The best team in the American League, on paper and by record, faces possibly the best team in the National League, a club that finished just a half-game off the pace for that circuit's best record. We should see a lot of great defense, a lot of home runs -- can't defend those -- and I'd bet on at least one more knockout start from Josh Beckett.
Keys for Boston
" Find the balance between offense and defense in Coors: Good range in the field matters a lot in Denver, most of all in the spacious outfield, so look for whoever's not starting between Jacoby Ellsbury and Coco Crisp to log a lot of late innings in the outfield in Games 3, 4 and 5. It's possible both will play against Franklin Morales and/or Jeff Francis, since J.D. Drew has always had a big platoon split. This need for defense, however, presents Boston with a serious problem: David Ortiz is not a good defensive first baseman, but the only way the Red Sox can field their best lineup is to put him at first and move Kevin Youkilis to right field, a position he's never played in the majors.
" Take and rake: The Red Sox worked the count better than any other team this season, and doing the same against Ubaldo Jimenez (eight walks in 11 1/3 postseason innings, and 107 walks overall), Franklin Morales (75 walks this year) and even Josh Fogg, who isn't wild but who desperately needs to stay ahead in the count to survive, will mean a big offensive outburst for Boston.
" Mix up the pitches: Daisuke Matsuzaka, in particular, needs to make better use of his off-speed stuff. His four-seamer might be his worst pitch, and he doesn't command it all that well. He threw a wicked changeup with his last pitch of Game 7 of the ALCS, but he's barely used it this postseason. There's some middle ground between using all of your pitches and pumping fastball after fastball. Curt Schilling has some of the same issues, since he can't get outs with just his fastball and has to use his splitter, especially when he needs to get a swing and miss.
" Find a Game 4 solution: Tim Wakefield has made one start in the past month, and it wasn't a good one. If he started Game 4, he'd have to do it in Denver, where altitude and low humidity don't favor a knuckleballer who's relying on friction from the air to make his pitches dance. Jon Lester has made two relief appearances and struggled with the long ball during his regular-season stint with the team. Josh Beckett could come back for Game 4, but he'd be on short rest, something he hasn't done since 2004. Pick your poison. I'd roll the dice with Beckett unless he came up sore or had to work too hard in Game 1.
Keys for Colorado
" Beat Beckett … or at least wear him out enough to force the Red Sox's bullpen to get involved: Beckett hasn't been just an automatic win for Boston this postseason -- he's been a bullpen saver, requiring only four innings of relief work across his three starts, all with Boston up by at least six runs.
" Score on the road: Aside from the Game 2 rout in Philadelphia, the Rockies have played three road games in the postseason and scored a total of 12 runs in 29 innings. During the regular season, they scored about 20 percent fewer runs per game on the road than they did at home, and their road slugging percentage was the third worst in the National League.
" Don't get sentimental: Clint Hurdle is reportedly considering using Aaron Cook as the fourth starter over Franklin Morales. Cook hasn't pitched in a game since Aug. 10, and there's no guarantee he'll be effective or able to go more than three or four innings. (He faced only 16 hitters in his last simulated game, which is equivalent to only 3 1/3 innings against the Red Sox and their team OBP of .362.) The Rockies should start Morales, and use Cook as the long man if he gets into trouble.
" Look fastball: Matsuzaka won Game 7, but he got into trouble again by overusing his fastball. Schilling can get swings and misses on his splitter, but his fastball is very hittable. Manny Delcarmen can light up the radar gun, but his fastball is straight, and he leaves a lot of them over the plate. The Rockies, meanwhile, have a number of dead-fastball hitters in their lineup, making some of these pitching matchups potentially favorable if they jump on fastballs in the zone.
" Keep catching everything in sight: The Rockies have converted 74 percent of balls in play into outs this postseason -- an unsustainable rate for a full season, but something they'll need to keep doing behind guys like Fogg, who allows a lot of contact and relies on his defense.
" Get Corpas involved earlier: The Rockies' bullpen has been effective, but Manny Corpas is a game changer, and the Rockies have generally used him in a traditional closer's role. Before the one-game playoff against San Diego on Oct. 1, Corpas had either finished the game or come in for a save in every appearance he'd made since Aug. 20. But in a short series, bullpen management has to change. The Rockies shouldn't be afraid to use Corpas in tie games or even down by a run to keep the game close enough for their offense to win it. If the Rockies win the series, Corpas will probably be the MVP.
Colorado might be the best team in the National League, but the talent gap between the NL and AL is huge right now, and the Rockies have the misfortune to be facing the AL's best team. The Red Sox are healthy and looked strong in finishing off the Indians. It's possible -- albeit not provable -- that the long layoff will hurt Rockies hitters, who haven't faced real pitching in over a week. I could see Colorado taking two in Coors and extending this series to six games, but I think Boston's better top-line talent and roster depth will win out faster than that.
Boston in five.