to let boys be boys.
"This is a really loose team," said one scout who has followed them. "Especially for the Red Sox."
BECAUSE THEY DIDN'T WIN 100 GAMES
This team rampaged into the final week with a shot at a 100-win season. But it was smart enough to fall short (at 98). It will be rewarded for that wisdom.
Since 1995, 13 teams have reached the postseason in a 100-win year. Only one of them won the World Series -- the 1998 Yankees.
But over the last six years, three teams won either 98 games or 99. Two of them won the World Series -- the 2002 Angels (99) and 1999 Yankees (98). And the other -- the '98 Padres -- lost in the World Series to an unstoppable force (the 125-win Yankees). Sounds like a hot trend to us.
AND, FINALLY, BECAUSE NOBODY ELSE CAN WIN
One of the beauties of this particular postseason is that you can talk yourself out of picking just about every team in the field. Let's run through them:
THE CARDINALS -- They looked like the favorites a month ago. And Pirates GM Dave Littlefield speaks for a lot of people when he said, "I can't believe people are underestimating the team with the best record in baseball."
But if they are, there's a reason for that: After riding an amazing run of health and good fortune from opening day to Labor Day, the Cardinals' problems have suddenly piled up on them lately.
They lost their best pitcher, Chris Carpenter, for at least the LDS and maybe beyond. One scout said Matt Morris "pitched like he was hurt" in his final start and hasn't won since Sept. 3. Jason Marquis won 11 in a row, then finished 1-3, 5.34.
And this team doesn't even want to know the scary postseason history relating to teams this good: The club with the best regular-season record in baseball has won just one World Series since 1989. Only one of the last 13 teams to win 100 games has won the World Series. And of the seven NL teams since World War II to win 103 games or more, only the 1986 Mets and 1975 Big Red Machine won the World Series. Uh-oh.
THE DODGERS -- They made some big-time miracles happen down the stretch, coming from behind to win in their final at-bat four times in six games. And they roll out the best defensive team in either league.
But one NL scout said: "The one team of the eight that looks like one-and-done is the Dodgers." And that, frankly, is because these Dodgers violate every championship formula ever devised.
They scored fewer runs than any team in the playoffs. Their starting rotation went 5-11 after Sept. 1. Their Game 1 starter, the luckless Odalis Perez, has won two games since June (not that that was all his fault). And there should be nothing more terrifying to anyone with a temptation to pick this team than reading "cortisone shot" and "Eric Gagne" in the same sentence.
THE BRAVES -- Considering all the great Braves teams over the years that didn't win the World Series, it would almost make sense if this -- their most underrated team ever -- did. But not that much sense.
Their 3.74 team ERA may have led the league, but they actually allowed more hits than innings pitched. And no National League team has done that and won a World Series since the 1934 Cardinals.
The Braves' three hottest starters down the stretch were Jaret Wright (13-3 after Memorial Day), John Thomson (5-0, 1.77 in his last nine starts) and Mike Hampton (11-1 after July 1). But they enter the postseason with health questions about all three.
This Atlanta offense also scored 104 fewer runs than last year, hit 57 fewer homers and struck out 225 more times. So while one scout calls these Braves "a sleeping giant," another said: "They're solid, but they're not that good either. And normally, it doesn't take 'solid' to win. It takes 'special' to win."
THE ASTROS -- This is the team we're picking to reach the World Series out of the NL, but not to win it.
Their third starter, Brandon Backe, is a converted infielder with six career wins. No. 4 starter Pete Munro hasn't made it beyond the fifth inning since August. But as one NL scout put it, "any team that forces you to face two dominant starters in a round of five -- that's not something to look forward to."
The Astros also have that 2003 Marlins team-of-destiny look to them. But will they be riding that surge of emotion into the great Octoberfest, or will they be exhausted from having to win 36 of their last 46?
The Astros are the seventh playoff team in the division-play era to win their last seven regular-season games. Four of the previous six (2002 Giants, 1998 Yankees, 1970 and '71 Orioles) at least advanced to the World Series. But the only two teams in that group to win -- the '98 Yankees and '70 Orioles -- had actually clinched weeks earlier.
So we also looked at the four previous playoff teams since 1969 to go 36-10 or better in their final 46 games. Not one of those teams -- the 2001 and '02 A's, 1983 White Sox and 1977 Royals -- even won a series.
Finally, since the playoffs expanded in 1995, the Astros are the eighth team to have to go all the way to the last day of the season (or to a one-game playoff the next day) to clinch a postseason spot. Five of those seven lost in the first round. Neither of the other two (1995 Mariners, 1999 Mets) reached the World Series.
So does September momentum translate into October tickertape? Not as often as you'd think.
THE TWINS -- We can think of seven playoff teams that would rather personally convert the Metrodome for a Golden Gophers football game than face Johan Santana. "Right now," said one scout, "if you had to pick one pitcher to win you a game, you'd have to pick Santana or Schilling."
It's Santana's dominance and new first baseman Justin Morneau's thump that give these Twins two dimensions they didn't bring to previous October parties. But remember, it's harder for one pitcher to carry a team through a three-round October all by himself than it was when Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax did it -- or even when Orel Hershiser did it.
This also is not a real patient offensive team -- a trait that has caused the Twins problems in previous postseasons. And it sure is hard to overlook the Twins' nine-game regular-season losing streak in Yankee Stadium.
"I have to admit," said one AL scout, "that I don't know if the Twins are ready for prime time in those East Coast ballparks."
THE YANKEES -- They spent close to $190 million and got 101 wins for their money. So if you just considered those numbers, and hadn't paid closer attention, that the Yankees would once again be everybody's pick.
Brewers GM Doug Melvin still nominates the Yankees as the favorite "because of talent and experience." But other people aren't so sure about that, because it's hard to recall a Bronx postseason like this -- a postseason in which these Yankees have more questions than Alex Trebek.
Their 4.69 team ERA was the second-highest in franchise history. They gave up 93 more runs than the Twins (and almost 150 more than the Cardinals). Their starting rotation's 4.82 ERA ranked No. 18 in baseball.
Mike Mussina outdueled Pedro and went 3-0, 2.06 in his last five starts. And Jon Lieber had a 5-0 September. But they have no idea what to make of Kevin Brown or Orlando Hernandez. "If Mussina or Lieber get beat in Games 1 or 2," said one scout, "their third and fourth options are not good."
And with Joe Torre down to just two relievers he trusts (Rivera and Flash Gordon), the inability of these starters to eat innings -- especially if they run into a patient team like the Red Sox -- could expose the run-of-the-mill underbelly of this bullpen. And if that happens, there will be an unhappy owner in Tampa come Halloween.
THE ANGELS -- The Halos are a team everyone fears, because they're riding the same kind of wave they rode to a title two years ago -- except they're even better now than they were then.
But Garret Anderson's health (back and knee issues) is a major worry, "because when he's out," said one scout, that lineup gets very right-handed."
And even their theoretical ace, Colon, "is a wild card," the same scout said. "You never know what kind of effort you'll get."
What no one can measure is whether the Angels' furious charge to the tape will regenerate that championship magic. But history suggests that's no sure thing.
The Angels join the 1987 Tigers, '64 Cardinals, 1951 and '62 Giants, and the '34 Cardinals as the only teams ever to reach the postseason after trailing by three games or more with under 10 to play. But of that group, just those two Cardinals teams won the World Series. The only AL team -- the just-as-hot '87 Tigers -- were trampled by the Twins in the playoffs, 4 games to 1.
Nevertheless, the Angels and Red Sox look like the two best, most complete teams in the whole postseason field. So it figures they wound up drawing each other in the division series.
Still, we're picking the Red Sox -- because we expect Schilling to win Game 1. Which will give the Sox a chance to win the series at Fenway. And we like the way the Boston hitters match up against a staff that "doesn't pitch in very much," said one scout, "which is the only way to beat the Red Sox."
We also remind you that the Angels were on an even bigger roll (12-2 in their last 14, 18-5 in their last 23) when they ran into the Red Sox last month. Boston promptly scored 26 runs in a stunning three-game sweep.
So when you look at these Red Sox, and you size up the other seven teams, is there any reason to think they won't win? Absolutely not. Except ...
"The Red Sox are the logical pick," said one scout, "except for one thing: They're the Red Sox."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Forget the curse, the Red Sox will win the World Series because no team can match Boston's overall talent.